Music in ECE: Yes, You Can! Part 2: Singing

As an early childhood educator you are the single most important component of your children’s play & learning environment.

What you do – how you structure the environment, what program choices you make, what you value, how you interact with children – sets the tone for all the learning that takes place.  And that is equally true for music in early childhood.

But as I said in Part One, many early childhood educators feel less than competent when it comes to music.  I’m here to tell you that you ARE competent – but you may not FEEL competent.

So let’s get you feeling competent, because the research shows it’s your confidence that counts not your musical abilities.

A little aside: I am not a good artist.  No, let’s be honest: I’m not proud of it, but my drawing ability sucks.  And when I started working with children I doubted my competency to provide a good art program.  I was scared of art – really scared.

A lecturer at university calmed my fears. She told me that my artistic talent was irrelevant; what counted was that I could:

  • learn a range of art activities and ideas
  • evaluate their developmental appropriateness through my knowledge of how children learn and develop
  • implement them with children.

My knowledge of child development and how children learn was the key, not whether I could draw.

She also told me something that stuck with me:

Alec, remember: no matter how bad you are at art, you are Picasso and Rembrandt rolled into one compared to most young children.  They won’t judge you: they will be in awe of your abilities.

Pablo Picasso 1962

Apparently that’s not Picasso – it’s me!

Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - WGA19225

And this is me too! (I seem to have gained a little weight.)

And I found it was true.  Not only was I capable of doing a great art program, the children really did think I was a good artist.  I didn’t disillusion them …

Infos: Painting commissioned by Leopold Mozart...

That’s you, not Mozart, OK? (Don’t you look young!)

And that is equally true for music.  99% of all adults are vastly better musicians than 99% of all young children.  You sing better, you play instruments better, and you understand the basic structures of music better.  Compared to your average 5 year old you might as well be Mozart.

Combine that with your knowledge of child development and child learning through play and there is nothing that stands in the way of you creating a wonderful music program.  If you can do a good art program, a good math program or a good science program then you can do a good music program too.

The converse is also true: a great musician who knows nothing about young children’s development will almost certainly do a truly terrible and developmentally inappropriate music program for young children.  Believe me – I’ve seen it.

In an ideal world it would be great if all early educators had a thorough understanding of music and were great musicians. But if I had to pick between someone with great music skills and poor knowledge of child development, and someone with poor music skills and great knowledge of child development I would pick the second person every time.

So let’s look at a fundamental area of music in early childhood education: singing.

Sing!

Teacher Tom says:

All preschool teachers sing with their children, and if they don’t they should. Nothing draws a class together better than singing.

He also admits he is a terrible singer – but he has moved “from shame to shamelessness”.  You can too.

It simply does not matter to children whether you sing well.  The only important thing is that you sing with them.  They will not judge you, and singing less than perfectly won’t harm their musical development.  But failing to sing with them – that will!

The best advice I can give you for moving from “shame to shamelessness” comes from Aunt Annie’s Childcare.  Aunt Annie is an early childhood educator – but she is also a qualified music specialist who has taught music in schools.  Her advice?

Get out there and sing like nobody’s listening!

So how do you do that? 

If you are still feeling a bit hesitant here are a few tips to help you feel comfortable about your singing.

Don’t hold back! Sing loud, sing proud!  Singing quietly is much more difficult than singing moderately loud.  Don’t force it – you don’t need to belt it out and drown out the children –  but when you sing, sing!  You will sing more in tune because you can hear yourself.

Good posture helps – sit or stand comfortably erect (but not stiff), and tilt your head very slightly upwards.  That will open up your airway and help you breathe and project, and you will sing more in tune.

It’s easier to sing in tune if you have music to support you.  Using recorded music as backup to your singing is fine, especially when you and your children are learning a new song.  CDs, MP3s, YouTube videos – they can all help, whether they are instrumental versions or vocal versions.

