The voice is everyone's first instrument. It surpasses all other instruments in terms of accessibility, flexibility, portability and cost. In this respect it forms the key to access to music education in the classroom.
Song singing is an ideal way of engaging large groups in enjoyable and fulfilling music making. A sense of continuity and satisfaction can be achieved at every class level through the singing of songs learned in previous years. In the teaching of singing, the emphasis must always be placed on the joy of singing and on leading the children to use their voices to make beautiful music. Very young children learn songs by ear (or by rote). Older children enjoy combining learning by ear with the reading of music. The teacher sings or plays the song from a record, or plays the melody on an instrument, and the children sing it back. However, even when learning by ear, children benefit from seeing the printed music while singing and listening, as they may learn to follow the shape and direction of the music. In this way, learning by ear can complement skills in listening and reading.
Teaching a song by ear
Using the voice
This is by far the best method, as the teacher can instantly let the children re-hear a phrase that they have not picked up correctly, without having to upset the flow of the lesson by rewinding a tape or repeating the melody line on an instrument. The class teacher who sings with his/her own class is the expert, and therefore the teacher's voice is the best one. However, it is useful to take a comfortable starting note for the children from a pitched instrument before beginning.
Using a recording
Generally speaking, it is preferable if the teacher sings for the children. If a taperecorder is used it is vital that it includes a tape counter and that rewinding is efficient. Similarly, it is important that the teacher remains involved, using the tape-recorder as a resource rather than as a substitute. Playing the tape as 'background' during another lesson should be avoided if possible.
Using a melodic instrument
While the teacher's own voice is the preferred option, playing a melodic instrument to teach songs can work very well. The teacher has to be careful, however, that he/she can still direct the children's singing easily and remain focused on their singing rather than on his/her own playing.
Selecting a song
When choosing a song, the teacher should keep the following criteria in mind:
- it appeals to the teacher
- the teacher thinks it will appeal to the children
- it forms part of a selection of styles, within the yearly scheme
- the words are appropriate to the child's stage of development and emotional understanding
- the range of notes is suited to the children's voices.
In choosing a song in Irish, teachers should be sensitive to the difficulties a class may encounter with unfamiliar words or themes. Any preparatory work that might be undertaken as part of the Irish or history programme would be of great benefit.
Ideally, the teacher should know the song by heart and should not need to rely too much on a copy of the music. Rhythm and melody must be accurate, as correct concepts in music are just as important as correct concepts in mathematics. Every endeavour should be made to gain an understanding of the words, context and purpose of the song in order to convey its entire meaning to the children. If he/she is learning the song for the first time, it can be very helpful for the teacher to note any difficulties encountered, as these are likely to challenge the children also. Marking up a copy of the music to show where breaths should be taken and to indicate dynamic changes can also prove useful. Words and music are best displayed for the children on a board or chart, or projected onto a screen, to help focus their attention on the salient features. This also promotes good posture when singing.
In introducing the song, the teacher may choose one of the following approaches:
- integrating the song with another curriculum area
- linking the song with a story or poem
- using a suitable picture to set a scene
- presenting the song with little or no discussion, thus avoiding unnecessary talk and letting the song speak for itself.
Whether the teacher sings or plays the song from a recording, he/she should also
- give a comfortable starting note from a pitched instrument
- look at the children and communicate with them
- give them something specific to listen for to help their concentration
- sing the whole song through and thereafter work with the first verse only (and chorus, if applicable), concentrating on words, beat, rhythm, melody, diction, style and expression, usually in that order
- discuss briefly the theme or message of the song, clarifying the meaning or pronunciation of obscure words.
The song will need several hearings before the children will be able to perform it independently. However, on each repetition a different task should be given to the children to focus their attention, for example beating the rhythm, showing the shape of the tune with gestures, singing the melody to 'lala', whispering the words or joining in with a simple refrain.
When teaching singing the teacher is reminded of the need for care and for attention to quality of outcome. This is dependent to a great extent on the teacher's awareness of the range of a song, the range of the children's voices and the teacher's own vocal range.
