One of my best musical memories from a few years ago when I briefly taught singing in a musical stage school in Dublin on a Saturday morning. Attending the school, were a group of about 15 kids who I remember taking for a class. In the previous weeks before I had arrived, they had been learning Katy Perry’s song Firework. We started the lesson and I told them I would play the track and then I wanted them to sing along to it and show me the progress they had made on it.
I remember being blown away, not just by how good their singing was, but mainly because of the level of passion and enjoyment they had for singing it. There were still things I could help them improve with it but instilling a love for singing was certainly not one of those things.
This is the power that singing can have on children.
As an introduction to music, singing is a great first step for kids. Many will have come to school already having sung nursery rhymes at home but as part of their music curriculum in school, you can help them improve their voices and also develop their love for music which could stay with them for a lifetime.
To help you as their teacher with this, here's our 7 steps for school singing success:
1.) Building your own confidence with singing
A primary school class will develop their confidence with singing if their teacher feels confident. The challenge lots of teachers face however is many either haven’t done much singing before or they feel like they can’t sing at all.
Recently, we surveyed teachers to ask them what their biggest challenge with teaching music was and ‘I’m not musical’ was one of the most popular responses (check out our blog post on these responses here).
Our response to this is that everyone is musical and you are most likely not 'tone deaf'. And I can prove it to you. Here’s a simple online test you can do to test your own musical ability: http://tonedeaftest.com/.
To build your own personal confidence with singing, here are a few practical things you can do:
- Sing!! - seems obvious but if you’re someone who wouldn't normally sing during your day then start trying to do it. What I mean by this, is to start singing in the shower, in the car or while you’re making your dinner. It doesn’t matter what you sing - the act of simply doing it practices your vocal chords and builds up your stamina for it. If nothing else, it’s also great for your health and will put you in a good mood!
- Join a singing group - there’s lots of amateur singing groups in villages, towns and cities throughout Ireland. Whether it's a choir, musical society or even a ukulele group - these are all great places to work on your singing voice. If you can, try joining a group where you’ll get to sing the music that you like to listen to - you'll be more likely to stick with it. You could also form your own teachers choir in the school and, as a staff, improve your singing together.
- Use an app to practice singing - there are lots of apps you can download to help improve your own singing. A great one I can recommend is called Sing True. This app goes through simple exercises to, firstly, get you to identify if a note is higher or lower than a previous one. Then, secondly, it goes on to get you to sing back in to your phone a note that has been played via the app. Finally, the app can then give you feedback on the note you just sang and tell you what you need to be work on before you practice it again.
2.) Preparing to sing - general tips
There are a few important tips for you to be aware of so that you put yourself in the best position to sing as well as possible and also so that you don’t adversely impact your body:
- Posture - there are 3 things to remember for good posture while you’re singing:
a.) Stand up straight - if you slouch you’re compressing your lungs and diaphragm. Standing up straight with your feet shoulder width apart is the best posture to sing.
b) Relax your body - make sure there is no tension particularly around the neck and shoulder area. Shaking out your hands and feet are a good way to remind yourself to stand relaxed as you sing.
c) Keep your head-up - make sure your chin sits parallel with the ground. This position will ensure you have a nice relaxed air flow from your lungs to your mouth as you sing.
- Breathing - the sensation you should think about when breathing is that your stomach is filling with air. Your stomach should contract and feel like it is expanding like a balloon. No other movement of your shoulders or neck should happen as you’re breathing in. As you sing, your stomach should hold it’s pressure and then start to feel like it’s deflating slowly like a balloon.
- Stay relaxed - I’ve mentioned it’s important for your body to stay relaxed but it’s also important to keep your mind relaxed. Singing is something you should enjoy! Don’t worry too much if you think you don't sound great initially - stick with it and you’ll soon improve.
3.) Do warm-up exercises with the class before you begin
When I was in school, our music teacher and choirmaster use to do this exercise with us to help us loosen up our vocal cords. He would ask us to make an ‘ing’ sound and then slur down to the lowest note we could go to and then up to the highest note we could sing and then continue going between the two extremes. It should sound like you’re drawing a wavelength with your voice.
It’s bit silly sounds but the kids will enjoy it. If you’re going to be singing in the classroom, doing this for two minutes is a great way to help them warm-up their voices.
4.) Sing a single note
Next thing is to get the class to sing a note together and listen to make sure they sing it in tune.
