The Growing Pains of a Young Singer: The vocal mechanism in babies and children, and what it’s like to be an aspiring child performer

The set-up we have as babies is not the same as when we reach adulthood. So, what does that mean for young singers, and what is it like to even audition for child roles? Meet Abigail…

Music enters our lives even as early as the foetal stages, whether that be through the sound of our mother’s heartbeat, or by radio playlists that get cranked up in the car. My niece did a whole series of uterus wobbles in the audience of ‘Dreamgirls’ (either really enjoying the performance, or annoyed at being belted awake by Amber Riley). From the moment we enter the world we create sound, announcing our arrival with a cry, but Mariah Carey didn’t pop out singing whistle register, neither did Pavarotti pierce the amniotic sac with a chilling round of ‘Nessun Dorma’.

Baby, Baby, Baby…

We have all been there: sat on a train tucking into a meaty chapter of a book, or in a restaurant enjoying a bowl of Spaghetti, when a baby’s wail pierces the peace. If an adult were to, randomly, start screaming in the middle of Costa Coffee, we might: 

  1. Judge them profusely and vow to stay far away from them 
  2. Be a decent human being by offering our kindness and aid 
  3. Expect them to give themselves a vocal injury 

So, why might a baby create vocal hell and escape the damage?

A baby’s only real communicative tool is their rainbow of noises: a beaming smile and a giggle can tell us that the baby is content (or has wind), and those penetrative shrieks indicate there is something wrong, from hunger to armageddon in their nappy. Unlike in an adult, the baby’s larynx is positioned high up in the neck and sits behind the jaw, which allows the baby to feed and breathe at the same time. The high set larynx is optimal for creating a loud ear-splitting screech, something which cannot be easily ignored by the carer.

Survival and attracting attention are the only real requirements for the vocal mechanism at this age. As I touched upon in a previous blog, the primary function of the larynx is to keep us alive by protecting the airways against unwanted objects like food and drink. It just so happens that this survival kit also gives us the gift of music. Special, really!

Sweet Child O’ Mine…

As we toss the nappies to one side and emerge from babyhood, we can expect: 

  1. The lungs to grow
  2. The larynx to descend in the throat a little (by adulthood, the larynx will have dropped  to approximately 1/3 – 1/2 way down the neck. You can feel yours by finding the bump in the front of the neck – which is what we call, in men, the ‘Adam’s Apple’.) 
  3. Definition in the vocal fold layers (of which there are 5, including the epithelium, the superficial, intermediate and deep layers, and a layer of muscle. Whoa!)

At approximately 7 years old, children can start forming good singing habits, like efficient breathing technique, creating a clear sound, releasing from strain and exploring the upper range. At any age, we might experience vocal limitations, whether that be due to the size of our vocal tract or through our lifestyle choices. For the child, their limitations could be linked to the size of their instrument and it’s stage of development. However, we can continue to encourage a child’s sense of play, their inquisitiveness and imagination to help produce healthy singing storytellers.

“The limits at this age are still, to an extent, pitch range, loudness, flexibility and stamina.” – ‘Teaching Singing to Children and Young Adults’ by Dr Jenevora Williams. 

Go Pro

When I was a kid, I distinctly remember: 

  1. Pretending I was a Spice Girl and performing their Greatest Hits on my sister’s bed (I was always Posh Spice, dreaming of being Ginger). 
  2. Performing S Club 7 songs with my friends at the park, with a wooden climbing frame as our stage
  3. Imagining that I was in a musical because I loved to sing

Singing can be enjoyed on a long car journey or with friends at a sleepover and, for some, this enjoyment develops into a passion for performance. ‘Billy Elliot,’ ‘Matilda’ and ‘School of Rock’ are popular Musical Theatre shows that continue to entertain audiences around the world, and all require the employment of child performers.

Meet Abigail

Abigail is a young singer of 12-years old and first started singing lessons with me in 2017. She has aspirations of working professionally in Musical Theatre and is currently a member of West End Kids. Abigail attends Stage Coach and, last year, auditioned for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘School of Rock’ for the role of Katie. Speaking to Abigail, she explained what she finds tricky with singing, gave an insight to West End auditions for her age bracket, and shared some tips on dealing with rejection. 

What Abigail says…

Hi Abigail! Tell us – what do you love most about singing?

