Expert tips on voice lessons for youth

Actress Emily Kinney, currently performing the role of young Jean Fordham in the touring production of August: Osage County, says she began “as a singer.” As a child, she sang at church, performed in her first talent show at age seven and eventually began more formal voice training by taking extra lessons with her high school voice teacher. Today Kinney lists her vocal coach right up there with the family and friends she thanks for fostering and furthering her talents.

Kinney will be appearing in the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning play August: Osage County at ASU Gammage as part of the Broadway Across America: Arizona series January 5th-10th next year. (Tickets are on sale now, so go ahead and get them before you’re held firmly in the stranglehold of a hectic holiday season). “Vocal training is important,” says Kinney, recalling that she found her current vocal coach through acting friends.

Actress and vocal coach Michelle Hakala of Scottsdale, whose experience also includes many years of teaching in the arts, agrees that “word of mouth” can be the best way to find a voice teacher. Talk with friends whose children are studying voice or with the arts teacher/s at your child’s school. Theater companies, colleges and schools for the arts often have lists of qualified teachers they will share if asked for recommendations.

Once you’ve gathered names, you can start contacting potential teachers. Kinney recommends “trying out different teachers.” Working with someone for a short time before making a long term commitment can help you get a feel for who you’ll most enjoy working with. Kinney suggests asking for help with a single audition. This strategy gives you time to evaluate a person’s skills and your own comfort level.

“Voice lessons are very one on one,” reflects Kinney, whose recent credits also include the role of Anna in Spring Awakening. “You really have to get along with your teacher.” This can make finding the right fit a bit of a challenge. Take into account both their performance background and their personality, says Kinney. The perfect balance, she says, is someone you feel you can really talk to but who also makes you work hard and really study. “You have to put some time in with a person and see how it develops.”

“I feel lucky,” says Kinney, “that I had parents who saw how much I liked to sing.” She’s grateful too that she was able to attend a school with a great music program, musing that music can help keep high school students out of trouble. “It’s fulfilling in a way that going out and partying isn’t.”

I’ve never talked partying with Hakala since she’s one of Lizabeth’s voice teachers. (Liz also studies with one of her amazing arts teachers when we can get him off a stage or out of a classroom long enough!) Perhaps I should, however, since she’s proud of her San Francisco heritage—though I suspect that’s more a function of the California arts and culture scene (and practically perfect weather.)

Before we met Hakala, I worried Lizabeth had waited too long to start lessons, but Hakala’s perspective was reassuring—The voice changes so often when children are young and working the voice too hard too early can do real damage. I was equally reassured while talking recently with a mom whose daughter just did her first lesson but doesn’t feel the need to study further at this point. There’s no reason to push it. Children benefit most from voice lessons when they are motivated, physically ready and eager to do the exercises required between lessons.

The best age to start, reflects Hakala, depends on the child. She prefers to work with children 12 and older because the vocal cords are rarely developed enough for lessons before that age. Early voice training can be every bit as perilous as early weight training. If your child is younger, proceed with caution, and be sure the potential voice teacher really spends time evaluating your child’s physical and emotional readiness.

Don’t be too discouraged if teachers feel your child isn’t yet ready for formal voice work. Hakala says there are plenty of other ways to engage young children in the arts, including comedy/theater games, improvisation, dance lessons and more.

When calling potential voice teachers, ask whether they offer an initial meeting to talk about their philosophy, approach and any rules they may have (such as not working a child’s voice when the child appears sick, etc). They may or may not charge for this consultation. “Trust your instincts,” urges Hakala. Staying for your child’s lessons, especially early on, will give you a feel for how compatible a teacher is with both you and your child. “If something seems weird,” adds Hakala, “pull out.” You don’t have to be an expert in voice to know when something makes you feel uneasy.

Beware of teachers who insist your child come to lessons alone, as well as teachers who seem too mean or controlling, cautions Hakala. Also beware of teachers who overwork your child’s voice or agree to do lessons when your child feels anxious or unwell. “Like everything in life, if it feels uncomfortable, stop and evaluate.” I wish Hakala had been sitting on my shoulder a couple of times when I felt uneasy about Lizabeth’s dance training but figured it wasn’t my place to ask questions because I wasn’t the expert. Another tip ala Hakala: Beware the egomaniacal or guruesque (she makes up words too!) teacher. And one more, from Lizabeth: “Teachers should love what they are doing.”

So what should you expect to pay for voice lessons? “Rates really vary,” observes Hakala. “An adult voice student in L.A. can easily pay $100 an hour.” She’s worked with professionals who charge as much as $300/hour, though you won’t pay anything near that for beginning vocal work here with local professionals. “Children’s rates are often lower than adult rates,” Hakala adds. Some teachers do a sliding scale or are willing to negotiate prices. “Be wary of undercharging,” cautions Hakala. “It may indicate that the teacher is less experienced than others in the area.”

Hakala notes that voice lessons include several elements—such as breathing, stretching, music ear training and actually learning music. “Every teacher,” she says, “runs their studio a little differently.” Most teachers encourage students to practice their breathing daily (which helps not only with voice but with relaxation amidst pre-audition jitters). Depending on a teacher’s style, he or she may expect the student to do three or four practice sessions (30 minutes to an hour) on his or her own each week. Boys often do best with male teachers since their ranges are more similar.

For Hakala, the best voice teachers for youth meet these requirements: They like children. They are patient and kind. They understand the basics (and beyond) of what they do—and are able to explain it. The best teachers, she says, have a flexible teaching style. They find different ways to make different students understand what they are learning.

Ask around. Don’t push the timing. Talk with several prospective teachers. Hang around for lessons. Listen to your instincts, and those of your child. Whether or not your child becomes a star isn’t the point, quips Hakala. Learning is lovely. But never lose the fun!

–Lynn

Coming soon: Conversations with August: Osage County’s Emily Kinney about youth and mature theater (You can follow Kinney’s Backstage Unscripted blog at http://backstage.blogs.com/unscripted/emily_kinney/).

Also: Musings with Michelle Hakala on the perils of performing for star power rather than sheer pleasure.

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