'Tessitura' refers to the range that comprises the majority of notes. It can be used to describe the most comfortable singing range for a child or adult (for example, a singer may have a high or low tessitura) or, similarly, the compass of a song within which most notes may be found. The ability of children to sing in tune often depends on the difficulty of the song and whether or not it lies within their comfortable vocal range. The teacher should choose songs that match the vocal range of the children, striving for good tone even from an early age.
For children in infant classes (four to five-year-olds), the vocal range is usually five to six notes (fig. 1). Few are capable of singing a song covering an octave. Keys should be chosen to suit the children, not the teacher or an accompanist.
Through careful treatment, the vocal range of the average child will reach an octave by the age of seven or eight (fig. 2), and by the end of sixth class most children should achieve a vocal range of approximately one-and-a-half octaves (fig. 3).
Singing with the musical elements in mind
Pulse or beat
'Beat' is the word used to describe the sensation experienced as pulse, which is the underlying 'throb' in music. While most children have a good sense of rhythm, they tend to have greater difficulty keeping the beat steady. Chanting is a particular rhythmic use of the voice related to both speaking and singing. Babies do it spontaneously, repeating random syllables such as 'dodo- da-da' or 'mam-a mam-a mam-a'. As speech is acquired, children join in familiar rhymes, often beginning by chanting the rhyming words. This helps to develop an awareness in the young child of the beat or pulse underlying music.
Nursery rhymes and playground and street games can be used in several ways, while older children will enjoy working with age-appropriate chants, choral verse or creating their own forms, through, for instance, a rap.
Activities for developing the beat should include:
- chanting rhythmically
- clapping, marching, tapping, thighslapping, arm-swinging or rocking the beat, while chanting the words
- using gestures.
When well known, simple percussion may be added to
- keep the beat
- add tone colour
- illustrate the words
- give interest and variety.
Suitable instruments for keeping the beat are claves, drums, wood blocks and cymbals. For special effects, jingle sticks, triangles, bells, maracas and tambourines are very useful. The children should be encouraged to choose an instrument and to keep the time while chanting.
Tempo refers to the speed or pace of music. Children may show fast and slow tempos and changing tempos through movement: for example, the teacher may clap or play a rhythm with a selected tempo. The children should be encouraged to keep the beat in various ways, such as
- clapping, clicking, slapping, tapping, marching to the beat, etc.
- working as a unit in a circle: clapping the hands of the adjacent children
- working in pairs: discovering new ways of keeping the beat
- marching, skipping or dancing to the beat.
With some speech rhymes, percussion instruments may also be used to demonstrate the tempo. Suggested instruments include maracas, jingle stick, triangle and wood block.
Rhythm is a succession of sounds (with or without silences) of long, short or equal duration. The following activities may help the teacher and children to develop awareness, accuracy and understanding of rhythm patterns:
- echo clapping the rhythm in phrases (imitating the teacher's rhythmic clapping)
- clapping or tapping the rhythm of the words
- marching the beat and clapping the rhythm
- working in two groups: one group taps the beat while the other group taps the rhythm
- working in pairs: tapping the rhythm on the partner's shoulders
- working in pairs: tapping the rhythm on the partner's shoulders while he/she taps the waist
- teacher taps the rhythm and stops: children indicate at which word the teacher stopped.
The basic concepts of dynamics, accent and phrasing may be explored through echoing rhythm patterns in a similar manner, with individual children taking it in turn to lead the class.
As a step towards Composing, the children may in turn provide a contrasting reply to a given pattern.
While rhythmic elements are relatively easy to teach, learning the melody of a song can often prove to be more difficult. Mistakes in melody are almost impossible to rectify, so it is essential to monitor very carefully how the children pick up the tune in the early stages.
Some of the following ideas will help the children learn the melody correctly:
- Songs containing built-in responses or echoes (e.g. 'Li'l Liza Jane') provide an ideal starting point, as the children can participate by singing sections on their own with little effort.
- Often if the song has a verse and chorus, the teacher can teach the chorus first and have the children sing this in turn, with the teacher singing the verses.
- The children can imitate melodic phrases from the song directly (echo-sing), particularly the more difficult phrases.
