So your kid wants to be a singer

Not every child is the next Mariah Carey, but professional voice instruction teaches discipline and more

The final, fading notes of Timberlane Regional High School’s musical performance of “Sweeney Todd” drifted into nothing and for an instant – just the blink of an eye – the auditorium remained silent before it filled with cheers and applause.

It was in that briefest of moments that Natalie Livingston glimpsed her future.

The 18-year-old from Danville, now a musical theater major in the Hartt School of music at the University of Hartford (Conn.), is on the path to fulfilling a dream that began in that silence three years ago. And despite the dedication, occasional setbacks, hard work and unwavering passion it takes, she, and others like her, know that it’s a fulfilling and ultimately achievable goal.

“It started as a hobby,” Livingston said. “But then I got a supporting role in ‘Sweeney Todd’ and I was like, ‘Well, this I something I love to do.’ It was no longer just a hobby.”

Livingston began her singing career as a high school freshman when she began training for the New Hampshire All-State Music Festival. That same year, an audition for a role in “Fiddler on the Roof” and the key arrival of an influential teacher combined to instill the passion that grew over time.

“His passion really inspired me to develop my own passion,” Livingston said of her early musical mentor and chorus instructor, Rob Harrington. “I was willing to put in any work I needed to do in order to be the best I possibly could.”

It’s a pursuit that has led to noticeable changes, according to her mother – both in her abilities as a performer and as she grew through adolescence.

“I think she learned that it’s OK to follow her dreams,” Michelle Livingston said. “When you go to your parents and tell them you want to go to school for musical theater, our first reaction was, ‘what do you want to do for work?’ But she’s educated us and we’ve learned the arts are important. You can make a living in the arts. If you’re determined, if you work hard and if you have the proper training and choose the proper program – it can work.”

Choosing a music school can be an important step in moving toward that dream. A number of schools throughout New Hampshire specialize in training young musicians and singers, and teaching the proper way to begin the craft.

“Often times, you need to be clear about what your personal goals are,” said Ann Davison, executive director and founder of the Bedford Youth Performing Company. “Often times we’ll get little guys who want to come in and have someone play piano while they sing. That’s not what we do. What you want is someone trained in teaching voice as if it is an instrument. You need to have someone who knows how to teach that instrument, and you need to have somebody who works really well with children.”

Other times, instructors can help to reset expectations in young would-be singers. TV shows like “American Idol” or “The Voice,” while inspirational, can set unrealistic goals. Tikes hoping to become the next Kelly Clarkson or to unleash the booming voice of Jennifer Hudson may be heading down the wrong path. A trained instructor can spot that and guide that child accordingly. Davison’s school, which opened 21 years ago, instructs youngsters in music, dance, theater, and provides chances to perform in rock and jazz ensembles, among other opportunities.

“That should not be their goal,” Davison said of the ‘you’re going to Hollywood’ set. “They need to sound like themselves. Kids want to have a certain sound and power and we need to show them the work that needs to be done to get there. Voices don’t come ready-made to do that kind of thing. [The TV shows] can inflate kids, but kids have always had those dreams and fantasies – and why not? They’re great goals to have.”

There are also safety considerations, teachers say. Singing improperly can lead to physical problems – Livingston had her own struggle with developing nodes on her vocal cords but worked through it with the help of a trained teacher. The exercises and training she received from her teacher enabled her to heal and to develop a new confidence, her mother said.

“I’ve seen a huge change in her from the time she started singing seriously,” Michelle Livingston said. “She used to get nervous. Not about her performance – but whether her voice was going to hold up. Her voice was unpredictable. We were always wondering if her voice was going to perform for her.”

Vocal health is emphasized in local music schools, which involves treating the voice like any other instrument. Singing improperly, like playing an instrument improperly, can lead to problems. Approaching the skill carefully is an important part of the process – something that even the most accomplished singers have learned.

“Just because somebody is famous and on the radio, it doesn’t mean they’re singing properly,” said Jay Latulippe, co-director of Let’s Play Music and Make Art, LLC, in Derry. “Students will come in and try to emulate what they hear on the radio, but even Adele got nodes. She has said she knew she was singing wrong but did it anyway. She had to go back and do it properly. That’s where training comes in.”

Along with the dreams of life in the spotlight are the benefits that come along with honing such skills. According to experts, it can be a vital part of a well-rounded education.

Courtesy photo

Natalie Livingston as Maria in “West Side Story.”

“My feeling is that music education is the best education you can get,” Latulippe said. “It’s the equivalent of taking math and English and melding them together. There’s been a lot of research into music education, and it’s been found that music is the only discipline that requires both hemispheres of the brain to work in tandem and fire at the same time.”

According to the National Association for Music Education, students benefit from musical training in a number of ways, including developing increased language and reasoning skills, mastering memorization, increasing coordination, enjoying a sense of achievement, learning pattern recognition and improving emotional development.

“We see kids start lessons with us and we see the impact,” Latulippe said. “There are so many positives. There’s pure brain development, but that’s not what the kids are thinking. Parents can certainly see it, but what happens is we see it helps develop patience, discipline, concentration and even social development. That’s the thing about music. When you’re singing and playing with other people, you have to learn to work together. You learn how to make it work so it blends and sounds great.

“All of those skills help you in every aspect of your life, whether it’s academic, relationships with other people, your job later in life – all the skills you learn in music help you be a better person in general and navigate life gracefully.”

Of course, there are also arguments against pursuing a career path with a less-than assured financial future, but Natalie Livingston is having none of it.

“Why do we only put value on things where you’re guaranteed to make money?” she said. “It saddens me because what does it matter how much money you make as long as you love what you’re doing? But the world thinks differently.”

It’s a mindset that Davison espouses at the Bedford Youth Performing Company. If the only result is learning to set goals, developing a work ethic and learning determination, then all the work is worth it.

“First of all, in my perspective, every kid is a superstar,” she said. “They’re not all going to be superstar singers, but you have to take time and discover what your gifts are. They’ll get the joy of singing, but it also gives kids a voice – which sounds odd, because I don’t mean it in the literal sense. It gives them power, another way of expressing themselves. It gives them a depth and texture to communicate what they have to say.”

It’s that intangible element that may have ensnared Livingston.

“I’ve always loved singing,” she said. “For me, it’s always been an amazing way to express myself. I love connecting with people and telling stories. And it’s in that moment, right when the show ends, where there’s silence before everybody claps. That’s when you know the audience got it.”  

Bill Burke is PNH’s Dad on Board. He’s also the managing editor for custom publications at McLean Publications.