When Your Child Wants to be an Opera Singer: A How-To Guide

I came out of the womb singing. I couldn’t help myself. I sang all the time and didn’t care where I was!

What about you? Is your child a natural singer? Do you walk into the room and find them singing to themselves? To the point that they can’t help themselves from singing?Congratulations! These may be early signs of your child wanting to be an opera singer… they definitely were for me!

Let’s say you’re like my parents were, and you don’t have the slightest idea what the classical music world is like. Or maybe you have a general understanding of what pursuing classical music means, but opera is just way out there.

What you wonder is, where do I fit in my child’s musical journey? And what can I do to help them during their developing years?

Have no fear! Your child can still pursue a successful career in the arts, regardless of your background.

Believe it or not, my parents had zero formal musical training! But whatever it was they did, it worked out well, since I’m one of the lucky few whose young talent turned into a professional career. And I couldn’t have done it without them.

Even though I’m not a father yet, I know that all parents out there want their children to have every possibility at their fingertips, and to achieve their absolute best. So here’s how my parents helped me in my ripe, young years as an aspiring opera singer, and how you can help your children, too.

What Can I Do To Help?

Let’s skip the obvious essentials like paying for your child’s voice lessons, driving them to and from competitions, attending recitals, buying them sheet music, etc. Most of what you can do for your artistically gifted child is simply believe in them.

My parents would always tell me I was doing a good job and that I was a good singer, which mattered a lot. If my parents didn’t believe in me, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to keep pursuing it.

My parents never helped me with my actual singing or voice lessons: they didn’t know the first thing about singing! All they did was encourage me. They didn’t know when I sang a wrong note, but it didn’t matter. Their constant encouragement helped my talent take shape. Why’s that, you say? Because classical vocal training takes time to develop, and there’s no rushing the process.

Don’t expect much from your child until mid-to-late high school. After boys hit puberty, their voices change, so there’s no real need to start voice lessons any earlier. For girls, it’s also around that time. Voices need to grow into their own. They go through significant changes as our bodies develop, and taking voice lessons isn’t going to speed that up.

In my opinion, around 15 years old is the perfect time to sign them up for serious voice lessons. If your child is aching for some singing training before that age, it is never too early to start learning to read music, memorize songs, or even learn basic acting techniques. Learning other instruments is super helpful as well, but more on that later. These will help them immensely with their music-making when they are physically able to begin their classical vocal training.

Early on in their development, they don’t need to be the best among their peers—they just need to love singing. They need to have goosebumps.

My dad always said, “Do in life whatever gives you chills when you do it.” Performing was that for me!

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Summertime with my dad on the beaches of Wilmington, NC

Practice Makes Permanent

One of the most important things my parents did for me was tell me to practice.

Just like they did with my homework, they would press me to work on my music as well, and I would—begrudgingly. My mom put me in piano lessons because she knew it would help my college preparation, which it did. I took piano lessons for two years in high school. I wasn’t good but that wasn’t the point: it benefited my overall musicianship, ear-training, and musical understanding. Your child doesn’t need to be a triple threat, but definitely have them try an instrument or two if they are interested in a singing career.

More importantly were the voice lessons.

My advice? Start with a local voice teacher that other students and parents seem to like. Don’t concern yourself with technique when they first start out. The biggest impact a good voice teacher will have is showing your child to love music.

I must stress this point: do not interfere with the voice lessons.

Trust your child and the expert you hired. How do you find a good teacher? Word of mouth is generally the best tool. And how do you know that they’re in fact a good teacher? Listen to their other students.

Even if your child cracks on high notes, you have to allow their technique to develop as it will. Keep in mind that bumps like this are almost never the teacher’s fault. It’s just like how athletes have good and bad days of training: there are days when it will seem like your child can sing anything they wish, and others where it seems they can hardly carry a tune.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that it is the responsibility of the teacher to make progress in a positive way. Be patient at the beginning, because the voice teacher will have a lot of corrections to make after all that choir singing and pop singing. And they have only one hour a week to undo those bad habits. Their main job is to inspire. If your child enjoys singing less and less, perhaps singing is not for them. Though in some cases, this might mean it’s time to find a new voice teacher.

Early success doesn’t make much of a difference. All they have to have is a nice sounding voice and keep their sound consistent. Being loud is not important. They should be encouraged to sing with vibrato, match pitch, and control their volume.

Since  early lessons won’t change their vocal technique too much, with a classical voice teacher, your child will refine their music-reading skills, practice breath support, and try out some pure Italian vowels. It would be nice for the teacher to introduce them to the 24 Italian Songs and learn one or two before college. A Mozart or Handel aria would also be great at that level, as well as some English Art Songs.

What Kinds of Resources are There?

Growing up in rural North Carolina, there wasn’t much opera around. However, if you live in a big city, you can get your child involved in a children’s chorus or as a super in your local opera for an unforgettable experience.