It’s easier to sing in tune in an environment that has natural echo and reverberation.  So, while I’m all for using your outdoor area for music, singing in tune is easier indoors.  It’s the old “bathroom baritone” effect – we all sound better singing in the shower.  It’s not just that the echo makes you sound better: you actually do sing better because the echo helps you hear what you are singing.  Which may also mean that your mat area is not the ideal place – you may find it’s easier to sing in a hard tiled area like your art area where there’s more echo.  Try it and see; it’s worth a shot.

Practice your new songs before you introduce them to children.  That sounds obvious but you would be surprised how many people don’t do it. Get truly comfortable with the song first –  sing it in the shower, sing it in your car, practice to a recorded version, then solo.

The more you sing, the better you get. As you find yourself singing more with children you will also find your singing improving.  Bonus 🙂

Helping children to sing in tune.

One reason it can sometimes be hard to sing in tune when singing with children is that they aren’t in tune either.  Their off-key singing can tend to pull you out of tune, especially if you are singing without recorded accompaniment.  To make that less likely to happen, here’s a couple of tips:

Don’t just launch into a song – give the children a starting note.  Without a starting note the chances of children coming in ‘in tune’ is zero.  Watch a professional choir that sings unaccompanied – before they start singing they will always be given a reference note to tune their voices to.   If adults need a reference note so do children.

So before you start the song say something like “OK, let’s get our voices in tune, let’s sing LAAAAAAH!”  Sing the first note of the tune, and sustain it while children join in.  You will hear the children come closer in tune as you sing (hopefully).  Now, stop singing the reference note, and start the song (make sure you start on the same note, of course).

But how do you pick the note to start on?  Read on …

Most 3-5 year olds have a very limited vocal range – about a major sixth.  How big is that? It’s the range between the lowest and the highest note in ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’.  So songs that have a larger range are virtually impossible for most young children to sing in tune.

So choose songs that are easy for children to sing in tune, ones with a limited range.  Fortunately most of the common traditional songs for young children fall within this range, but if you hear children struggling to sing in tune it’s possibly because …

Most children sing more comfortably in a slightly higher range than most adult women (if you are a man, see below).  The lowest note that most young children can sing is around about middle C.  Most women can comfortably sing lower than that, often a lot lower.

So if you are singing at the lower end of your range it’s probably best to be singing a little higher.  Not ‘squeaky high’, just not right down at the lowest notes you can sing.

With practice you will naturally find the range that suits both you and your children.  No need to stress about it or get out a tuning fork – take your cues from the children.  Listen to them when they sing by themselves – that’s the range you want to be singing in.  You can learn a lot by listening to children …

Or watch the first minute of this video; she goes pretty fast, but this is the range most preschool children can sing in.

For men it’s a little more complicated – but only a little.  You will be probably be singing an octave deeper than the children are (unless you are a tenor with a good range) – and most likely the range is going to be somewhere about the middle of where you are comfortable singing.  Again – take your cues from the children’s own singing.  So long as both you and they are comfortable is all that matters.  They will naturally sing the octave above you.

OK, where to from here?

Hopefully you are feeling a bit more comfortable now about singing.  So use that new found confidence!  The more you sing with children the more they will come to value it.  You are the model – and the more you model singing, the more the children will sing.

So sing often.  Don’t just keep it for mat time: look for opportunities to increase the numbers of times you sing through the day.  Any time is a good time for singing!

Sing a welcome song in the morning and a goodbye song at the end of the day.

Transition times?  Pick a song to signal to children that it’s time to finish what they are doing and move on.  Choose one distinctive song and stick to it.  It works.

Packing away toys?  Perfect – try singing “Now it’s time to pack away, pack away, pack away, now it’s time to pack away, the blocks go on the shelf” to the tune of ‘London Bridge is falling down’.  Improvise lyrics for other items, or acknowledge children who are packing away: “John is helping pack away, pack away, pack away …”.  Or write your own lyrics to a tune like “Twinkle, Twinkle” – it’s easy and fun.

