How to Teach Voice Lessons, for the Almost- Beginner Teacher

Now, if you are TRULY a beginner, you won't be asked to teach voice lessons.  

You are either a solo singer already, or you have some experience singing in choirs.  Hopefully, you also have some skill at the piano as well, because without that skill you will be handicapped.

All of my students take homework sheets home with them, even the first week.  

They have a reference to help them remember, and I have a record on my computer of what we covered the week before!  This is very necessary for me; with more than just a few students, and an interval of a week between lessons, I am absolutely prone to forget.  

Here is a likely sheet for the very first week:

Example of a voice lesson sheet for a beginner

You may think that this sheet is very ambitious for a first lesson.  

Actually, we may not get to the third song, or the round "Heigh Ho" this week.  But I want to be sure there is enough variety in the lesson for a young child.  

  • The warm-ups, 
  • breathing exercises, and 
  • posture discussion and work 

are necessary, but they will only be KIND OF FUN, compared to the excitement of starting new songs.  

We aren't talking about college-level singers transferring to your studio after some years of lessons and being willing to focus on just one song for a bit; we're talking about new singers.

I like to expose these young children to at least one new song every week for a few weeks, and then we will settle down and focus on just a couple of songs a lesson, once they have identified a few they like. 

So...

  • POSTURE & BREATHING
  • EXERCISES / WARMUPS
  • REPERTOIRE SONGS
  • ROUNDS (or harmonized pieces such as duets)

Nothing is instant.  

With young children, I acquaint them gradually with the foundation techniques of ultimate importance, posture and breathing.  

Every week for a very long time, I demonstrate "the marionette string which comes off the BACK of the head, pulling the spine up, and the other string which hooks under the sternum (right under the ribs) and pulls out and up at a 45 degree angle," and watch them do it too.  

We may walk to the door and flatten our backs and heads against it... kids are always surprised to realize they are not standing tall like their favorite Hollywood actors!  

There is much discussion of slumping over cell-phones and computers.  We sit at the piano bench, slumping first, "Like the letter C", and then sit tall like cowboys, lower backs slightly arched and knees a bit apart, still with the imaginary strings pulling up and out the head and chest. 


Perhaps the fastest way to achieve excellent posture is asking them to:

  • stand up
  • stretch arms high straight overhead
  • drop the arms slowly to the side, while keeping chest elevated and head high

Breathing comes next.  

There is so much to say about correct breathing for singing... which is really correct breathing for life.  

Down into the diaphragm.  

Looking in the mirror and inhaling without a lift of the shoulders. WATCH OUT for those shoulders!  

A good technique for the first or second lesson (depending on their age, and waiting until they feel comfortable with you) is to plop down on the floor on your back with a heavy book on your tummy: breathing correctly, your inhalation will lift the book, of course.  Let them do it also.

The candle exercise is a great favorite of mine.  

Hold up one finger, pretending it is a candle with a flame that you want to blow carefully enough to make it waver, but not go out.  That helps ensure a controlled diaphragm where the air is slowly released, not suddenly in a rush. 

Watch the second hand on the studio clock... start together, and tell them to drop the "candle" when they run out of air.  How many seconds?  Write it down on the empty line.  Next week, compare.  Do this for several weeks.

The "candle" exercise is done 3 times:

  • first, with silent blowing.  
  • Second, with an "oooo" all on one tone, in an easy part of the voice.  
  • Lastly, pick a song that the child knows - perhaps "Happy Birthday", and begin singing it all on one breath with no new breaths or breaks (harder than it sounds - I do a bit of a drawing-out gesture with my free hand to encourage the voice to continue through the pauses in the song).  All this time, I am blowing, "ooo-ing", and singing along with them.  It is a bit of a competition, as well as modeling.  Their posture needs to stay upright and beautiful all along.

What else is on this sheet?  Let's see... I'll put it here again:

Beginner voice lesson sheet

Oh yes, pitch matching.  

