As a private voice teacher, I work with Middle School age girls (ages 10 – 14) regularly. According to Piaget's Process of Cognitive Development, along with the physical changes to their bodies and environmental changes in their schooling, young adolescent boys and girls are changing how they view the world1. As adolescents move into a more concrete operating stage, their egocentric view diminishes and they work toward either assimilating their environment or making accommodations. It's during this time that girls have difficulty identifying positive aspects of being a girl, but easily identify negative traits.2
Singers are complicated musicians. While an instrumentalist can replace their instrument or disassemble an instrument for cleaning and repair when they are having a bad day musically, a singer must work with what they have for that given day. A singer's body is their instrument and is therefore limited by their body – bad days physically and mentally affect that day's performance. Regardless, good singers are expected to not only know their music, but to perform with emotion, energy, and engagement. A highly trained, experienced singer sometimes has problems performing at this level. A Middle School girl, with the typical baggage that comes with this age, can find this task daunting.
Like boys, girls voices go through a change in early adolescence. Unlike boys, their voices take years to complete the change3. A series of physical growth spurts happen in the larynx which sometimes cause temporary vocal issues. Most of my middle school girls have been singing from a young age, and many of them have experienced great success – solos and theatrical leads. When this physical change occurs, what once worked for them vocally may not any more, causing them to lose confidence to the point of regressing in their abilities or giving up music altogether. How a girl deals with these changes is often predicated on how they are handling everything else that happens at this age.
Currently in my studio, I have two students (C and M) who face these challenges. Both started singing at an early age. C focused her effort on choral singing and choral work. She received high scores at a vocal competition and performed in several honors level choruses. This year, because of vocal issues associated with her changing voice, C has struggled to pass any auditions which, while discouraging, has motivated her to find other opportunities musically. While M also participated in choral activities, she focused most of her time on theatrical work and was quite successful. As her voice changes and matures, M struggles with standing out amongst other singers because her voice is developing a mature sound faster than her peers. Because she already struggles with self-esteem issues, M developed performance anxiety in the past year that dramatically affects her ability to sing in front of an audience.
I constantly look for ways to encourage C, M, and other girls struggling with similar issues in my studio. I have found that the most important skill I use is listening. As a study about helping adolescent girls finding courage suggests, I must look under the surface of what is being said in order to find the “true I”3. In doing so over the course of several conversations, I was able to figure out that M's true challenge was not that her voice was changing, but that it was developing into a sound that was different from most of her peers. During our conversations, I was able to point her to successful adult singers that have similar qualities to her voice. She and I also discussed how a unique voice might provide beneficial opportunities.
I also engage and encourage these girls through variety and challenge. I never pigeon-hole my singers. Doing so can have long term implications on their abilities4. Just as important, providing a variety of music not only teaches them music theory and history, but also exposes them to different challenges and styles. As their voices change, they may find styles that fit with their emerging voices that they may have otherwise ignored. While doing this, I strive to set my students up for success. I give them challenging repertoire, but not too challenging. Small successes help build self-esteem. C benefits from this as we branch out and try different music styles. Variety helps her strengthen her maturing voice while test-driving her new “sound”.
When I began teaching voice nine years ago, I believed that the majority of my work would involve teaching music. While this is certainly a large part of my job, I am often times a counselor, coach, and motivator – especially for adolescent girls. It's a challenging age that I truly enjoy working with because I enjoy watching them blossom not only as talented singers, but as strong, intelligent young women.
1 “Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development”, W. Huitt & J. Hummel, Educational Psychology Interactive (http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/cognition/piaget.html)
2 “Middle School Voices on Gender Identity”, Cynthia S. Mee and Others, Women's Educational Equity Act Publishing Center Digest, March 1995 (http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED388914)
3 “Adolescent Singing Voices”, Leslie Leedberg (http://www.leedberg.com/voice/index.html)
4 “Did Your Chorus Teacher Ruin You?”, The Aspiring Singer, October 2014 (http://www.theaspiringsinger.com/didyourchorusteacherruinyou/)