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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 18, No. 4 December 2012

Parental Perspective: How youth benefit from vocal training

by Shira Gilbert / December 1, 2012

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Jennifer Maines

Is there a budding Mimi or Gilda in your household? Or, perhaps, a Taylor Swift? Children and teens can reap huge benefits from voice lessons and singing in choirs, musically and even psychologically.

Canadian soprano Jennifer Maines has come a long way since she belted out ABBA tunes in family competitions for who could sing the loudest (she usually won). Maines has been the leading soprano of the Tiroler Landestheater opera house in Innsbruck, Austria since 2003, often singing Lulu, Cassandra in Les Troyens, and Anna from The King and I, within months; this takes incredible stamina and a rock solid vocal technique.

Maines grew up singing in church and enrolled her son in choir at age six. She sometime coaches him now that he is 16 and a budding Papageno. As a teacher, her prime objectives are to “free the voice” and the muscles around it, whether a student wants to sing classical or pop. She prefers working with older students as teens can be a little embarrassed. “Their attention span is short so we start with some physical activity, like breathing against the wall or on the floor, to get rid of the nervous laughter and be ready to work.”

Maines emphasizes the emotional side of singing, where you yourself are your own instrument: “Even a psychiatrist student said that singing is therapy!” She has found that every student “has at least one lesson where we are both crying and talking about life. Through music and singing you can free blockages in the body.”

Freeing the voice is also the main concern for Zorana Sadiq, a Toronto-based soprano equally at home in Mozart and contemporary scores. Sadiq credits a solid vocal technique for her ability to sing eclectic ethnic styles, as well as the most convincing pop I have ever heard from a classical singer. With her students at Toronto’s Regent Park Music School, which serves a diverse urban population, Sadiq emphasizes singing as an athletic pursuit, focusing on anatomy, posture, and breath. She also works with each student to find out why they want to sing and who they listen to: “You want to get a sense of what their ear is inspired by.” This can be tricky since “you get a lot of pop, not all of which is vocally healthy.”

Recently Sadiq led a Song Interpretation class, pairing singers and pianists in a masterclass setting.  Instead of Italian or German, she chose all English songs, mostly by Samuel Barber and Aaron Copeland. “With classical singing, it is very easy for singers not to know what they are singing about,” noting how working with text separates singers from our instrumental counterparts. “Storytelling is what hooks young singers,” says Sadiq, who chooses texts that allow students to draw from their own life experience. “You can see them get really excited.”

My friend Sandra Churchill was my partner-in-crime at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music— though always with the lovelier, oaky-toned voice. A teacher for 13 years, the second of her three children, now 9, inherited the vocal talent. He is in his second year with Chœur des enfants de Montréal, where she feels that his gift, and his vocal health, is in good hands. The choir’s rehearsal and concert schedule is taxing for kids rushing to hockey practice and loaded down with homework, but she feels that fostering his talent, and the life lessons that go along with it, are worth it: “I tell him that he has a gift and an obligation to share it.”

Her sister Norma Churchill runs a busy voice studio in Toronto, where she is also an examiner for the Royal Conservatory of Music. She feels examinations are motivating, like preparing for a performance, and may include theory, sight-singing, ear-training and vocalising, in addition to actual songs: “It is about training singers to be musicians,” she says, crediting “the progressive nature of curriculum which develops as the instrument develops and the singer gains more maturity.” She sees a lot of singers with big ambitions who are surprised to learn that there is no quick fix. “Our society is about immediate gratification. Kids have the sense that you can go into a lesson and become famous. Singing is very physical; muscles need to coordinate and strengthen and support the voice.”

There is a lot of singing going on at her household. Her daughter is in a school vocal program and performs with the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus, and her son will graduate from St. Michael’s Choir School this year. Students at St. Michael’s sing every day in addition to weekend singing duties at Mass. Churchill was overwhelmed at the graduating class’s recent performance, where 28 boys— all thrilled and proud—flawlessly sang an a capella piece without a conductor: “It showed how they have learned to be sensitive to one another, learned to listen to each other, their commitment and teamwork. It was like - this is what singing can do!”

(c) La Scena Musicale