I have only ever had 4 voice students who needed to do this, so in actuality, this exercise would not show up on the lesson sheet until after I had listened to them sing their first lesson, and determined that this was necessary.  But I have 2 students right now who need to work on "hearing" the piano key tones and hearing their own voice.  

 You may think a student with this lack of tone perception can't improve, but actually, I have seen GREAT IMPROVEMENT happen, especially when this exercise is employed faithfully together with a chosen repertoire piece being memorized and a recording listened to over and over again.  

Is this a cure for tone deafness?  I don't know, but I have seen amazing strides made, though not quickly.

To do this tone-matching exercise at home, they must have a piano or a keyboard, of course.  We do it together at my studio every week until I can see that they won't skip any of the black keys on their way from Middle C to higher C.

Oh, did I forget to mention that they will need to learn the names of piano keys?  

If they don't know the piano already, then print a paper keyboard for them, and start quizzing them on the sheet each week.  Don't fret that this will be boring for your young singers; they will think it's cool to know the names of the keys on the piano, if they don't know them already.

The Animal Sounds page will give YOU a great opportunity to look and sound very silly... just the kind of encouragement they need to loosen up over the next few weeks and do the same.  

I find that page of warm-ups very useful because:

  • the puppy-dog pants encourage diaphragmatic breathing
  • the whimpering puppy, meowing cat, and mosquito sounds encourage RESONANCE and therefore effortless VOLUME, and 
  • the gorilla hoots encourage an open throat
What to put on a voice student's sheet

What about Lavender's Blue?  Sing a verse or two, then start over and invite them to sing along with you.  Their voice will probably be very soft.  This is only temporary, so don't worry.  And don't make them worry about singing softly.  They'll get louder by and by.

What about When Love is Kind, and White, Orange, and Green?  These are all good beginner songs, though I have never given Lavender's Blue to a boy.  For a boy, consider The Cat Came Back instead.  Or The Erie Canal Song.

And sing along with them, for now.  It is much less intimidating for young kids to join in with you than to have to go solo!  The louder they begin to sing, the more you can pull back your own volume.

And the round Heigh Ho?  For a first-lesson student???  

Yes.  It will be a long time before they are able to hold their part while I sing the other, but every week we will try it, and they will gradually improve.  There is a lot to be learned from this "simple" song! How to mete out the breath, for one.

Just play it through a couple times and direct them to a YouTube video, if their parents allow.

This post has been an attempt to answer more fully a letter I recently received:

Hi, 

I have recently been asked to teach vocal lessons for a six year old girl who has been taking vocal lessons for a while, but I haven’t had any formal training for this.

I have been taking choir for a number or years but I don’t know exactly how to teach music lessons, so I was wondering if you had any advice or pieces of music or books or something that I could use in my lesson that would teach her but still be fun.

Thanks, (Anonymous) 

My Answer:


If you do a web search for "how to teach voice lessons" you will come up with many excellent suggestions.  You need to focus on POSTURE and BREATHING.

I do have quite a few ideas for teaching voice students, but you will have to read all through my site to garner these ideas!  I suggest starting at the main vocal page, Free Vocal Sheet Music, which links to all the vocal music offered on my site.  

Then look at the Broadway Musicals List page, which discusses my idea of suitable songs from musicals.  Then look at all the Singing warmups pages for more details about vocal production.  Then, study all the folk songs pages on the site, because these are the most appropriate for a six year old.  

At the bottom of my Broadway Musicals List page are some book suggestions for kids.

Take a look at the Lavender's Blue sheet music - print it out for her, and show her the videos on that page.  

Hearing her sing that song will give you a good idea of what she is capable of.  Six years old is VERY YOUNG.  I'm surprised she has already been taking lessons!

In addition to Singing Warmups & Exercises, I like to cover about 3 songs per lesson, asking kids to memorize the lyrics of at least one verse every week.  

