by Sarah Hruska-Olson Olson.Sarah@MacPhail.org
In the book, “Music in Childhood: From Preschool through the Early Grades,” Patricia Sheehan Campbell outlines the progress children make from vocal babbling as infants to more structured vocalization and chanting as toddlers, to discovering the difference between speech and singing as four and five-year olds.
I have observed this same progression in my own teaching practice with children from birth to five. Although some children may sing in tune as young as ages two or three, I find that in most group settings it is best to wait until children are four or five to work on pitch matching. Campbell explains that while young children may have a range of almost two octaves that can be accessed through vocal exploration, the tessitura for most Kindergarteners is between D and A on the treble clef staff.
In addition to our playful yet purposeful pitch matching exercises, we continue to do plenty of vocal exploration! It is also important to help children differentiate between speaking voices and singing voices. Even some adults use the word “singing” to describe what is really just rhythmic chanting. Pitch matching work continues throughout the school aged grade levels as new children join your group, and as students’ unchanged voices continue to develop. Different activities will work well with different age levels, but as John Feierabend points out, “most learning takes place when a child sings by him or herself.”
So the question is, how do we help children practice singing in front of the group without feeling self-conscious? Try a puppet!
For my Pre-K to second grade students, puppets contain the magical ability to coax a sound out even the shyest child. The trick is to make the puppet the shyest one of all. When the puppet finally decides to come out, the children discover that it is the puppet’s fondest delight to have each child echo the puppet’s singing. The puppet is delighted with every child’s response, whether it is an accurate vocal echo, a high squeak, chanting, or a shy smile with no sound at all.
As one of my Orff-Schulwerk teachers, Jay Broeker explained, the child’s relationship with the puppet must be sacred. However, the teacher may make non-judgmental observations like: “I noticed that your singing was higher than Nigel the Night Owl’s singing,” or just “Thank you for singing to Nigel.” This kind of feedback from the teacher helps us to avoid the trap of empty or insincere praise while gradually helping children to notice the accuracy of their own singing.
I sometimes correct my puppet and ask her to sing an accurate echo of what the child has just sung. For optimum accuracy, try an “oo” vowel. The phrase, “yoo-hoo” can be very helpful. Or, if you like owls, “hoo-hoo.” A so-mi pattern from C to A on the staff should get pretty good results. (As a soprano, I sometimes overshoot and have to lower my range a bit.)
As children get older, singing games that have solo sections become very helpful. Kim Bahmer shares some excellent ideas for vocal exercises and pitch matching for her K-8 students:
- Sing “I Love To Sing” (5 8 3 1 ) while lifting one arm up as notes go higher. Repeat in different keys.
- Sing “Dee dee dee dee dee” (1 2 3 4 5 ) twice on eighth notes then sing “Ya – ah ---” (5 8 5 3 1 ) lifting arm with high notes like exercise #1
- Hold up a target (like a dart board).
- Point to the middle of the target and sing a pitch.
- Sing another pitch and ask students if it the same or different.
- Now ask students if the second pitch, if it is different, is higher or lower.
- Tell students that the goal is to hit the note right on target. You can explain singing sharp and flat by pointing to higher and lower places on the target.
- Singing games
- Sing songs that involve games where students sing solo. You can assess pitch matching without students realizing they are on the "spot."
- Song ideas: “Dinah, Dinah”, “Button and Key”, “Panda, Panda” – Kodaly method songs.”
Finally, if your vocal range is different than that of your students, using recordings of high quality children’s singing and playing the melody on the soprano recorder are two very helpful techniques that I have observed David Birrow using with his upper elementary aged general music students.
Thanks to all who contributed ideas on vocal exploration and pitch matching!
Photo credit: Children's Bureau Centennial via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)