Studying classical singing in childhood and during puberty, before the final changes of the voice have taken place (which normally occurs between the ages of 13 and 15 for females and between 15 and 17 for males) is always considered extremely dangerous for the future health of the vocal organ. In fact the oldest and most prestigious of the Italian bel canto and music conservatoires were forbidden to enrol girls before they had reached the age of 16 and boys before they had reached the age of 18.
The experience of the great singing teachers of the golden era of Italian Opera between 1700 and 1900 revealed that the voices of children (even the most gifted and promising ones) go through a period of extreme delicacy during mutation into the adult voice.
The reason for this important observation was then researched carefully using twentieth century medical science (phoniatrics) to explain why the sensitive years of transformation of the muscles and cartilage of the larynx are particularly vulnerable to serious damage (sometimes irreparable) when subjected to unnatural effort.
The use of typical operatic singing techniques, in fact, enables the human voice to develop really extraordinary abilities. This can be compared with the use of sports training techniques which can lead to athletes breaking records.
However, just as in sports you can start to coach children and teenagers to develop into adult Olympic athletes, so it is with the education of young voices. BUT it can only be done by following a very precise and gradual process of transformation of the voice from that of a child to that of an adult WITHOUT any unnatural effort or forcing.
It should be made clear that a child of 9-12 singing an operatic aria and trying to imitate an adult’s voice is just like a child of the same age competing in a track, long jump or swimming event against adults, using rhythms and systems that do not fit in with the physical features of growth at that age. Even if a child or a young man in puberty can sing an operatic aria for a few minutes (for example O my dear Father, from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi) and appear to make sounds like a professional soprano, the efforts resulting from the pressure which the abdominal muscles need to exert, the many breaths that are taken even in the middle of words, the irregular fluctuations of vibrato, etc, are all signs of vocal fatigue. This will result later in the loss of the agility of the voice that you need to develop the professional tools of an opera singer.
The exploits of some children on television talent-shows mislead parents into thinking that children with no musical or operatic skills do in fact possess them, because children sing on television with amplification through a microphone! In the theatre, real professionals do not use a microphone when they sing opera! And singing in opera does not mean just singing a famous aria but it means singing in a complex and often 3-4 hour long performance where there are duets, trios, recitatives, arias, declamation, choruses, etc.
So the singing teacher who imposes operatic techniques on a 9-12 year old child – and even on 13-15 year old teenagers who have not yet completed the changes to their voices, however gifted – is committing a serious error. At 20, the boy or the girl will have lost the naturalness and vocal agility that serve to build the true voice of a professional. It will be frustrating and painful to have to correct major flaws after initially believing a child to be a prodigy. In fact, in cases like these, boys frequently give up singing opera because they have lost their self-assurance and self-esteem.
My advice after over 20 years’ experience in the conservatoire in Italy is this: when a child shows a lot of musical and vocal talent, encourage the study of an instrument (ideally the piano which also develops the sense of harmony), have the student sing in choirs with treble voices up to the age of 12, and take singing lessons from a teacher who begins with easy and suitable repertoire, like old chamber music arias or folk songs. Between the ages of 12 and 15 go easy on the singing until the voice has mutated, and continue studying piano and music theory.
14-15 year-old girls and 16-17 year-old boys should begin to develop their operatic vocal technique slowly while monitoring how the “new” voice reacts to the stress of a more intense workout.
Any singing teacher who does not respect this approach is incompetent and dangerous, only interested in making easy money out of the hopes and illusions of children and their families who pursue brief and fleeting celebrity. The young artist will be psychologically damaged.
Leonardo De Lisi