“Like any other musical skill, singing simply requires competent teaching and practice,” says choral expert and MENC member Janice Smith.
Here are some basic areas to work on with all singers:
- Posture. Proper body alignment is critical to singing well, and even very young children can learn. Seated singing requires that the back be away from the chair, shoulders over the hips, and feet touching the floor. Head, shoulders, and spine should be comfortably aligned, and hands should be in the lap or holding music. When standing, students should have their feet about shoulder-width apart, hands at sides, rib cage raised, shoulders lowered, and chin parallel to the floor. (A teacher can use hand signals for rest, seating singing, and standing positions.)
- Breathing. Exercises that help students breathe better can be part of the first few minutes of every lesson, class, or rehearsal, and they help students focus. “Begin with an easy exercise,” says Smith, “such as sustaining a long hiss.” Start with an 8-count (10-second) hiss, and gradually increase the time that students are to hiss without taking a second breath. Try also hissing for two minutes, having students breathe when needed. After these are mastered, have students do 5-count hisses where they pulse the air for four counts and sustain on the fifth.
Try this: Have students “lie on the floor with a book on their abdomens just above the naval. Ask them to raise the book in the air as far as they can while inhaling,” says Smith, then “have them hold it for a few seconds. Other times, ask them to raise the book on an inhale and sing a short song while keeping the book in place.” Students also need to learn to take a deep breath without raising their shoulders. A video of sleeping puppies or kittens is good model
- Warm-ups. Children can echo sirens (glissandos) produced by the teacher. Increase the range of the siren with each repetition. Students can also imitate a slide whistle, beginning with downward slides, then alternating downward and upward, and finally going downward and upward randomly.
Try this: Draw a wavy line on the board, and have students vocally follow the contours. “Invite children to draw a line and take turns being the ‘conductor,’ varying the tempo as they trace the line,” Smith says. (A laser pointer is useful here.) Eventually the line can be drawn on a staff, and the lines ultimately turned into noteheads. “The children will have begun the transition to note-reading,” she states.
- Vocal Health. When vocalizing, do no harm. Louder isn’t better and can do vocal damage. Singing with more support, as opposed to belting notes, will make songs sound better. Remind children not to sing if it hurts and to inform you if they are ill. Make sure singers have access to water before and after singing, and get a humidifier for the room (change water often to prevent mold) to moisten the air.
Adapted from “Every Child a Singer: Techniques for Assisting Developing Singers” by Janice Smith, Music Educators Journal, November 2006, pp. 29–31.
MENC member Janice P. Smith is an associate professor of music education at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, City University of New York, Flushing. She is also the coauthor of Minds on Music: Composition for Creative and Critical Thinking (MENC / Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2009).
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–Ella Wilcox, September 8, 2010, © National Association for Music Education