Back in the 90s, my family didn’t have internet yet, so I didn’t have the resources that kids of today have, like YouTube or iTunes. These are great when your closest opera company is hours away: they are amazing tools for your children to listen to opera and get to know what’s out there.

I did have a cassette tape (remember those?) of The Three Tenors. I used to drive around in my 1983 Toyota Tercel, and blast that tape with my windows down like a badass. Their voices were so beautiful to me, and they still hold a special place in my heart today.

I was also into singing groups like Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Take 6, and All-4-One. The harmonies they created with their voices were so fascinating to me and each singer had something unique about their voice.

Something interesting I did at that age was use this 4-track recording machine my dad bought me. I would sit in my room days on end and record myself singing the individual four parts then combine them together. I would even add beatboxing! This developed some of my musical skills because I would have to memorize the songs from the radio then reproduce the harmonies later in my room. It inspired me, and it honed my skills—I enjoyed it so much, I didn’t feel like I was developing a skill.

You too can inspire your kid by involving them with music-making activities that disguise the fact that they’re really practicing. Even playing music in the car or around the house will open their ears and minds!

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After my senior recital at App State with my supportive sisters, Liza, and Kate, and my brother, Gabe

Yes, I Was A Choir Nerd

Choir was incredibly important to me. It was where I got out all of my artistic desires. I learned so much about music-making and was able to socialize with friends who shared the same interests. I also got to sing many solos which gave me important performing opportunities.

My choir teacher was the one who first discovered I had a voice. In the fifth grade, I wasn’t in choir because I thought it was for sissies and basketball was way cooler. Yet I learned a song, “My Grandfather’s Clock,” that I heard on a children’s TV show and sang it in front of the choir teacher to see if I was any good. It was the first time I ever sang for anyone. It was noticeable that I had the necessary natural talent to be something good one day. Your child joining choir might just be the first step towards a wonderful career in music.

Another helpful thing during my high school years was hanging out with other people who loved music, too. My friend Robert Matthews was a pianist and I would go to his house just to listen to him play. We’d practice together and he even taught me some pieces. He was so talented and in the end, he turned out to be a big influence for me. When I got to college, I had that kind of socialization all the time and I really came into my own. Encourage your children to hang out with like-minded individuals who are also interested in classical music!

College Years

When your little baby has flown from his/her nest, what is left for an opera parent to do? They’re still honing their singing skills, so a lot of patience is still required from your part. Outside factors and peer pressure begin to influence your child, positively or negatively. That’s why your emotional support is huge during this time. Believe in them just as much as before and lend them a helpful ear when they ask for it.

In terms of preparation for college auditions, it’s extremely helpful to have a keyboard in the house. It would be ideal for them to practice piano 1 to 2 hours per week, and their vocal music at least 15-20 minutes a day. With a keyboard, they can practice and memorize their vocal pieces. It can even be a touch-sensitive, electric piano. I actually own one of those today, and prefer it because it never has to be tuned.

When it comes to auditions, go with them. Hold their water. Adjust their tie. Tell them they look nice. You don’t even have to say much. “You’re going to do great, sweetie,” or “I’m here for you” is enough. Don’t smother them but do be available. If you can’t make the audition, be reachable by phone in case they need to celebrate or let out some tears.

For choosing a college, know that your child doesn’t need to go to an amazing music school. In fact, they don’t even need to graduate.

If they don’t get into Juilliard, then thank your lucky stars that you just saved yourself 250k. A good state university is equivalent to a good private institution for a young singer. Largely because kids between the ages of 18 to 22 are still figuring out if they like singing enough to make a life out of it. They’ll figure out on their own if this career isn’t right for them. Plus, they can always go to a badass master’s degree program after they’ve committed themselves to singing, and they’ll most likely get a scholarship since they’ll be good enough. So save your money for the more crucial years of their education.

Parental Wisdom

My parents were thrown a curveball with my passion for opera. They were as helpful and understanding as they could be about something they knew very little about. Since then, they’ve become much more knowledgeable about opera, just because they are genuinely curious people.

Over the span of my early career, my mom would tell me that I need to know who I am, and that I was valued and loved with or without music in my life. Tell your child this, too! At the time, it meant so much to me.

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My mom still comes to many of my shows today. This was just last week at the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice

All in all, do the same thing for your child in opera as you would if they wanted to swim, do karate, or play basketball.

Show up, drop them off, pick them up and ask them, “how was practice?” Compliment them on the things they did well. They may miss a shot, or sing a wrong note, but keep encouraging them and tell them they’re still good, regardless of a mistake. Mess ups can be fixed in time. And as a singer, they have loads of time (waiting for that voice to mature!), so the pressure is off.

This career is a slow boil. You haven’t even pressed the button to turn on the range. So everyone, just be patient and supportive.

Shoutout to Dan and Tanya Pulver for inspiring this post. And special shoutout to John Meachem and Susan Zucchino, the best parents ever.

 


What do you think? Did you find this article interesting, entertaining, or helpful? Feel free to chime in your thoughts on this subject with a comment below.


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