To get the note you're going to sing, here are a couple of things you can do:
- Use a pitched instrument - if you have an instrument like a tin whistle or even a chime bar available, play the note on the instrument. You can then sing it back yourself before you present it to the class. You can also do this with a singing bowl or a tuning fork.
- Tuner - there are lots of tuner apps in the app store or you can can buy a electronic tuner device. The tuner will show you via a needle on the screen how in tune the note you are singing is and whether you need to sing flatter or sharper. To sing sharper try pushing a bit more air and to sing flatter relax a bit on the note and try to feel like the air is moving slower.
Once you have the note in your head, sing it and hold it and then ask the class to sing it back to you. You can then try different things likes making the note longer or shorter, louder or softer or gradually change the volume of the note.
5.) Sing a sequence as a call and response
After the class are comfortable with singing one note, you can now move on to getting them to sing a sequence with you. For doing this I would try and sing a ‘D’ note. We recommend that D major is an easy scale to work within that will be easy for the children to sing along with.
So if you can play and then sing a D note, treat that note as ‘Do’ or your tonic and start singing up the scale from there.
Here’s an easy call and response template to follow with your class. This exercise just looks at the first 3 notes of the scale: Do, Re Me. You can start by singing the sequence in red and then the class repeats with the sequence in blue:
Do - Do
Do, Do - Do, Do
Do, Re, Do - Do, Re, Do
Re, Do, Re - Re, Do, Re
Do, Re, Me - Do, Re, Me
Do, Re, Me, Re, Do - Do, Re, Mi, Re, Do
You should start by doing this very slowly and then gradually build up the speed. Once the class is confident with it, you can then start to add more notes further up the scale and then vary the sequence of notes that you sing.
Our Jazz Cat resource (available here) can also be used for this call and response exercise. Jazz Cat will play the sequence of notes and then the class can sing it back.
6.) Singing a piece
After the class have mastered singing a sequence, it’s now time to perform a piece. The big question is what to sing? Here are a few things to consider:
- Is it easy to sing? - something that has lots of leaps between notes or is very fast might not be a great piece to start with. Starting with even something simple like a nursery rhyme or a well-known folk song is a good place to start. We have lots of easy songs you can sing along with in our 'Sing-along folk songs' course.
- Are the lyrics suitable for kids to sing? - you can check out online the lyrics of a song to see if you think the lyrics are appropriate for the children to sing.
- Will the children enjoy singing it? - singing a song that isn’t fun or that is about something the children can’t relate to is likely to make them less engaged with singing. If you can, pick well-known pop songs from the charts or folk songs that are appropriate. Two good examples we have found from recent years are: Pharrell Williams ‘Happy’ and Justin Timberlake ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling’.
Once you have a piece you’re happy with, the first thing is to get the class to listen to an existing recording of it. If you can, use streaming sites like YouTube or Spotify to play the song through your classroom speakers.
If you can find the lyrics online, you can then get the class to sing along with the track following the lyrics.
A further activity you could do, would be to get the children to learn off the lyrics entirely so they can sing it either completely on their own or along to a backing track, if you can get one.
7.) Singing in harmony
Singing in harmony can be a hard thing to achieve particularly for younger children but it’s a great thing to try if the age group is a bit older and the class are feeling confident with singing all together. The best way to accomplish harmony is by a round. A round is where one group starts singing the song and then one or more groups join in a set amount of time later singing from the beginning of the piece. Examples of a round would be ‘Row row row your boat’ or ‘Frère Jacques’.
Here’s what the example of ‘Frère Jacques’ would look like. The red group would start with the first two lines and as they go on to the next two (‘Dormez-vous’) the blue group would start from the beginning with the first 2 lines again. You can start with 2 groups and expand it up to 4 with them all starting 2 lines apart from each other. The effect of all of the harmonies together will sound amazing and it’s a great way for each child to concentrate on their group's lines in the song.
So that’s our 7 steps!
Singing is an amazing activity to do with kids but the most important things are, firstly, for you as the teacher to feel confident with it and, secondly, to make it engaging for the children. You can get creative with different types of songs or by varying the type of singing by changing the speed or dynamics of the song.
The more you do it, the bigger the improvement they will see and the more they will enjoy and develop a love for it.
If you'd like to try some songs in the classroom, why not sign-up for our sing-along folk songs course: