Singing and vocal work

Teaching a song – getting it started

(from Teaching Primary Music pp 43-44).

Having chosen the warm-up or repertoire, you next need to think about how you will teach it. You may have a backing track or recording, or perhaps you will accompany it with a musical instrument. You may want to teach it unaccompanied, just using your voice. Here are a few things you might think about when teaching a song:

  • Knowing the song well. Practise singing the song through at home before you introduce it in school. Try to learn the lyrics by heart – it is much easier and more natural to introduce a song if you know it well, and you are likely to feel much more confident.
  • Choosing a starting pitch. Finding an appropriate starting note is crucial – the whole song should be within a suitable pitch range. The first note of the song is not necessarily the lowest or the highest in the entire song. If you have been given the note to start on (or once you have decided on a suitable starting pitch), play this on a musical instrument such as a chime bar and then hum through the melody to check that it all falls within a comfortable range. Remember that children generally have a higher pitched voice than adults – you could also ask the children to suggest the starting pitch if they are familiar with the song and adapt it if necessary
  • Sharing the starting note with pupils. You could play it on an instrument and then ask the class to listen to it and hum it back. Alternatively, if you are feeling more confident, you could hum the note and ask the children to match the pitch of your voice. Walk around and listen – if you have children who find pitch matching difficult, try to arrange the class so that they are near a confident and in-tune singer, or stand next to them yourself. It is crucial you don’t let them know that this is the reason for the arrangement or you may completely destroy their confidence. Everyone can sing – it’s just that some children take more time and need more encouragement than others.
  • Starting the song off. Having agreed a starting note, there are various ways to start it off. The most obvious pre-starting sign is a breath in. It is good to get children to focus on you and breathe at the same time. They also need to know how fast to sing. You may wish to count in (and sing the number of beats on the starting pitch). Alternatively, you can clap or click the pulse with your fingers, or ask a pupil to do this. Note that children need to have the counting-in modelled and that the speed you count in (for example, 1-2-3-4) is the pulse you are setting. As children become more experienced, you could stand together and try to breathe together the beat before the song starts without counting it. This makes them focus more on the ensemble aspect of the experience.
  • Repetition is good! To improve the sound and technique, repetition is important. This can be done in many ways, particularly by making it into a game (e.g. using a slightly different voice), so that children don’t get bored repeating musical phrases over and over again. Playing lots of games going between a limited number of notes (e.g. G and E above middle C – the ‘ding dong’ sound of a doorbell) can help with securing tuning and pitch matching.
  • What kind of voice should you use? Be yourself! Your voice does not have to be loud or in a forced style. Strong, quiet singing encourages focused listening. The important point is that it is your voice, a voice that the children know.
  • What about the lyrics? If you are teaching by rote, you will be introducing the lyrics and melody at the same time. Overall, this is one of the most flexible ways to teach because it allows you to be reflexive in whether you move on to a new line or section, or spend a little time cementing the learning if it has not quite been grasped. If the song is long, or children are learning it from a recording, you might need to display the words on the board, but if you do this at the start, be aware that their attention will be drawn to the board and not to you!