- The teacher sings to 'la-la', hums, whistles, sings with tonic solfa or plays on an instrument a section that the children must identify, either through words or notation.
- The children can be encouraged to look for the same or different aspects of the melody in the song -- repeated phrases, contrasting phrases, etc. -- and then sing them.
- The children can be encouraged to discover sections in the song where the melody moves by step, leaps or repeated notes and then show these with hand movements while singing.
- The teacher hums a section of the tune and stops; the children must then identify the stopping place.
In developing expressive qualities in singing, the teacher may draw upon some aspects of the listening programme by
- comparing songs with contrasting styles, either through recordings or classroom singing. For example, a marching tune and a lullaby could be compared in terms of tempo (speed), dynamics (loud or soft), mood, tone quality, or where the climax comes
- asking the children to choose how the songs should be performed
- asking the children to describe what happens to a tune when it is sung in a style unsuited to the words or meaning.
Effective singing skills
The teacher should always give a comfortable starting note to the children (preferably through his/her own singing, from a pitched instrument) and encourage them to hum it. This starting note should be referred to every time the song is performed.
An instrumental introduction, such as the last phrase of the song, or a short ostinato based on the chords of the song, may be used as an effective way of establishing the key and ensuring that the children begin on the correct note.
The tempo should be given by counting the children in at the correct speed on the correct beats, or else some verbal indication should be given such as 'Are you ready?' sung to the beat on the starting note of the song. For example, for the tune 'My Grandfather's Clock' show the pulse, then count three beats, as this tune begins on the fourth beat of the bar.
If the teacher plays an instrument, it may be used to accompany the teacher's own and, later, the children's singing. The keys chosen to play in should be suited to the children's voices and not merely to the printed music or to a set of chords that the teacher finds easy. Many schools have electronic keyboards equipped with a 'transpose' facility. At the push of a button the pitch of a song can be raised or lowered, allowing the teacher to easily find a comfortable key for the children to sing in. Once the children have learned the music, the teacher may use a recorder or other instrument to provide a descant or harmony part to the singing.
If a piano is available, it should be borne in mind that it will need to be tuned regularly, especially if it is often moved from one classroom to another or to and from a general-purposes room. Overuse of the piano or playing it at a level that drowns out the children's singing should be avoided. The teacher should at all times listen to the children's singing and encourage them to listen to themselves and the class.
Simple but convincing conducting gestures can stimulate and inspire confident performing. At first the emphasis might be simply on starting the groups of singers together or on bringing the song to an end with a clear gesture. The teacher might then work with the children on maintaining a steady beat throughout a song.
The teacher should try to avoid overusing his or her face, head or feet in conducting. Gestures should ideally be limited to the teacher's hands, and the children should be encouraged to follow the teacher's beat at all times. The right hand is usually used to give the beat and the left hand to add expression. The teacher should also try to ensure that signals are consistent.
Conducting in 2
Practising conducting in front of a mirror can improve co-ordination immensely.
It should be remembered that a downward beat usually indicates a strong beat and that an upward beat indicates a weak or 'off' beat.
Conducting in 3
Conducting in 4
The size of the beat as conducted can indicate the volume of sound required: big movements should be used for loud sounds and small movements for quiet sounds.
Improving vocal quality
Activities or techniques to improve singing or playing should always be short, frequent and enjoyable. The teacher should bear in mind that such activities provide a gateway to improved performance and are not an end in themselves.
Standing or sitting so that the lungs can work without constriction or discomfort is essential. Both teacher and children need to be poised and ready for action, but comfortable and relaxed. Saying to the children, 'Stand (or sit) up straight' can have the undesirable effect of making the children stiff and uncomfortable. A more useful form of encouragement is to say, 'Stand (or sit) tall,' as this ensures a more relaxed, but equally poised, posture.
The mouth must be open for good singing, more than for speech. In performance, exaggerated enunciation can help in creating clear diction and improved projection and sound.
The aims in developing good breath control should be to acquire the following aspects of breathing:
- the ability to fill the lungs fully
- the ability to take a good breath quickly
- the ability to control the escape of the breath.
