Of all the complaints that people can have of a singing performance, usually the most unforgivable is that the singer does not sing in tune. With young children, intonation is almost always an issue. The majority of parents who ask me to teach their young child come with the complaint that “the notes just don’t sound right” when their child sings and they are helpless to know what to do about it.
Unfortunately, many music teachers are also at a loss when it comes to finding the most effective way to teach their students to recognize and sing the correct pitches of songs. In creating the new “Young Beginner” Level A of Singing Lessons for Little Singers, we have thoroughly researched and tested out several ideas and methods for teaching students to sing in tune and we think we have come up with a pretty good strategy.
1. “Sol-Mi” and the Pentatonic Scale Early music pioneer Zoltan Kodaly observed that around the world, across nearly every culture, children’s folk songs were generally made up of the pentatonic scale and especially the descending minor 3rd (“sol-mi” in solfege). This ubiquitous interval is also commonly heard in every-day speech inflection including phrases like “fly ball!”, “thank you,” and “kitty.” Researchers have determined that this interval is so prevalent among children because it is the easiest one for them to hear and copy. (I watched a video clip recently of a 6-week-old infant singing this interval. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHtk8QK8iR4) Once the minor 3rd (“sol-mi”) is mastered, the major 2nd (“sol-la”) is usually the next to follow. This phenomenon exists in America as the “childhood taunting song” (G – E – G – E – G – E – A – G – E) as well and “Ring Around the Rosie,” “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring,” and other songs. From this basis around “sol”, the rest of the pentatonic scale is progressively filled in (do-re-mi-sol-la”) and often the “fa” is added as well. Meanwhile, the child has learned nearly every interval they will encounter in singing and many common note sequences. Surprisingly, this pentatonic-based process for learning pitch and intervals has been used for several decades in American classrooms by teachers trained in the “Kodaly” methodology, and this sequence is heavily used in the new Level A of Singing Lessons for Little Singers.
2. The Body Scale Providing a labeled structure of pitches for young children is not enough, however. Children are much more kinesthetic than adults and need to be physically doing things to learn best (and maintain attention). Many teachers pair solfege learning with the 19th century Curwin hand signs, but I have found that for singing purposes they do not do the best job of indicating internally where each pitch is felt as it is sung. Over the past little while I have developed a system called the Body Scale that I have found to work much better for young children. It consists simply of students touching certain landmarks on their body for each pitch. (For example, “sol” is on the cheeks, “mi” is in the middle of the chest, and “do” is on the knees. The Body Scale does a superb job of 1) showing students the height differentiation of pitches, 2) showing students that low notes are felt lower in the body and high notes are felt higher, 3) helping students find and become comfortable with both their high and low voices, 4) training students to “sing with their whole bodies” and not just their throats, and 5) giving students a physical routine to practice and memorize that provides a greater sense of accomplishment than just singing intervals. Each step of the Body Scale (except “ti”) is progressively introduced and reinforced in the new Level A of Singing Lessons for Little Singers with exercises, games and activity songs coordinated to teaching young beginning students to hear, recognize and sing intervals and notes in tune.
3. “Copy Cat” and Activity Songs Now that I mentioned them, let’s talk about these activities and songs in the new Level A of Singing Lessons for Little Singers. Obviously solfege drills, even with physical movements added, are not going to hold the attention of any 4 to 7 year-old for very long. That is why in the new Level A we have developed a series of fun activities and songs (often the two blur together) that give students an opportunity to develop and use their new singing skills in a fun and satisfying manner. The concepts of up/down and high/low pitches are taught and used in a series of activities that call on the students to visualize traveling up and down in the air (such as in a rocket; more about this in a later preview). A “Copy Cat” activity is introduced allowing the teacher to practice pitch and rhythm sequences with the students in a “call and response” manner. And pentatonic pitch sequences and high/low pitch movement are strategically embedded in each song of Level A, ensuring that what is learned by rote and activity is incorporated into real singing of songs.
I have to say that I am very excited about this new level of Singing Lessons for Little Singers. For either private or group lessons for pre-school and early elementary-aged beginning singers (or even older ones that need help with their pitch), I have not found anything better than what we will soon be releasing. I can’t wait to get it out there and hear all of your success stories!