Dear Dr. Jahn
At what age do you think that it is safe for a teenager whose voice has broken to start taking voice lessons, and the long slow building of a sound technique? i.e. is it too soon for an 18-year-old straight out of High School to begin the training in college?
I know everyone has their own individual rate of development, and that girls are different from boys, but when is it physiologically safe? And the corollary is – of course – when is it too late to have the muscle flexibility to begin vocal training, and really succeed?
There is no specific age to start voice lessons, and vocal training may begin at any age, from childhood on.
It is never too early to develop a sense of musicality, and proprioceptive awareness of the vocal apparatus. During the teen years, however, different parts of the body develop at different rates. It is not uncommon to see a young person with a nearly adult sized torso and gangly limbs, but a child sized head (and larynx).
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The nose, and nasal cavities, also grow and change in shape during these years, resulting in a newly gained perception of sound “in the mask”.
Ideally, vocal training, whether in a child, ten or young adult, should be appropriate to the anatomic and physiologic strengths (and limitations) of the young singer at that particular stage of his or her development.
Challenges for Young Voices in Lessons
Problems may arise, for example, if the young singer overdrives (or is encouraged to overdrive) a pediatric larynx using adult-sized lungs.
This tends to occur less in the hands of an experienced and sensitive teacher, than if the young singer tries, on her own, to imitate sounds produced by professional adult singers, especially if the recording has been electronically altered to enhance and modify the voice.
Since the majority of young people have reached adult size and proportions by age 18, I think, with the above caveats, that 18 is not too young to start training the voice.
The important thing is, simply, to develop the singer’s abilities within the anatomic and physiologic parameters afforded by the singer’s vocal apparatus.
Is It Ever Too Late to Take Singing Lessons?
There is great variability in this regard. Our bodies age at different rates, subject to so many factors, genetic and environmental.
Even among professional singers, we see some who naturally arrive at their ideal voice early on, while others, like fine wine, change and mature over the years.
There is also the question of how one defines “success”- is it a level of excellence that others will pay a great deal of money to hear, or a level that simply gives the singer an emotional center and ongoing pleasure?
The pianist Gary Graffman (in his delightful book “I really should be Practicing”) disparages the idea of striving to become a “concert” pianist – one can only strive to be a good performer, and whether this leads to any actual concert engagements or not may be due to circumstances that have little to do with musical or technical excellence.
It is really never too early or too late to sing, since singing involves so much more than a pair of vibrating vocal folds.
It is, in this increasingly arid, visual and computer dominated left-brained world, a wonderful an all-encompassing right brain activity that allows the singer to access an otherwise neglected part of existence.
– Anthony F. Jahn, MD, FACS, FRCS(C)
This discussion is for general information and not to be construed as specific medical advice that you should obtain from your own physician.
Dr. Jahn is an internationally renowned otolaryngologist based in Manhattan with a sub-specialty interest in the professional voice. His practice includes classical and popular singers. He holds academic appointments at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Westminster Choir College in Princeton. He is Medical Director at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and former Director of Medical Services at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Dr. Jahn has published several books for vocalists, including “Vocal Heath for Singers” (Singdaptive) and “The Singer’s Guide to Complete Health” (Oxford University Press).