Two years ago, a music education major in his senior year spent two weeks observing me teach, and trial teaching my students. Over the course of those two weeks, he expressed his surprise at how well my first graders could hold pitch and sing in tune. According to what he had been taught, they shouldn’t be able to do that. Now I think I’m pretty good at what I do, but I’m not such a superstar music teacher that my students can do things no one else’s can. The only way first grade students would not be able to sing in tune is if their music training had just started, or started a year earlier, when they were in kindergarten. Perhaps that was the assumption upon which what this undergraduate was taught was based. My first graders are excellent singers because I have been formally teaching them music since they were three years old in the pre-kindergarten program. Those two earlier years of formal music instruction make a huge difference.
Very soon after birth, infants can tell the difference between sounds they hear in their environment, and sounds that they
make. When this distinction can be made, the infants begin to vocally play. They make a variety of sounds that soon have definite pitches within a small vocal range. These sounds which include cries and coos, are what Gordon called “musical babble.” When adults interact with children as they musically babble, they are helping them attach meaning to the sounds they make. Eventually, the child will move toward singing, first with rhythmic chanting, then with approximate imitations of songs that imitate the contour but not exact pitches. At this stage, it is important for the child to hear adults singing frequently, and for adults to teach rhymes and chants. Through listening and imitating, the child will learn a repertoire of tonal patterns and start to develop tonal memory. All of this happens before the age of two years. Is it any wonder that children who have not had music in their environment during the first year and a half of life are unable to sing well by age seven?
If the child has had an active musical environment, by three years of age, s/he will begin to sing accurately in a range that approximates the speaking voice, usually within the perfect fourth of d to g. It is important for children to begin exploring their upper voice at this age. Rhymes and stories that temporarily go into the high range are good for this. Examples are “The Three Bears” and John Feierabend’s “Big Pig.” Once discovered, children should sing in their upper range frequently, strengthening the inner portion of the vocal folds. No attempt should be made to connect the child’s upper voice to the lower voice. Once a child can sing in the upper range, they can easily move downward back to the lower range.
After receiving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten music experiences, children can begin to receive formal singing instruction at age six, when they are in first grade. Posture, breath management, vowel production, tone production, diction and expression are all possible with children at this age. This is also the age at which children will develop bad singing habits if they do not receive training, so it is vitally important to teach first graders how to sing. Of course, not all children will realize equal success, so training must be individualized. Abilities ranging from just chanting the words, to chanting with some variation of pitch, to approximating intervals, to tuning mistakes, to showing no pitch errors will be observed in any class of children. Developing good singing abilities is a complex and developmental process, and will take patience and careful attention. Giving struggling students plenty of opportunities to continue to hear good singing in their upper range, and to attempt to imitate it, are key. As a male, I must sing in my head voice when I want my students to imitate me. If they try to imitate my natural adult singing voice, they will slip down into their speaking voices, or even attempt to go lower. With enough imitation, nearly all students, guided by their ear, enjoy success singing well.
Phillips, K. H. (1996). Teaching Kids to Sing. New York: Schirmer