I recently received an email from a young man named Alex wanting to know whether he should start voice lessons now, while his voice was still changing, or wait until puberty has finished.
The usual advice in this situation is to wait, but if a young person has a passion for music, I would not want to squelch his (or her) enthusiasm by refusing to give lessons. So here is what I am going to recommend for Alex:
1) As you might suspect, this is not the time for extensive technique development, since your bodily conditions are undergoing dramatic changes. Over-stressing your vocal organs right now would only interfere with their healthy development. Also, whatever control over your mechanism you manage to achieve now, you will only have to relearn when things in your body have finally settled down. Don't bother with technique lessons until you are 17 or 18 or even older. (I did not start voice lessons until I was 22.)
2) Focus now on learning other things that will stay with you throughout your vocal career:
Take piano lessons. I started piano at age 5 (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) and have found that the musical skills I learned at the keyboard have served me well as a singer. With my piano-playing ability, I can read music, better understand the musical structure of pieces I'm singing, learn new music on my own, and even accompany myself while singing. It's invaluable to not have to rely on someone else to teach me music.
Sing through music that interests you, without worrying too much about your puberty-induced cracking and yodeling! Listen to recordings of singers you admire. Become familiar with the repertoire you eventually will be working on yourself. Read books on music theory as well as biographies of musicians.
If you are planning on singing repertoire in other languages, learn these languages, at least at a basic level. You will polish your pronunciation and become more effective in conveying the meaning of lyrics if you actually understand them yourself. (As a classical singer, I have had the opportunity of singing in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Hebrew, and Latin!)
Take Alexander Technique lessons. Learning at an early age to use your body efficiently and without unnecessary effort will enhance your life in many ways. I waited until my late 20's to begin Alexander lessons, when they became imperative to un-do chronic back pain that never would have occurred if I'd had AT lessons earlier. You don't have to wait until you have developed harmful habits that will interfere with your comfort, not to mention your singing: learn good habits now!
So, Alex (and other young singers out there), do feel free to come to me for lessons. At this stage, we will not be focusing on technique development or muscle-strengthening. We will devote these early years to the cultivation of musicianship and of ease in everything you do. Your lessons will include lots and lots of Alexander Technique to counteract any bad habits that are already settling into your way of using your body and to help prevent bad habits from establishing themselves as you mature.
Thanks, Alex, for inspiring me to write about this important topic. I hope to see you soon for some lessons!