The concept of up and down is central to musical understanding and experience. In an earlier post entitled, “Musical Ups and Downs—Why is Contour Important?” I discussed several reasons why this is so. But during formal musical training in early childhood, how up and down is represented is not always readily apparent. Early training in the concept generally includes tracing shapes in the air with the finger, and making sliding sounds that correspond to the direction the finger is travelling. This combining of movement and vocalizing connects sound with the familiar concept of vertical up and down. For example, “my head is up and my feet are down.”
Later, the teacher must transfer this conceptualization of up and down to a more abstract one, drawing up and down lines two-dimensionally on a horizontal surface, such as the floor or paper laid on a desktop. I am speaking of teaching a class of children who are 3 years old. For this, pieces of yarn can be placed in front of each child on the floor, and the child can make curvy lines with it and then sing sliding sounds along the line of the yarn. To succeed at this, a new understanding is necessary. “Away from me is up, and toward me is down.” Some children will have difficulty with this at first. Imitation is necessary to make the switch to this way of representing contour. “Make your finger go away from you, and make your voice go up, like this.” “Make your finger go toward you, and make your voice go down, like this.” I also use dots. Instead of lines, the children stab at the floor with their finger and make staccato sounds each time their finger touches the floor. These staccato sounds can move up and down too.
Later in the lesson, when the children are singing a song, I return to having them “draw” the song they are singing on the floor with their finger. After singing a phrase, I ask them, “does the song go up or down here? Show me how it goes up (or down) with your finger.” I choose a phrase that only goes up or down at first. Then I have them sing the phrase on a neutral syllable while they trace the contour on the floor. After their voices more accurately follow the contour, I return to having them sing the words, but continue to draw the contour with their finger on the floor.
These activities move the children toward more accurate singing. The contours that go up also help move them out of their speaking voices and into their singing voices. Once what their voices are doing doesn’t feel like talking anymore, they are able to handle it for what it is, which is singing. Out of this awareness that singing is different from speaking, comes the realization that they need to handle their voice differently, and be aware of pitch and pitch direction in a way that they speaking does not require. I don’t tell them all this, they just shift their thinking in this way naturally. What I have to do is just get them out of their speaking comfort zone. Training them in this early on sets them up for musical growth during these critical early childhood years, and for high musical achievement later in life.