Then, I usually have a ROUND that we work on together.  "Heigh Ho, Nobody Home," "Have You Seen the Ghost of John," & "Ah, Poor Bird" are the easiest ones for beginners, and they can teach a great deal about breathing. 

HOLDING THE PART may not come for a long time, but I just keep trying it again every week, because gradually they will get better.  

My approach there is to sing it through together, then have them start over (while I play their part on the piano), then when they get to part 2, I start singing part 1, while continuing to play their part.  Sometimes I am not so successful!


Now, I'm making the  assumption that you also play piano.  If this is not the case, then teaching voice will be harder for you.

I have to admit I RARELY take students that young, especially voice students, because they can't read music.  Everything must be recorded for them.  

So ask her parents to send her with an iPhone or iPad or some other means of recording  what you do - and have a lesson sheet made out that has dots or places to check off to show that she actually practices each day!  

These are my suggestions.

Your choir background will stand you in good stead as you establish a routine for her lessons.  I do spend time initially every lesson doing "sirens" & puppy dog whimpers (see the Animal Sounds Vocal Warm-Ups page) and other exercises that seem to make sense for the student's voice.  

You may find you  really enjoy singing with your own students - good luck!  Spend time looking at other sites about teaching.  You will find your way.

Dana

More Folk Songs to Sing:


All the Pretty Little Horses - a soft and repetitious lullaby, quite pretty


Colorado Trail Song - an American tune written by a real cowboy


Come By the Hills - another popular Irish melody


Down By the Salley Gardens - a famous and pretty song, very sweet 


Green Bushes - a brisk little song that is pretty while being good for breath control training


Grenadier and the Lady - my favorite folk song of all.  Find out why


Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier - very beautiful, very moving, and a chance for your young singer to learn how to let her voice soar


Keegan's Waltz - this is a traditional Gaelic tune, but the lyrics are very new, supplied by a visitor to this site!


Lavender's Blue - this simple song is not only satisfying for beginning pianists, but also young singers who need to focus on basics.  With a lovely piano accompaniment.


Loch Lomond - the famous and sad song about never meeting again


Mari's Wedding - a singable tune with bouncy chords that is fun to play or sing


Minstrel Boy - a lovely and patriotic song about a warrior-poet


Molly Bawn - a sad story of a young hunter who thought he was shooting at a swan


Once I Had a Sweetheart - "but now I have none!" Very pretty, and little-known.


Parting Glass - a well-known Irish tune which my singers always love


Scarborough Fair - an old and famous tune of lost love


She Moved Through the Fair - this sounds happy, but it is actually a bit of a love story, and a bit of a ghost story!


Shenandoah - a famous and lovely American tune with ambiguous lyrics


Skye Boat Song - a pretty song from Scotland about the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie over the sea


Spanish Ladies - a minor key sea chanty that swings energetically along - BOYS like singing it too!


The Spanish Lady - Upbeat and energetic, this Irish song is fun to perform with a group


Star of the County Down - LOTS of fun to sing and play!  An excellent ensemble piece


Waltzing Matilda - an unusually pretty melody from Australia; you know this one!  Very popular with kids


The Water is Wide - a very pretty song about disappointed love.  You might have sung this one in high school!


White, Orange and Green - though not widely known, this charming melody about fighting for the right to carry the flag of Ireland has stirring lyrics and soaring phrases. A favorite of my vocal & guitar students








Interested in songs from the Bible for your students or church?  Check out my other website, SingTheBibleStory.com!

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About the Author

Dana Thynes

Hi, I'm Dana!  (Say that like "Anna".)  I'm the owner of Music-for-Music-Teachers.com, and a newer site, SingTheBibleStory.com.

Like some of you, I've been playing the piano since early childhood, and have added a few other instruments along the way, plus an interest in arranging and composing music.

You can find out more about me and the reason for this website at my About Me page.