Reply To: 5th Grade Non-singers

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Hierst453 has some good ideas. Instruments can sometimes be a motivator–we almost always learn instrument parts to accompany a song using some kind of speech/vocal ostinato with body percussion first, or if we’re going to play chord roots on Orff instruments, we learn to sing the pitch names first–and we do not put it on instruments until the class is able to independently perform both parts simultaneously with voices. If one group of students cannot sing the melody independently while another group is simultaneously performing the accompaniment part with voices and/or body percussion, the class is not ready to add instruments… so you could use that as a motivator to get them to sing strong and put in lots of effort in singing the melody.

Could you try patriotic songs, or multicultural songs, or African-American spirituals? Those usually seem to work well with my older students (songs like This Little Light of Mine, Shine on Me, Sing When the Spirit Says sing especially). Maybe you can find some decent YouTube videos of kids their age singing a song you want them to learn, so they can hear an example that might give them motivation to sing with more enthusiasm. Maybe also if you can use music recording technology (like GarageBand or Audacity) to record the class singing… this is one thing that motivates my older students to sing well. I record my 4th grade classes singing patriotic songs a few times during the year, and the recordings are used on the morning announcements for the rest of the school to sing along with–so, they want to end up with a product that they are proud of because the whole school will hear it (maybe for your school there is a familiar hymn or a school song that you could start the day with–you could ask your principal if this is a good idea for your school. Our school finds that it creates unity for all the classes/grades to start the day by singing or at least listening to a song together.) Or, even if it’s not meant to be something that will be shared with the whole school, the kids often just enjoy hearing what they sound like, and it can be a good tool to use for self-assessment–you can tell them that they need to be able to sing the song without your help before they’re ready to record.

I think 4th-5th grade is right around that age where kids start caring more about what their peers think of them than what adults think of them–some kids don’t want to stand out, and they get embarrassed about singing out so that their voice is recognizable. Unless they’ve started out from the beginning with a culture where they are made to feel proud of their singing voices and that singing is something that is expected of them, there may be kids who just do not feel comfortable putting themselves out on a limb and singing loud enough to be heard clearly (boys especially–or some boys don’t want to sound like girls when they match pitch in the treble octave, even though this is a normal part of vocal development… I have to occasionally give my older boys the “It’s not healthy for your voice to sing in a lower range until your body is ready to do that and your voice starts to change in middle school” lecture…)… It’s hard to say since I don’t know your students, but maybe just work really hard to earn their trust and develop and atmosphere where they are comfortable making music in other ways and perhaps they’ll eventually feel more comfortable with using their singing voices.

Also as far as working on individual pitch matching and developing singing voices, individual singing and working on echoing patterns, or even just focusing on matching pitch with the resting tone, if students are having trouble finding the pitch, is usually helpful. To make this less intimidating, I turn it into sort of a game by using a ball to toss and catch. I will usually do this as part of teaching a new song… I’ll sing the song for the students to listen to, then I’ll sing a pattern of 2-4 pitches, toss/catch the ball, and the class has to echo the pattern when I catch the ball. Each time, I sing a different pattern–I may repeat one if the class has trouble with it to get them to listen more closely or perform it more accurately, but really mix it up so it doesn’t get boring and they really have to pay attention. Or, alternately, I might just have the class sing the resting tone (‘do’ in major tonality, ‘la’ in minor tonality, etc.). After a few times with the class singing the pattern or resting tone together, I’ll toss the ball to individual students to echo me or sing the resting tone. Switch back and forth randomly between tossing/catching yourself for the whole class, and tossing to students for individuals to sing, and mix it up (don’t toss to kids right down the row, skip around the classroom) so that they have to pay attention and they don’t have the opportunity to get nervous. Most kids who show no interest in singing will perk right up if they get the chance to play catch with the ball to do it. And, the toss of the ball while it’s in the air is also a cue for the students to take a full breath, so that their singing has as much energy as possible. Make sure that they’re sitting with good posture whenever it’s time to sing–try to be a stickler about that (or, start praising or rewarding the kids who are remembering to do it), and it usually ends up automatically improving the sound somewhat. Also, for those kids who aren’t using singing voices yet, you can start class (or do this sometime during class as a warm-up) with silly, fun vocal exploration activities, getting the voices into the upper part of their range–making siren sounds, pretending to throw a baseball/frisbee/rock and saying “wheeeeeee,” pretending to bounce/shoot a basketball and saying “boing, boing, boing, boing, whoooooo!”, pretending to ride a rollercoaster (moving bodies up and down w/arms overhead and going “whoooooo” in contour with the movement of bodies, tossing/catching scarves or beanbags and following the contour with voices, drawing squiggly lines on the board and following the contour with their voices on whoooo or wheeee, echoing a slide whistle on whooo, etc. Even my older kids like doing these things because they’re silly and goofy, and it is a good way to get non-singers to engage their vocal muscles in the way that they will need to in order to sing outside their speaking voice range.