Everyone is born with some level of music aptitude, or potential to succeed in music (source).
According to music researcher Edwin Gordon, this aptitude can increase or decrease between birth and age 7, based on musical exposure and experience.
"The vocal range is remarkably wide from birth,” music education professor Lili Levinowitz wrote. "Infants can imitate and experiment with their vocal instruments: and even match pitch as early as three to four months of age. Purposeful singing can begin at around twelve months. At this time, adults can recognize snippets of songs to which youngsters have been exposed. Through continued exposure to spoken chant, songs, and vocal play, young children can develop the use of their singing voices during the remaining early childhood years.” (source)
By Kindergarten or 1st grade, many children are able to sing familiar songs, engage in musical play, and make up their own songs to go with experiences they have. However, many are not (source).
17% of children need help finding their singing voices. - Helen Kemp
According to church musician and educator, Helen Kemp, 17% of children need help finding their singing voices. These are the children who often sing with a very limited range, default to chanting low in the voice instead of singing, and/or have trouble matching pitch.
This does not indicate a lack of skill or potential, but simply a lack of experience and vocal development.
Like other areas of early childhood development, musical development takes time and requires a sequence of meaningful experiences, including listening to music and responding to it through singing and movement. (source)
Some children simply need a little more help and guidance to discover and develop their singing voice.
Before we get into teaching strategies and approaches, though, there are a few important things to check first:
Is the music in an appropriate range? Remember, children's voices are higher than those of adults. Make sure the music isn't too low for them to sing comfortably and without strain.
Is the child able to access his/her head voice? Can they demonstrate a vocal siren in their high register?
Is the vocal model clear, light, and bell-like? The model should be presented a cappella, without the distraction of keyboard or any kind of accompaniment, and without vibrato.
If you can answer “yes” to all of these questions, then you're ready to dive into some helpful teaching approaches.
Here are six practical strategies for helping a child discover their singing voice and learn to sing tunefully:
Six Strategies for Helping a Child Discover Their Singing Voice
01 | Encourage vocal exploration
Vocal exploration is a great way to encourage new singers to experience what their voice can do and experiment with different types of sounds. Plus, it’s a great way to begin each rehearsal!
Spend a few minutes each week reviewing the four voices: speaking, singing, whispering, shouting. Then, take some time to create vocal sound effects that span the entire vocal range: sirens, slides, animal sounds, etc. Make a sound and have the children echo you. Incorporate tongue clicks and lip pops and lip buzzes and tongue rolls.
Have children respond vocally to a series of shapes and squiggly lines (think of these like rollercoasters or sledding hills). Here’s a fun video example. You can also use rhythmic chants to explore the voice. Be sure to speak with inflection!
For more ideas, see this post: How to Develop Children’s Singing Voices in Choir
02 | Give children an opportunity to sing alone and with others
Singing alone and with others can help children learn how to control and manipulate their voices and develop personal awareness. Use a simple hello song like “Hickety-Pickety Bumblebee” that invites a solo response from each child.
For those that are struggling with pitch, give them an opportunity to listen to themselves by using a wind whistle tube or even just a cupped hand from their ear to their mouth. This is especially useful for more timid singers. The children don’t need to know what the wind whistle is for; it’s likely that other children will want to try it, too, after they see it being used!
03 | Use call and response songs
Call and response songs are another great way to help children develop awareness, listening skills, and musical independence.
Use a simple call and response song at the beginning of your rehearsal or as a change-of-pace activity somewhere in the middle. Have the children echo you as a group, then try having smaller groups or individuals respond.
Looking for ideas? Here’s a list of 40 call and response songs to try.
04 | Match child’s pitch for solo singing
Sometimes, it can be helpful to match a child’s pitch when they are singing by themselves to give them a chance to hear and feel what it’s like to sing in unison with another voice. (source) This can be useful for singers who are capable of singing correct intervals, but may still be struggling with pitch-matching.
Once you have matched the child’s pitch and repeated the pattern with them, try moving the pattern up by half step and seeing if they can copy you.
05 | Seat child in between strong singers
This is a pretty simple tip, but sometimes the simplest things are the best!
Identify the strong singers in your group - those who are leaders - and seat them next to someone who is a little more insecure or struggling to stay on pitch. As always, encourage your group to listen to those around them.
If you have two strong singers and two singers who are struggling, consider seating them towards the middle of the group and alternating them. Alternatively, you could try seating them in pairs (one strong singer with one who is struggling) in different sections of the choir. Experiment, try it a few different ways, and decide what works best.
06 | Cultivate listening skills and musical development
It’s important to keep encouraging children. Perhaps this goes without saying, but a child should never be made to feel insecure about their singing voice or discouraged by their progress. Musical development is a process and it takes time. Keep looking for new and creative ways to cultivate your choir members’ listening skills and help them continue developing musicianship.
What are your favorite strategies for helping a child discover their singing voice? I’d love to hear your ideas!
More helpful resources:
Of Primary Importance, No. 1 and No. 2 (Helen Kemp)
Remedial activities to improve pitch-matching [forum]
In-Tune Singing and Vocal Exploration Strategies
How to help young children match pitch [sample lesson plan]
The Importance of Music in Early Childhood (Lili Levinowitz)