Being encouraged to sing louder in school and a lack of knowledge around vocal techniques is contributing to increased vocal problems for children.
With music education taking a back seat to numeracy and literacy, singing is sometimes the only form of music available to primary school children.
But they are not being taught proper techniques, according to vocal coach and therapist Kate Sutherland, and this is leading to the formation of nodules on young children’s vocal folds.
“In what other subject do we say “you don’t want to learn about fractions? That’s okay, we won’t learn about fractions, we’ll skip that part of the curricula”,” she says. “We seem to do that in music or think that’s okay. What people don’t realise [is] they can cause harm.”
According to Sutherland, there has never been a consistent period where experts in singing have been present in schools and that has had a flow-on effect onto vocal health. “You get lots of children who are singing what staff feel is popular and doing it in ways that are not healthy long term,” she says. “Loud singing … enthusiastic belting really, and that’s not conducive over time to healthy voice development.”
Education for teachers, to start with, is what Sutherland recommends to help protect the voices of the young. Children’s vocal folds aren’t as developed as an adult’s and she says teachers need to keep that in mind.
Encouragement to sing is important – one discouraging word can have lifelong implications – but encouragement doesn’t necessarily mean sing louder. “If you’re asking a child to be loud, you are probably asking them to push too hard and that’s what you often hear in school assemblies: “oh, come on, it’s not loud enough! Wake Up!” she says.
While it might sound ok in the moment, children’s larynx and voices aren’t developed or flexible enough to cope with the demands. “That’s the beginning of issues,” Sutherland says.
Misuse or abuse of the voice can lead to nodules, or nodes. Research out of the United States has found more than one million children have them, and boys are three times more likely to have nodes form.
Nodules are benign calluses that form on the vocal folds. They start off as little swellings and if the voice continues to be abused nodules can turn into fibrous lesions.
But it’s not just singing that causes nodes. Yelling, playing and cheering can contribute too. Many adults will know the feeling of being hoarse after a party, sporting event or concert. People with nodules, according to Sutherland, experience hoarseness all the time.
Education regarding proper technique is also important. She says you can feel it if your technique is not quite right. “If you are losing your top range, or getting husky, [those are] good signs something’s not right,” she says. “Talk about vocal behaviours… and behaviour modification. Or being taught to yell in a way that’s good.”
For music, choosing the appropriate repertoire is important. While many young people might want to try to belt out the latest Adele hit, or something from a modern musical, Sutherland suggests looking at more “legit” musical theatre pieces including Castle on a Cloud or My Favourite Things for children, rather than a big, belting number.
But, she says, there’s nothing wrong with belting, if you’re taught correctly. “If you’re doing some belting with healthy technique then that’s okay, but if that’s all you’re doing then you run the risk of developing nodules,” she says.
Along with education and proper technique, Sutherland recommends seeking help if you or your child has a vocal issue which has lasted between two or three weeks. More often than not a GP will say everything is fine, but sometimes it’s worth visiting an ear, nose and throat specialist if problems persist.