Helping students who "can't" sing

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    I’ve identified a number of kids who are struggling with singing in their singing voice. Some can do it when I use the slide whistle, but revert to their talking voice when we sing songs. Some cannot even copy the whistle. Some are using their singing voice, but are not matching exact pitch. What steps do you take to teach non-singers to sing? What are your favorite tricks? I love the slide whistle, but they are going to get sick of it one of these days. I am referring to kids in grades K-5.


    There really aren’t “tricks”… most kids who aren’t matching pitch just need more time and repetition, sometimes up to a couple years if they’ve had little to no experience with singing prior to starting school. Repeat the same songs several times in a lesson and over the course of several lessons. Some kids need many, many repetitions of hearing a song before they are able to be successful with matching pitch. Include some activities where the kids are just listening to a song many, many times while doing movement, and then have them sing the resting tone of the song in between repetitions of the song (to make this more interesting, give them a prop such as a scarf to toss/catch or a beanbag to drop to the floor when they sing the resting tone… or toss a ball in the air and catch it for the entire class to sing the resting tone, and toss it to individual students to sing solo). Or, do similar activities where the students echo short patterns of pitches (and, give easier patterns with a smaller range to the kids who are having trouble matching, give harder patterns to the kids who are already successful to give them a challenge). Do these types of activities in every lesson, and with repetition of hearing the resting tone or various patterns over and over, eventually most kids will begin to match pitch in a limited range… and then they usually begin to become more successful from there. With kids who have trouble matching pitch, you need to keep your goals small to begin with–rather than expecting them to match pitch for an entire song or even a phrase, work on them getting to match pitch for just one note or a limited number of notes. For some kids, it make take months or even a couple years, as I said, for something to “click” in their musical brain where they begin to realize that the sounds they are making aren’t matching my voice or the other kids’ voices. You need to be patient and just keep them singing.

    If these students haven’t had adequate preschool preparation or have a low tonal aptitude, they may be somewhat delayed in terms of their musical development. When you only see them once a week and most of them don’t do any singing in between, it is going to take a while for them to catch up to their peers. Think about it like language development–kids whose parents didn’t read to them as preschoolers will have a much harder time keeping up with their peers in reading language skills… so rather than pushing them to do what the other kids do when they will just get frustrated and not be successful, give them some activities on their own level where they can have success, and little by little they will start to make progress. Also, I’ve had kids who appear to make no progress throughout kindergarten and most of 1st grade, and then all of a sudden towards the end of 1st or into 2nd grade they’re magically matching pitch. Those kids just need more time and repetition than the average student. I have a TINY handful of kids (like 1-2, maybe 3 tops, per grade level out of about 100 kids) who still haven’t found their singing voices by the end of 4th grade… almost always, these students have very low tonal aptitude (I give the students tonal and rhythm aptitude tests every year). I think that a 97%+ success rate is pretty good for the limited amount of time we have to work with them. If we could work with our students every single day and require them to sing every day for homework, plus give extra small-group or one-on-one instruction to the students who are identified as struggling in their music skills–think, this is what schools do to help students with their reading skills!!–I’m sure they would make progress much more quickly.

    The slide whistle vocal exploration activities are a great start, but there are a lot of other activities with a similar goal that can help to give you a little more variety (also… if you exclusively use the slide whistle, they’re not really imitating the timbre of a singing voice which may be making it more difficult for them or confusing matters. You may need to use your own voice or use another child as an example.). Here are some fun ones:
    -Pretend to throw a ball, frisbee, rock, snowball, etc. and say “wheeeeeee” or “whooooooo” (and pretend to throw it higher or further to change the sound)
    -Pretend to ride a rollercoaster–raise arms overhead and move body up and down as you say “whooooo” in contour with your body movement
    -Pretend to toss a big armful of fall leaves in the air and say “wheeeeee”
    -Pretend to bounce/shoot a basketball: say “boing, boing, boing, boing, whoooooo”
    -Toss and catch a scarf, beanbag, ball and follow the contour of the object while saying “whooooo”
    -Draw a series of hills on the chalkboard (this is good in wintertime, you can pretend they are snow hills , trace the hill with your finger as students trace in the air, and follow contour of hills with your voice on whooooo or wheeeee (you can also draw letters and do the same thing, or even have kids come up to draw their own hills or squiggles on the board for the class to follow)
    John Feierabend’s Book of Pitch Exploration also has some silly poems and stories that explore different ranges of the voice.


    Also from John Feierabend you can buy a tub of Pitch Exploration “Props” and instruction book that can be used to find head voice. There is a stuffed whale, ghosts, slide whistle, pipe cleaners, whistles, toys, etc. If you look it up online, you can probably find some things on your own to make and use, as it is a little pricey.


    Also, check out this link to the Teaching Tips part of NAFME :


    With individual singing, I do a few different things:

    1. If they are singing the contour but not at your pitch, lower the pitch (to their level) and see if they can match you. Then over time, inch them up.
    2. Try using a peer model. Sometimes children respond to the timbre of a peer better than an adult.
    3. Since you are using the slide whistle, this is a good transfer: have them slide up into the pitch. Model it and have them echo.
    4. Use images: sound more like a squeaky mouse, a barn owl, a small bird. Be careful that this does not lead to silly singing, but sometimes the image of singing “like” something else helps children find their head voice.
    5. With early elementary grades, I like to incorporate vocal exploration and singing into stories, either books or made up tales. I create flashcards with shapes to help students use their head voices (oooooOOOOoooo, ahh—–_____, zzz ZZZ, Grrrr________, fluid lines, animal sounds, short jingles, etc.).
    6. Love the Woo Ball idea mentioned above. Kids adore this too! Throw anything and call it the “Woo _____.” Have students follow the object with their voices. I have a Woo Chicken. : )
    7. I cannot tell from your username, but if you are a male teacher, make sure you are always using falsetto when having uncertain singers echoing your singing. Also, sometimes singing along in your regular voice can pull uncertain singers down.

    As mentioned above, don’t give up! It often takes a long time for children to come into their singing voices. And it is always a huge celebration when a child finally finds their head voice and matches pitch! One of my favorite teaching moments!

    Hope these strategies are useful in your classroom!
    Sarah Bartolome
    Council for General Music, Member at Large
    Baton Rouge, LA

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