A: Everything! It just makes me happy. 

What have you found the most tricky when it comes to singing, and what are  3 valuable things that you have learnt whilst having lessons?

A: 

  1. The upper range: I find singing higher notes hard. Even though I would sing in my upper range before having lessons, now it feels more relaxed. 
  2. Breathing: I can now feel my belly relaxing when I take a breath, instead of it squeezing inwards. 
  3. Warming up: I never used to warm-up before singing, but now I know the importance of getting my voice ready and I have lots of tools to help. 

FUN FACT!

Our lungs continue to develop until we reach our early to mid 20’s. Children will, most likely, need to take more breaths during singing compared to an adult, simply because their lungs are smaller.

Tell us about the audition process for ‘School of Rock’. How did you first find out about the audition, and what did you have to do?

A: My mum found out about the auditions online. For the first round, I had to record an audition tape of me singing whilst playing bass guitar. I got through to the next round in London and, for that, I had to prepare a monologue, a piece to play on the bass guitar and something to sing a cappella. Immediately after the audition I was told I had been offered a recall for the third stage and, for this, I had to learn material from the show. We spent the day playing our instruments, singing and then performing together as a band. It was fun! 

What helped you to feel most prepared whilst you were going through the audition stages?

A: I watched lots of youtube videos to get to know Katie as a character, and I practised lots. I had extra singing and guitar lessons to work through the material to make me feel as prepared as possible.  

How did you control your nerves?

A: I was very nervous but, by the third stage, I had made friends with some of the other people auditioning, so it didn’t feel as scary. 

You did brilliantly getting to the third round but, unfortunately, you weren’t offered the part. What helped you deal with rejection?

A: I was really sad and had feelings that I wasn’t good enough, but I tried to think of 3 positive things I could take away from it: 

  1. New friends
  2. West End audition experience 
  3. Resilience

I threw myself into other opportunities and, shortly after, I auditioned for West End Kids and got offered a place in their training group. 

What is your dream Musical Theatre role?

Either ‘Matilda’ or Katie from ‘School of Rock’, because I am exactly like them: I love music and books!

A Trip to the Vocal Spa: Why ‘Vocal Massage’ is a worthy investment…

You might not be clad in a fluffy bathrobe and slippers, and you probably won’t be handed a flute of bubbly,  but a trip to the vocal spa is a worthy investment for your instrument which will benefit from the freedom which massage gifts it.

What is ‘Vocal Massage’ and who is it for? 

Essentially, this treatment is like a sports massage for the vocal athlete; it is a tool used for  maintenance, healing and prevention against injury by identifying and getting rid of unnecessary tension in the body. Anyone can have a vocal massage, but those who are heavily dependent on their voice as part of their vocation, or whose lifestyle includes much vocal overloading would highly benefit, including:  

  • Teachers
  • Presenters
  • Motivational Speakers
  • Actors
  • Radio DJs
  • Chatterboxes 

And, you – the singer. 

How do I know if I have tension? 

Tension can carry out it’s intrusion of our bodies as a result of many things, including being hunched over at the computer or from suffering anxiety. Some tension, however, is necessary. For example, we have a muscle called the ‘cricothyroid muscle’ which is, predominantly, used when we sing higher pitches. In order for us to sing these higher pitches, this muscle has to help the vocal cords lengthen and tighten, therefore creating necessary tension. 

It’s the tightness in the entourage of neck, jaw and tongue muscles (amongst some) that we don’t want to entertain. Some tension is both audible and visible, making us resemble Bruce Banner’s transition into the Hulk (with the exception of turning green); we might notice our neck muscles bulging, have a swallowed sound, a protruding head or a clenched jaw, for example. Other tensions are silent fugitives that you may not even know you have been harbouring until they have been released. Either way, tension can dampen our sound, limit our stamina, quash some ruddy good potential and, even, develop into a vocal pathology. 

“This neuromuscular re-patterning is really important because we can, after one massage, make totally different sounds, but that isn’t about changing the voice, it’s about you understanding a new connection… and appreciating that you can make sounds in a new way, find new songs to sing and new messages to express.”

Stephen King – International vocal coach and vocal massage therapist (BAST Webinar; 2018)

Will having a ‘Vocal Massage’ make me a better singer? 

You won’t experience a vocal rebirth as you hop off the massage table, suddenly finding that you are a classical soprano. However, if you were to ask: ‘Will this give me vocal freedom? Could this unlock some vocal accessibility that I didn’t know I had? Will this help me maintain my important instrument? Could this make me question the existence of witchcraft?’  Well, to those, I would answer ‘yes.’ To read about more ‘vocal magic’, Click here

Does ‘Vocal Massage’ hurt? 

It doesn’t have to. Pain is subjective and, for me, some routines can be uncomfortable, but it depends on the therapist and their practice.

My visit to ‘King Vocal Diagnostics’

I had been noticing some jaw tension, and would often sit at my husband’s feet of an evening and ask (nay, demand!) a neck rub; being a vocal coach, I knew it was time for some release, so I had made an appointment with Stephen King (not the literary figure), a vocal coach and therapist at King Vocal Diagnostics. I had experienced vocal massage before – something which I chose to have after a long cruise ship contract and knowing full well that I attract tongue tension as if it were a persistent lover. I had had the pleasure of speaking with Stephen King on several occasions, hearing him talk about his work with ‘Myofascial Release’ something which, since developing a new obsession with healing, I wanted to experience. 

What the heck is ‘Fascia?’  

In this instance we aren’t talking about the coverings of cupboard doors or some other fixture disguise. Bodily ‘fascia’ is, basically, connective tissue that hugs our muscles and organs – it’s a bit like sellotape on a wrapped gift: it’s what holds us together. ‘Myofascial Release’ is the approach of freeing up sticking points in the fascia which, in turn, releases tensions throughout the body. It includes the whole body exclusively as part of the healing process, which offers the opportunity to identify the potential culprit of the tension that is creating symptoms in other parts of the body. Singing is a whole body experience, so tensions harboured in one part of the body, could impact our vocal function.

Let’s imagine it another way… 

Imagine that the body is a town, and that all the different areas of the body are small neighbourhoods with impressive architecture and sweet little valleys running through them. Some of these neighbourhoods have earned themselves a bad reputation because of the way the inhabitants and owners have behaved. It is within these parts where you might find the potentially dangerous family who go by the name of ‘The Tensions’ (a bit like ‘The Mafia’, if you will). Regardless of where they claim home they often send hate mail to other parts of the town to stir up trouble, even though they may live miles apart. Vocal massage is like the town sheriff, locating the trouble (or Tensions) and evicting them from the town, leaving the neighbourhoods to live in peace.

What were the results?

Looking at fascial trains (or the way in which this connective tissue weaves within us), a therapist could work on a singer’s abdominal area which could then free up the jaw – and that is exactly how Stephen King began my session. Whilst working on the abs, I was surprised to feel the jaw area begin to tingle. Later, with the attention on the fascia at the neck, I felt the same tingling sensation in abundance in my legs. Fascia-nating! (I’m not even going to apologise for that one!)

Stephen King has described how, after experiencing vocal massage himself, he discovered more vocal flexibility, giving him access to approximately 5 extra semitones within his range. After my session, I had:

  • A noticeable shift in body structure (one side of my ribcage which would usually protrude slightly was no longer doing so).
  • A released jaw & neck
  • Some new vocal power
  • Exercises I could apply myself
  • An understanding of the root of my tensions                                 
  • Reduced fatigue
  • A deep sense of relaxation

And – it was all  pain free. 

The importance of vocal maintenance is paramount for the professional voice user. We can’t escape the Godzilla of ‘tension’ in our day-to-day lives, but we can help prevent it wreaking so much havoc. In the 19th century, when Charles Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution’ circulated, the spiritual was challenged. ‘Myofascial Release’ and manual therapy is scientific, but there is something spiritual about the natural human-to-human contact, and the discussion between one individual to another’s fascia through the power of touch. ‘Myofasical Release’ is now showing up in Yoga and is a used to treat people with chronic pain, of which cancer patients and Crohn’s disease suffers make up some of the clientele. 

Could the process of healing be the point where the spiritual and scientific meet in harmony? 

Harry Potter & The Invisible Instrument: How we create sound…

How do we create sound with an instrument we can’t see? Okay, so you haven’t been sleeping under a rock and missed the 8th instalment of the Harry Potter series, but voice production is magic (well, and a bit of science)…

In school, science classes saw me: 

  1. Desperately avoiding eye contact with the teacher to escape the humiliation of being asked a question I didn’t understand. 
  2. Hiding ‘Harry Potter’ inside the text book because the ‘Triwizard Tournament’ was far more exciting. 
  3. Mentally singing the soundtrack of my favourite musicals to help get through the boredom of a photosynthesis experiment. 

It goes without saying that I was more of a ‘Seamus Finnigan’ than a ‘Hermione Granger’ when it came to science. Until, that is, I discovered voice science. 

Do I have to be a scientist to be a singer?  

Absolutely not! It isn’t necessary for a singer to name each anatomical cartilage, or to have dissected a larynx in order to sing well and communicate meaning. However, unlike a guitar or piano, the voice is, mostly, an invisible, sensation-based instrument. If we could chant ‘Alohomora’ at our throats to unlock them and take a peek, boy, would that be helpful! But, seeing as we can’t, exploring some scientific elements can give us more vocal awareness, and help us to understand our instrument more deeply; in turn, this may then lead to better control over it – consequently making us better singers.

So how, in the name of Nicolas Flammel, do we create sound with an instrument we cannot see?

Potion books at the ready! The 3 main ingredients you need are…  

1. A Pair of Lungs…

The lungs sit inside the ribcage and look like two slabs of ribeye (yum!) They are important for voice production because they are our PROVIDER or GENERATOR. When we inhale, a curved-shape muscle called the diaphragm contracts, pulling the lungs downwards. As a result, the chest cavity expands and experiences a decrease in pressure, meaning we are able to gobble up some oxygen. 

When we exhale, the diaphragm and lungs return to their resting positions. The pressure in the chest cavity builds again because the lungs are deflating; this makes us blow air (or carbon dioxide) out of the lungs, sending it on a journey through our vocal cords and out of our mouths. 

It is this meeting between the air and the vocal cords where a sound wave can be created.

2. A Larynx…

In order for sound to be produced, we need VIBRATION. The larynx (or voice box) is where our vocal cords live, and is responsible for vibrating the air which is sent from the lungs. The amount of time a vibration occurs determines the pitch we hear; for example, if we were to sing a middle C, we can expect our vocal cords to be vibrating approximately 261.63 times per second. As pitch ascends, the rate of vibration increases. For instance, if we were to sing a C6 (two octaves above middle C) our vocal cords would be vibrating at approximately 1046.50 times per second. Whoa! 

FUN FACT!

The larynx’s primary function is not to help us sing, but to act as a bodyguard, protecting our airways from any unwanted visitors (like masticated chocolate frogs or Butterbeer). 

3. A Throat & Mouth…

Known as the RESONATORS, the throat and mouth are two acoustic chambers, separated by the tongue, which are responsible for giving the sound wave energy  – a bit like a bag of smarties does to a kid. Both the throat and the mouth can boost certain parts of the sound wave (but that gets into the juicy nugget of formants and harmonics, and that subject can initially feel like two weeks spent in the company of a mandrake!) 

The ways in which we choose to shape the throat and the mouth, and how we arrange the tongue and the lips (for we have control over them) add personality and colour to the sound wave. For example, you can create a warmer, more dark tone by narrowing the lips, or create a more bright and brassy sound by widening them; really – it’s a bit like choosing an Instagram filter for the voice!  These orchestrations are how we form vowels and, ultimately, how we communicate with each other through language. 

Professor Terry’s Vocal Formula

Airflow + Vibration x Resonance & Human Emotion = Magic

“(Einstein) wanted to understand the laws that govern all of time and space, not because it was useful but because it was beautiful, to satisfy our innate desire to make sense of creation and our place within it.” (BBC Icons; 2019) 

It is from this factory line of lungs-to-larynx-to-resonators that, out of the mouth, comes tuneful stories riding on a stream of air, otherwise known as: Magic (and a bit of science). Now, there is no need to don the lab coat and goggles – you can sing without them. However, through our own intrigue to explore the world of anatomical cogs that whirr beneath our skins, we might just bond with our voices better. Perhaps, we might even find ourselves a reliable, healthy invisible friend with whom we can cast our spells. 

Do you want to discover how to breathe more efficiently for singing? How about learning more about the vocal cords, and getting a less breathy sound? Perhaps you find your tongue is a busy-body and gets in the way. Leave a comment or get in touch!