Outside play?  Make up work songs: digging songs in the sand pit, swinging songs, climbing songs, skipping songs, running songs.  They don’t have to be works of art – it’s the singing that matters.

Toileting?  Great, there are many hand-washing songs.  Here’s a great list of songs including hand washing songs and many other topics, all with YouTube videos to help you learn them.

Sing grace before eating (religious or secular grace is up to you)

Sing with individual children too.  Sure group singing is great, but so is sharing a special song with one child.

Sing “call and response” songs with tunes you make up yourself.  Sing: “how are you today?” Response: “I am very well!”  Children love copying the tunes, and will make up their own too.

Sing spontaneously for no reason at all.  Just sing.

In Part 3 I will continue my look at you, the educator.  I will be looking at instruments and how you can be a great role model for instrumental music – and have fun while doing so.

Have fun – and keep playing!

_________________________________________________________________________

End note

So what makes me so sure that it’s the singing that is important, not how well you sing?  Personal experience.  Let me give you a bit of family history.

My maternal grandmother was a classically trained opera singer who sang professionally.  She sang beautifully, pitch perfect, with a 4 octave range.  And when my mother was born Grandma sang with her throughout her childhood.

But my Mum had not inherited Grandma’s talent.  Matter of fact, Mum never sang well – quite the reverse; by any objective standard my Mum was a dreadful singer.  But what she learned from Grandma was not technique – what she learned from Grandma was that singing is fun, that singing is something you do for the pure pleasure of it. 

My Mum sang throughout the day – my earliest childhood memories are of her singing. She sang nursery rhymes and snatches of opera and popular songs of the 30s and 40s.  She sang while working, she sang while playing with us.  And although her singing was often wildly off-key it didn’t matter to us at all.  We loved her singing and we sang with her every day.

What about me?  I LOVE singing.  There is simply never a day in which I do not sing.  I’m not the world’s greatest singer – no one is going to sign me up for a recording contract – but I can sing in tune.  I’ve sung in folk, rock and world music bands and the audience didn’t run screaming for the exits when I sang.  And for over 20 years I’ve been passing on my love of singing to the children that I work with.

So what can we learn from that? 

Firstly, being brought up by a woman who couldn’t hold a tune did NOT turn me into a dreadful singer, any more than being brought up by an opera singer turned Mum into a great singer.

Secondly, and most importantly, 4 generations of people have learned to love singing, regardless of whether they sing perfectly.

That is the take-home message: if you sing with children they learn to love singing.  You model love of singing when you sing with children; if you don’t sing you are modelling that singing is not something you can do unless you are perfect.  That’s not the lesson I want children to learn.
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5 thoughts on “Music in ECE: Yes, You Can! Part 2: Singing

  1. Pingback: Music in ECE: Yes, You Can! Part One | Child's Play Music

  2. Fabulous post and I agree wholeheartedly. (And thanks for the shout-out!)

    What you say about women tending to sing a bit too low for the children is so true. It’s nerves that does it, I swear; it’s almost like not wanting to be heard! Women definitely need to be brave and pitch their voices just a little bit higher.

    I find a very useful exercise for women to pitch the voice higher is to do a huge yawn (with the sound effects and actions!), which relaxes the voice and pitches the voice high- then repeat that sliding-down sound (complete with stretching the arms like a yawn) but consciously singing the slide down. Then do it again, but sing it as a scale down. When I do this with adults it absolutely proves to them that they can sing higher than they think!!

  3. But better that the women sing low rather than not at all. If children listen to you comfortably singing the song and learn it from you, they can transpose it themselves and sing it in their natural range when they repeat it later on their own. It’s only adults terrorised by their childhood music teacher who think transposition is difficult. The point is to get children to the point of knowing whole songs so they can sing them anywhere, any time.

  4. Pingback: There’s a song in the air | Honor, Nourish, Guide, Support and Respect

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