A child educated only at school

is an uneducated child.

— George Santayana



The Vocal Performance Training Of Children




The first time I undertook the task of training children in the art of vocal performance I was eighteen and musical directing a youth theater project in my home town — a small, middle-class community in suburban Connecticut.   A group of local kids showed up for the audition.  They were dreadful — inexperienced, resistant; almost combatant to the idea of getting on a stage to sing.  The girls were shy and withdrawn; the boys were defiant and homophobic.  My naïve bubble of creating “Broadway” on the local level burst big time.  What to do!  Well, I realized quickly that I was operating in uncharted territory but I couldn’t escape my belief that each of these seemingly talent-free kids could learn to sing — to perform.  This unyielding urgency in me started a journey which extended through two college degrees and years of “the seat of my pants” trial and error in New York.  I sharply realize that all the formal education in the world couldn’t prepare me for that moment when a wide-eyed kid walked through the door of my studio, started singing with angelic potential and asked if I could help.  Notice, I say ‘potential’.  Therein lied the challenge:  how to remove the vocal wrinkles, quirks, idiosyncrasies, habits, inhibitions, insecurities,  social pressures, homophobia — how to get rid of every bit of self-sabotage which was in the way of the flow of that angelic sound trying to break into the world.  There were only two ways this could be achieved:    1. love the kids and 2. be willing to metaphorically go where those kids live in order to reach them on their own turf.  Regurgitating what was offered at the University or discussing what Mozart wrote at age four was senseless and irrelevant.   It was that ‘seat of the pants’ trial and error that got me to where I am today.  I need to thank every kid I have ever had the privilege of teaching for what I learned in the process.  


When a human is born, it has no ability to read, write,  do the dishes, repair a car, tie a knot, etc.  A baby person is a flesh lump with barely enough brain power to suckle.  However,  that brand new unformed, unskilled need machine comes into the world with flawless, sophisticated vocal technique.  When a baby gives out its first wail, the doctor listens, sees the flesh ‘pink-up’ and declares the infant well and healthy.  The voice is nature’s first gift. A new mother  know instinctively whether  the wail of her baby is simple fussing or an alarm of hunger, illness or worse.  The infant is a master vocal star at birth, ringing out with a loud, perfect voice — emotionally expressive without any filters from an insecure personality.  No infant lies in the nursery thinking:  “I’m not crying as well as the other kids!” or “the nurse hates my high ‘c’.” The infant’s wail is pure, perfect and enduring.  The parents of a wailing baby will want to put a gun to their own heads long before the infant goes hoarse.  So what happens next?  What goes wrong?   Why are the vast majority of adults unable and unwilling to sing?  Let’s go back to the newborn.  The infant learns it’s first lesson when it cries out.  The parent (nurse or whomever) picks the child up, hugs it tenderly, and says:  “Shshshsh . . . it’s all right.”  The very first lesson vocal lesson learned by the kid:  “If I shut up, I will get attention,  hugs and kisses.”  And this continues throughout the years of education:  “Be quiet!  Sit down,  stop talking!”  The child learns:   “If I shut up I’ll get good grades and the teacher will love me…and my parents will love me more.”  Along the way,  that natural, primitive vocal urge gets suppressed, deprogrammed, brainwashed out of usability.  By ten years old, most humans are vocally challenged.   Yet. in every school there is some crazed music teacher screaming:  “Sing out!  I can’t hear you!”  The result on the part of the child is crossed wires, mixed messages and an overall sense of bewilderment— boys, especially.  The singing voice gets tucked away in a closet far away from public consumption or scrutiny.  And what about that normal, natural urge to communicate with the voice?  That need to “wail-out”?  For many, it gets denied and ultimately nullified.   Everyone suffers from this phenomenon to some degree.


What does all of this mean?  Well, for me, it means that those of us daring to teach kids how to be wonderful singers and performers must forge ahead with fresh thinking and relentless persistence.  First and foremost, I try to create an atmosphere in my studio where kids feel alive — a sensation-oriented ambience.   In addition to chairs, piano, keyboards, equipment, etc., there are trinkets and artwork everywhere to tickle the imagination. Coming into this room filled with caprice and wonder,  kids recognize that it’s a safe space — a place which pays homage to a familiar inner landscape.  Children own the mood of the room and feel at home.  Beyond this, I always dignify each kid with sincere discussions about their life: “What happened at school this week?   How are things at home?”  We joke a lot because laughter is the greatest bonding catalyst.  I always tell adult performers (when building a show):  “You have to earn the ballads.  Endear yourself to the audience first with laughter — it’s the ultimate universal ground.  So, if I want a kid to listen to some serious stuff — seriously — we first have to share laughter.  It puts us on the same planet and establishes trust.  After that, anything is possible.  The most difficult vocal exercises become video games.  The most challenging music becomes an adventurous mountain climb.  And while these kids are working willingly, vigorously,  they know that their teacher believes in them — that their teacher never doubts for a moment that they are capable of the tasks at hand. 


My job is to bring kids back to their primitive vocal urges and abilities — to remove the roadblocks to those pathways leading back to something their body already knows how to do.  Singing with honest expression and true emotion is everyone’s birth rite.  Children don’t lose that perfect vocal technique possessed at the time of birth.  However,  it must be dug out of years of numbing programming and the key word in stimulating that process is relevance.  Most of the music I work on in my studio can be found on the radio or iPods or on the contemporary Broadway stage.  I don’t keep kids steeped in ‘baby’ songs or ‘museum’ music.  A tired “Zippidydoodah”  or “Doe a dear…”  isn’t going to accomplish a thing.  For the most part, I use songs from shows like THIRTEEN, THE WEDDING SINGER, LEGALLY BLONDE, WICKED, etc. or songs from the catalogues of CELINE DION, KELLY CLARKSON, BIONCE, JOHN LEGEND, ALECIA KEYS,  AMERICAN IDOL GREATS. etc. as well as original material.  I encourage writing no matter how young the kid or how crude the talent.  Broadway and the recording industry today require amazing contemporary voices fueled by amazing contemporary minds —  hence, the primary goal in the LaRocco studio.  I nurture and celebrate the glorious uniqueness of each individual kid by helping to decorate each innate talent with a sparkling, modern,  audience accessible voice fueled by an awake,  alive,  stimulated young mind.   


Music on this site copyrighted ©2009 by Rob LaRocco

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