Help Kids Sing! Today’s post is brought to us by Zach VanderGraaf who is also from my home state of Michigan! I’m so excited to have him here and I think you’ll love his work!
Or, at least, this is what I hear from adults and kids all the time. Tone deafness is a real thing, but very few people have it.
Chances are, you just need some training, but helping kids learn to sing in tune is different from helping adults. With kids, it’s more about helping them find their head voice, good singing tone, and understanding melodic contour.
As a music teacher, I’ve asked around, done some research, and tested the ideas out to come up with this list of 7 easy tips for helping kids sing on pitch.
Note: When I refer to kids, I’m talking about boys and kids before their voices change.
#1 Engage The Body
The first thing I recommend teachers do for kids is to engage the body.
With young kids, they’re development is focused on gross motor and whole body activities. We need to tap into this when teaching kids how to sing in tune.
When doing warm-ups or singing, use the whole body to mirror the pitches the kids are singing.
For example, when doing descending vocal sirens during warm ups, the body should follow with its hands or by crouching down. When doing specific pitch patterns, use hand signs or body solfège to show the different levels of high and low.
This activates more of the brain and allows it to associate the voice and ear with the rest of the body. In short, this allows the brain to develop deeper and faster knowledge.
#2 Use A Top-Down Approach
One of the keys for getting kids to sing on pitch is accessing their head voices.
The child’s voice works differently than the adult’s. Kids singing voices are obviously higher, but they’re also lighter in tonal quality.
One of the game-changers I implemented into my teaching was making all of my warm-ups start at the higher end of their vocal ranges and work my way down.
This encourages the students’ voices to go naturally into their head voice.
Starting too low or working from the bottom up may allow some students to start in their talking voice (some call it chest voice, but I think of it differently for kids). Then, they learn how to force their voices up rather than to match pitch through the correct vocal tone.
This hurts them in the long run and may frustrate students who feel like they “can’t sing.”
#3 Choose A Good Key
Singers know how important the correct key is for singing in.
With adults, moving the key of a song up or down even a half step or two can make a huge difference. For kids, the key is equally important. Fortunately, before their voices change, there are some keys which work great for all kids.
Young people sing most comfortably from A3 – F 5.
Kindergarten and first have a somewhat smaller range from D4-C5 in my experience. This grows higher and lower as they age.
When singing songs though, the teacher needs to take a look at how high and low the melody goes. If possible, change the key so the melody stays mostly between E4 and D5. This is the most comfortable spot in almost every child’s voice, and it keeps them up in their head voice more easily.
#4 Visualize Proper Tone
Along the same lines as #1 Engage the Body, students will sing better in tune when they can visualize the melody and what good tone is.
Keep in mind, the child’s voice is much lighter than an adult’s voice (even those who sing in the same range).
I find it helpful to use imagery (often combined with movement) to help kids follow the contour and reach the correct tone.
Here are some of my favorites:
- Leaves floating on the wind
- Floating in a gently moving lake
- A hopping cricket (not frog or kangaroo; they’re too heavy)
I also love letting kids come up with the imagery themselves. It’s a great way to assess if they know what they’re voice is supposed to sound like.
#5 Use Correct Words
Using correct words to describe pitch and singing in tune is also important in teaching kids.
The average public uses a variety of musical words interchangeably when it can have a severe negative effect on the singing voice.
Here are some words or phrases to avoid with kids and what to use instead.
|Words To Avoid||Use This Instead|
|Sing louder.||Use more air/energy.|
|You’re flat/low. Push the sound up.||You’re flat/low. Put more spin in your air and aim higher with your voice.|
|Take deeper breaths.||Use your air as a trampoline for your sound.|
|You’re forcing. Relax.||You’re trying too hard. Make your voice float.|
|Use your air to force the notes higher.||The air should help lift your notes higher, not push them.|
|You weren’t with us at all.||(Find something they did right, and then give critique). Your tone was light and awesome. But your melody didn’t match our highs and lows.|
|Listen harder.||When you listen this time, picture how the notes move up and down in the air and your voice.|
|You’re not in tune. Open your throat when you sing.||Your notes aren’t quite aligned with mine. Imagine you’re trying to hold a small egg in your mouth without breaking it.|
Notice the words to use are more descriptive, focus on light qualities of tone, and avoid words like “push” or “force.”
#6 Model In-Tune Singing With A Drone
This tip makes a big difference to help kids sing when students are starting to consistently sing in head voice and match the general contour of the melody.
Put on a drone of some kind on an F. I use a piano if I can as long as it’s in tune. While the drone plays, ask students to listen for the “waves” in the sound.
The teacher should sing first by matching pitch, gradually going out of tune, and coming back in tune (usually works best by going flat).
The students will most likely react when they notice the voice going out of tune.
Explain that this is what it means to sing in tune: to match the note so closely, there are no colliding waves. Do this again and ask students to raise their hands when the teacher’s voice goes back in tune (the waves disappear). Have students do this individually or in small groups.
Many of us music teachers take for granted that people understand what “in tune” actually means.It wasn’t until my third year of undergraduate program to be a music teacher this was actually explained to me. It changes my whole outlook of tuning and singing on pitch.
Note: Most adults won’t get this either, so the activity works just as well with older learners.
#7 Use Another Child Singer As A Model
My final tip is another big game changer for me: use a child model.
As a male, I can’t model the proper singing tone for kids very well. If I sing in my normal voice, there are always some who try to drop the octaves to match me. When I sing in falsetto to match the range, a different group of kids will sing too high and squeaky. I get around this by explaining how my voice and their voices are different. But it never caught each and every student (which is always my goal).
Until I started using child models!
There will always be at least one kid in a group or class who gets it right away. They’ll sing in their heads and match pitches like they’ve been doing for years. When students struggle, have this student model what a line or melody sounds like. It almost instantly fixes this problem.
Note: Adult female teachers don’t typically have this problem as much, but the quality of singing tone is still different from a child’s singing voice. Using a child model is still a great idea here as well.
Final Thoughts to help kids sing
I hope you enjoyed these 7 easy tips to help kids sing on pitch. It’s possible to give young people a good grasp on pitch.
If kids get this understanding developed early, a whole world of musical options will be available (and easier) for them to learn for the rest of their lives!
Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher at Bay City Public Schools and founder of Dynamic Music Room. He also serves as Past-President of Michigan Kodaly Educators and current Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.