Sunday, June 18, 2017

Teaching little children to sing (K-1st grade)

In the past I've written a lot about starting children's choirs, but for the last two years I've had some experience teaching groups of 5 and 6 year olds, and this is what I've learned so far.

  1. This is definitely the age to begin. Everyone I've worked with in these groups, after a little practice, can match pitch. In groups of 3rd graders and up, there will be students who have learned to sing off pitch without correction, and this is a very tough problem to correct. Like improper posture or breathing when learning an instrument, bad singing habits are also very difficult to correct. Get started in Kindergarten and everything will work out fine.
  2. Use imagery to suggest the kind of singing that is desired. My favorite is "a beautiful silver cloud right here above our heads." 
  3. The activity of singing will inevitably make some students want to vocalize in their own way, in a kind of self-expression. There are two ways to deal with this. One is to recall them to the task at hand, and there are times when this will be necessary. But more often what I do is give them 20 seconds or a minute to freely vocalize. I'll say, "Now boys and girls, for the next 20 seconds, please quietly make the sound of your favorite animal [or bird]." This is usually all that is needed to get back on track.
  4. Gregorian Chant is tailor made for children of this age. 
  5. The Do Re Mi scale is indispensable. I write it on the board at the beginning of every class and we review it and do recognition exercises. The students learn this method of internalization of the scale, and we sing songs on the solfege pitches (Mary Had a Little Lamb, Twinkle Twinkle, and this year, the Star Wars Title Theme).  This video and those in its series are excellent.
  6. Sounds are your friend, books are not. In my older classes we use the Parish Book of Chant extensively, but at this age, books are a barrier to many children. "Finding the page" is not a skill most 5 and 6 year olds have, and it's better to set books aside for the time being. 
  7. The Kyrie is your best friend. Kyries are emotional and beautiful and have very few--but very attractive--syllables. In a year of once-a-week classes a Kindergarten class could profitably learn ten Kyries, along with much else. The intonation of Kyries also gives standout singers a chance to sing alone for a group, which is an educational experience in itself.
  8. Repetition is the teaching method I rely on most. I say, "Please listen first and then repeat." I sing a line, they repeat. We keep working on each line or small portion of a line until they can sing it without error, and then move on. Slowly they gain mastery over larger chunks of the melody. Then I let them sing alone, so that they can "find their voice" as Jeffrey Tucker has always been fond of saying.
  9. No piano is necessary. I work entirely a cappella with young students, and this enables them to hear themselves and sing without "training wheels,"after the initial learning process.
I've written more on this subject here. It is a project very well worth doing for all sorts of reasons having to do with spiritual development as well as musical and liturgical study and the formation of the imagination, accustoming young Catholics to beauty.