This is a hugely controversial topic among vocal pedagogues, and my opinion might be in the minority. While most voice teachers, largely just to make a living, will allow kids to sing lyrical content that they can’t really relate to (think a 10-year-olds singing “I Dreamed a Dream” or “Memory,”) I’d guess that most would prefer that their students stick with more age-appropriate songs. My opinion isn’t quite as cut and dry, and in short, my answer is that in most cases it’s not just acceptable, but useful to let kids sing age-inappropriate songs.
What Do I Mean By Age Appropriate?
Let me just start by saying that by age appropriate, I don’t mean that I endorse working with my young students on uncomfortable subject matter that will raise questions at home. I would not send a child home singing “Closer,” by Nine Inch Nails. What I do mean simply is lyrical content that’s not quite right for a certain age. Again, it’s pretty unlikely that a 10-year-old would have the life experiences to fully understand a song like “Memory,” from Cats, or even many of the Taylor Swift songs out there.
The other day, I was listening to my 3-year-old son sing “Rawhide.” He learned it on a YouTube video about windmills and now walks around singing every word of it, including “hell-bent for leather, wishin’ my gal was by my side.” Does he have a clue what he’s singing about? Absolutely not! But he gets completely into it and is beginning to show signs of matching pitch, understanding rhythm, and even imitating vocal stylizing. For him, it’s not about relating to lyrical content and putting himself in the place of this man who’s missing his sweetheart. It’s about joyfully putting sounds together, connecting to a rhythm, and discovering melody.
Why Should Kids Sing Lyrics They Can’t Relate To?
It’s Not Always About the Lyrics
Lyrical content is just one aspect of learning to sing. For most people who first get into a song, it’s the music that first grabs them. Not only that, in some genres, top 40’s pop, for example, the lyrics often aren’t a hugely important part of the song, compared to the melodic hook.
Sometimes Relating to an Emotion is All You Need
I remember when I was a kid, I really wanted my voice teacher to allow me to sing “Somewhere” from West Side Story. She wouldn’t allow me to, because a doomed romance is something I wouldn’t be able to understand. While to some degree she was right, to this day, I believe her approach was misguided. I may not have been in a doomed romance, but almost all children can understand desiring to be with another person (or even a lost pet) and not being able to. The song can be about a friend who moved, a pet who passed away, a relative you only get to see once a year, or, yes, a crush who doesn’t know you exist–kids have those too. It just takes a little more imagination to help a child understand the emotional content behind a more mature song. The wailing sadness in many of Adele’s choruses, for example, is something anyone can grasp without having been through a breakup.
Learning Music You Love Is Both Beneficial Long Term and It’s Own Reward
Learning age-inappropriate music might not give kids the ability to sing an award-winning emotion-driven performance, but if it’s music they love, it’ll certainly help them with many facets of vocal technique and be something they’re excited about at the same time.
Disclaimer: Why It’s Important to Sometimes Work on Age-Appropriate Music
While I’m very liberal in what I allow my vocal students to work on, if they’re going to pursue a career in performance, particularly in something theatre-related, it’s important that they sometimes work on age-appropriate material so that they can learn to dissect lyrics, develop a character, and collect audition repertoire that doesn’t raise eyebrows. But this doesn’t mean that there’s no value in working on the other.