Singing with Children

I remember singing along with friends in my elementary school days. Teachers and students together began each day with singing. We learned about music from our music teacher, but we sang everywhere, in our classrooms and on the playground. One winter at recess, we stepped out on snow banks to sing into imaginary microphones, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” We were the Beatles! Singing was the gateway to our imaginations.

Throughout history, singing has been integrated into people’s daily lives. Mothers sang to lull their babies to sleep, students sang school songs to demonstrate pride in their school and country, railroad laborers sang as they worked, slaves in the American south sang to give each other hope and pass along messages, immigrants sang songs from their homeland. In celebration and ritual, singing connects people to each other and to their collective history.

Tips for the teacher who “Can’t carry a tune in a bucket”:
  • Start with familiar tunes that the children know and ask students to help you lead the songs.
  • Use recordings to introduce songs. As children learn the song, you can quietly sing along. I have seen children happily singing a melody while their teacher is singing something . . . a little different!
  • Invite guest singers to come in and lead songs. For example, recruit grandparents to teach songs from their childhood.

Singing also offers academic benefits. If words to a song are printed on chart paper, then singing can be a way to help build sight vocabulary. Songs can help children learn different languages. Simple counting songs can reinforce math lessons. Traditional folk songs can bring history to life. Songs about rivers, stars, and rain can help children learn about the natural world and all its wonders.

Today, our children are primarily consumers of music, not producers of it. At one time, almost every elementary classroom had a piano. Now almost every home has MTV. If this trend continues, something vital will be lost. But teachers have the power to bring singing back into the life of the classroom.

Don’t worry if you’re insecure about your musical ability, or even if you truly can’t carry a tune. You don’t need to be a singer or an experienced song leader to provide daily musical experiences that are low-pressure and that promote a feeling of success and group cohesion. Following are some suggestions for teachers who want to increase and enhance singing in their classrooms.

When introducing a song, just start singing it.

It’s not necessary to teach songs line by line or offer lengthy introductions. Just sing a verse in a relaxed, inviting manner and encourage children to join in when they are ready. Repeat the verse a few times, make eye contact, smile—soon the children will be singing along. However, it is important to know a song well before teaching it, unless you are using a recording to introduce it. One way for you to learn new songs is by singing along with tapes or CDs in the car.

Encourage relaxed participation.

It will probably be fairly easy to encourage younger children to sing. But no matter how relaxed you are about introducing a song, older children may initially feel embarrassed to sing. Sometimes I use humor: “O.K., this is not a concert . . . I’m not Britney Spears! (or any current famous singer . . .) This is a sing-along! That means you . . . and me . . . singing along! Let’s go!”

Another way to invite the participation of older children is to ask them what they like to sing. Once, working with a group of middle school students, I asked them which songs worked best for students their age. We sang a variety of songs and decided together which ones were most suitable.

Introduce all kinds of songs—then keep singing the ones that children love to sing.

There’s a wealth of music to choose from: folk songs, songs from different cultures, songs written by contemporary songwriters, chants, and play party songs. Older children enjoy songs that are more complex, funny, or a little irreverent. Younger ones prefer predictable, simple songs with a repetitive melody line. K–2 teachers can make up silly songs that grow from the daily routine. For example: “It’s time to go to recess. Line up now.” The melody is up to you!

When choosing songs, it’s important to be aware of the historical significance of the songs and sensitive to themes that might be offensive. For example, some wonderful old folk songs might not work well in a contemporary context. There are also songs that seem innocuous in their current form but originally had lyrics that mocked or demeaned particular groups of people. For example, Jump Jim Joe was once a minstrel show song called Jump Jim Crow. If you’re not sure about a song, check it out with other teachers or adult community members.

To help remember favorite songs, keep a song list posted in the classroom. Add to it as you and the children discover new songs. Record lyrics on chart paper. Create song sheet collections. Although you won’t necessarily teach songs from a written version, it can be helpful to have song sheets to jog memories and promote literacy development.

Increase your own comfort level.

As with any new skill, practice helps. So sing a lot. Sing in the car, in the shower, while vacuuming the floor, or going for a walk. To become more comfortable and adept at leading songs, you can watch other song leaders, sit in on a music class, or talk with colleagues about how they lead songs. As you observe and gather information, ask yourself: What do I like about their style? How do they engage the group? What doesn’t work? What fits my style?

The more you sing with the children throughout the school day, the less singing will feel like a “big deal.” As you hear your students singing, you’ll hear children having fun. Instead of being a performance, singing will be simply another way you make connections within your classroom community. And remember, your enthusiasm about singing is worth a lot more than your musical expertise so, come on and sing!

Recommended Resources

Children’s Music Network
P.O. Box 1341, Evanston, IL 60204-1341

Tom Hunter and the Song Growing Company
1225 E. Sunset Dr., #518, Bellingham, WA 98226

Ruth Pelham Music
P.O. Box 6024, Albany, NY 12206

’Round We Go! 40 New Rounds with Activities for Young Singers
by Elizabeth Gilpatrick
Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co., 1991

16 Songs Kids Love to Sing
collected by NEFC, Greenfield, MA: NEFC, 1998

As you gain experience leading songs, here are
some things to keep in mind:

Try not to sing too low with the children. If you’ve learned songs with other adults, chances are you learned them in a range that’s too low for children under the age of twelve so you’ll need to sing them at a higher pitch. Generally, try not to have young children sing lower than middle C on a piano. When singing in a comfortable range for children, your voice should sound light and airy. This might feel a little higher than is comfortable for you, and you may not be able to sing loudly.

Consider the range of notes in the song. Elementary school age children are likely to have a limited musical range. Young children may only be able to sing the four notes represented in that classic teasing chant: Neah, Neah, Neah Neah, Neah! Music teachers pay attention to this partly out of concern for musical quality but also because they want children to develop the ability to carry a tune. The regular classroom teacher might be most concerned about musical range when selecting a song for the class to sing in a school assembly, where quality matters. In daily classroom singing, however, don’t eliminate fun songs simply because they extend beyond children’s vocal range.

Give older children opportunities to harmonize. Older children often enjoy singing songs like “This Land is Your Land” with its high descant or “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” with its many parts and variations. Rounds, such as “Row Your Boat,” or “One Bottle of Pop,” are a good introduction to part singing. To become comfortable singing rounds, make a tape of yourself singing one part. Practice singing the other part along with the tape of yourself until you’re ready to help the students.

Choose “zipper songs” as a way to invite children’s ideas. A “zipper song” is a song that asks the singers to “zip” in an alternative word, verse, or idea. Old MacDonald is a classic “zipper song.” In the resources listed above, you’ll find many resources, including ones with “zipper songs.”

Tags: Engaging Academics