Attempting to gain extra breath by lifting the shoulders can be counterproductive in singing, because it tenses the neck and tongue muscles. It is essential to breathe deeply so that the lungs expand in the chest like a balloon: down and out.
Children could be encouraged to practise taking in enough air to keep their singing voices going by
- breathing in, and then holding a singing sound, 'ah' or 'noh'
- saying sections of the alphabet in one breath.
This will make them aware of the needs of breathing in singing.
However, breathing exercises in isolation are of little benefit to young children. It is more useful for the teacher to ensure that the children get into the habit of taking a deep breath before they sing, not to release it too quickly, and to encourage them to sing with the phrases of the music, that is, to take breaths at the sensible points.
Simple vocal exercises
Although voice exercises are generally associated with more formal choral singing, it is useful for both the teacher and the children to warm up the voice before singing, especially if using a recording as a resource. The following suggestions include some general rules:
- Humming exercises: phrases of music that include broad vowel sounds, such as 'ma' or 'maw', are most useful.
- Humming should start at a high but comfortable pitch and work downwards, for example 'Joy to the World', first phrase, hummed or sung to 'maw'.
- High notes should be sung softly. Children should be encouraged to use only the head voice -- the sweet, fluty resonant tone -- and never a rough, 'shouty' raucous voice.
- The vowel sounds found most often in singing are the Italian vowel sounds. They sound like this in English:
A as in car
E as in air
I as in tee
O as in court
U as in school.
- The vowel colours should be exaggerated so that they are all distinct and pure. The following exercise may be of help:
Gradually ascend in pitch, starting next on D and using two other vowel sounds.
- Consonants should also be clear but unobtrusive, pronounced distinctly and quickly. The following exercise, using a familiar tongue-twister, can be challenging but fun for the children to try. The teacher may substitute other tongue-twisters or indeed phrases in other languages.
Feet on the floor, one slightly ahead,
Relax those knees, don't lock them dead!
Hips rolled under, stretch the spine so tall,
Sternum up, don't let it fall!
Shoulders should be back and down,
Head is high, don't wear a frown!
Keep your hands down at your sides;
Let the seam lines be your guide!
This is how you stand to sing
If you want your voice to ring!
Kenneth H. Philips
EXEMPLAR 14 - Teaching a song (first to sixth classes)
Developing part singing
Simple part singing adds colour, depth and immense satisfaction to everyday classroom singing. Yet it need not require the expertise of specially chosen singers to experience success. Many of the activities suggested below occur as spontaneous and logical extensions to unison singing (i.e. all children singing the same part), and so, by keeping the musical elements in mind, simple part singing can be both achievable and rewarding.
The music curriculum introduces simple part singing in the Performing strand by presenting a number of devices that gradually increase in difficulty. These are ostinati (patterns that are repeated over and over), drones, rounds, partner songs and part songs.
Opportunities for activities that incorporate the use of ostinati occur at all levels throughout the music curriculum. Even in infant classes, keeping the beat through clapping or marching will prepare the child for twopart work at a later stage. From keeping a steady beat the child progresses to an awareness of the rhythm pattern and later to a repeated rhythm pattern or ostinato. An ostinato is most effective when it provides a contrast to the rhythm or melody that it accompanies.
For example, if the rhythm of a song is
an ostinato could provide a contrasting pattern, such as
Long, held notes or chords are also very useful in the development of part singing. Teachers can introduce the concept to children at a very early stage through the use of hand signs. For instance, the teacher may indicate to one half of the class to sing mi, while the other half sings lah, soh, mi.
Similarly, pentatonic tunes may be accompanied by sustained notes or chords based on melodic patterns in the tune. These may be played on one or two chime bars at first to enable the children to experience a sense of harmony.
Later the teacher may teach the second part directly or pose an added challenge for the children by asking a question such as 'Who can work out the secret tune played on the chime bars?' and 'Who can sing the secret tune?'
Children should not be allowed to block their ears right from the start, as good part singing requires that the singers listen to the other voices in order to blend beautifully together.
The following teaching steps may be used in teaching rounds in a structured manner:
- Teacher teaches the round by ear first (See 'Teaching a song by ear' on p. 70). It is advisable to spend several sessions ensuring that the tune is completely secure.
- When the tune is secure, the teacher enters softly as the second voice. This helps the children to become accustomed to the harmony.
- Teacher begins the round and indicates to the children when they are to enter.
- The class is divided into two groups.
- Two groups perform while the teacher adds the third voice.
- The class is divided into three groups.
- When secure, the children may try in pairs or trios.
Children should be encouraged to perform rounds very softly, or even humming, so that they can listen to the interweaving of all parts. It is important that the performance of rounds does not develop into a shouting contest of speed. The teacher should ensure that phrase endings are together by giving the children a signal to stop at a given point or end of phrase to listen to the other parts.
The performance of the round can be extended by combining instrumental playing with the vocal line. Rounds with a minor tonality may also be tried.
Partner songs and part songs
A similar procedure should be followed for teaching partner or part songs. Again, the children should be able to sing each partner song confidently before attempting to sing them together. When adding an unfamiliar second part above or below the melodic line, songs or tunes that are already very familiar to the children (for example nursery rhymes or Christmas carols) can provide a secure base to which the new part may be added.
School assemblies offer wonderful opportunities for a range of musical encounters on a semi-formal basis throughout the school year. These include opportunities for children to perform their own or others' work or to form part of the audience. While the performers have the opportunity to develop a sense of occasion and a sense of audience, such an event can be of varying duration, style or content and yet contribute enormously to the cultural life of the school.
The school concert, pantomime, operetta or arts evening provides a special public forum for the performance of music. As with other musical activity, it should flow naturally from the class music, visual arts and drama programme and vice versa. The production should be an enjoyable experience for everyone involved. In many schools, expertise in choir, band or music theatre may be readily available among the staff, parent body or in the wider community and opportunities should be taken to encourage talents and support initiatives.
Choirs and bands
Participation in a school choir, ensemble, band or orchestra is a very valuable experience for children. Its inclusion in the school curriculum can complement rather than replace classroom music. Its work should be enthusiastically supported by the principal and the entire staff of the school.
When, where and what a group sings or plays depends on many factors. In many instances, school choirs and instrumentalists perform a liturgical function on special occasions. However, consistency is very important and children need continual monitoring and regular opportunities to perform if they are to flourish. A repertoire varied with regard to style, tempo, period, language, mood, range, number of parts, complexity and technical demands will best capture the imagination of the performers and listeners.
Overcoming singing difficulties
Singing should be part of classroom life throughout the school year, but sometimes lack of practice during holiday periods can result in poor vocal production. However, regular energetic and enjoyable singing in the first weeks of each term can help revitalise vocal music making.
Occasionally a teacher may encounter individual children with singing difficulties. These are sometimes referred to as being 'tone-deaf', but in fact they rarely suffer from an absolute condition of tone-deafness. The problem usually lies with voice production rather than with hearing difficulties.
Singing difficulties could be divided into several categories, and the following suggestions may be of use to teachers attempting to remedy individual problems:
Working with individuals
- The child should be encouraged to attempt a range of vocal responses that transcend his/her normal production. These might include vocal play, such as animal or bird impressions, foreign accents, cartoon voices or imitations of engine noises or sirens.
- The child should be encouraged to develop an expanded range through moving in small, smooth steps away from the basic range they can produce. This may be tried also in pairs: moving from an agreed pitch upwards or downwards in turn.
- In cases of underpitching, male teachers may find that individual children respond more accurately to the teacher's falsetto range than to his normal tenor-bass range.
- The teacher may help the child to discover that sound is vibration (in instruments as well as in voice) and hums so that he/she discovers lips, vocal cords, nose cavities and chest cavities all vibrating when sound is made.
Working with groups or whole class
- Underpitching or overpitching can also occur for some children when trying to match the sounds produced on an instrument, such as a guitar or piano. Encouraging the children to sing in response to the teacher's voice can remedy this problem.
- For the singing lesson the class could be regrouped so that weaker singers are in front of more capable singers. This reorganisation must be done under some other guise, so that no child feels musically inadequate. Otherwise this would defeat the very purpose of regrouping.
- As a class activity all children should hum their own sound, listening around the room until everyone's is the same.