Simple ways into secondary singing

Don't just talk about it - do it!

Multiple factors impact singing experiences, including the approaches taken, the environment, repertoire, expectations and the purpose. There’s much to be considered! This article aims to encourage teachers with less experience of classroom vocal work to find ways in.

Getting young people engaged and active can negate some of the potential negative attitudes and behaviours which manifest when young people are bored or insecure; classroom vocal work helps build positive environments very quickly and get classes motivated and involved. As the title says, skip the talking about it first – just enthusiastically get going with the singing and music making!

Developing a singing culture starts in the classroom

In my role as teacher educator at the University of Sussex, I work with many pre-and in-service music teachers. As part of the selection process for our Initial Teacher Education (ITE) courses, potential secondary Music teachers choose and teach a song suitable for Year 7. We do this for a multitude of reasons, but at the core is our belief that singing is fundamentally important in music classrooms and across secondary schools. Throughout the course, we encourage teachers to start to incorporate vocal work within their lessons with young people of all ages.

Explore your voice!

I recently challenged our current ITE cohort to ‘sing a song out loud every day’. Getting used to the sounds and possibilities of our own voice and developing the confidence to sing out loud in the comfort and privacy of our own space is an important precursor to leading singing in schools. You might also consider joining a choir or massed singing event – there’s even a national choir just for teachers!

However, confidence is situational bound. It’s natural to sing or chant with the football crowd or in a massed Glastonbury mud bath, yet leading and encouraging vocal work in secondary schools can be daunting at any stage of a teacher’s career. It’s the same for pupils – there are times when they are confident and carefree about singing and other situations when they are embarrassed or less self-assured. Recognising this in you and your pupils is a good starting point. It’s particularly challenging when joining a new school, meeting new pupils or working in a school where regular singing isn’t part of the school’s culture or the pupils’ expectations. If you want some initial ideas for working with big groups, observe a drama teacher doing physical and vocal warm up exercises and borrow/adapt these to get you started. Here’s some great suggestions to get you started.

Immerse singing throughout the curriculum

Ideally, the curriculum should have regular vocal work embedded right from the beginning of each school year and there are plentiful opportunities extending beyond the classroom, supporting a rich and varied musical education. Within each unit of work, it’s useful to identify a range of suitable repertoire and engaging warm-ups. How about asking pupils to suggest music? You don’t need to use the same songs every year or with every class and new music abounds. Variety will keep you sane and develop a wider range of repertoire for concerts and impromptu performances.

In some of the schools our trainees are currently working in, repertoire learnt in class forms the basis of shared public performances, providing an authentic and valued purpose for singing.

The musical community

It’s crucial that you participate fully in the musical community. If possible and whenever necessary, use your voice (rather than exclusively an instrument) to model what you are asking pupils to do (eg. singing/humming phrases). Use a ‘normal’ singing voice – there’s no need to go overboard and use vibrato or sing in an operatic style, for example!

As you build relationships and get to know pupils better, you’ll learn about and nurture their interests, quirks and motivations. There are many ways to use their skills and interests to good effect. If you are initially under-confident to sing, maybe invite in a small group of keen students one break time and teach them material so that they can help you teach it to the rest of the class. Your class is bound to include talented vocalists, beatboxers and rappers – it would be great to embrace this diversity.

Encourage everyone to join in, including teaching assistants and visiting teachers. Bring in amazing inspiring musicians from within and beyond the school whenever possible – close proximity to live experiences is fantastic.

Decide how you will teach the material

If teaching new repertoire, you might consider teaching it by rote and without breaks, providing an immersive musical experience. This also allows you to be responsive to the group’s needs, adapting or repeating as necessary in order to embed the song and some of the musical techniques or vocal nuances. Ideally, teach it unaccompanied, or accompanied on a harmony instrument. CDs and backing tracks generally make the initial learning less ‘responsive’ but can be great tools to use once the material is learnt. Displaying lyrics and/or notation straight away can deter pupils from concentrating on the sound but may provide useful scaffolding and differentiation later in the process. I saw a fantastic early career teacher leading Year 7 class singing recently, modelling with his own voice and gaining confidence from the guitar strapped to him. In the end, you need to do whatever will give you the most confidence to lead the development of singing.

Choose something simple and make it sound amazing

Many songs lend themselves to sounding brilliant very quickly. Initially, select repertoire that is (almost) universally liked, known and not too challenging. Choose things you are comfortable with and that the whole group will enjoy. You can do so much with so little material, exploring and exploiting it and using it as a springboard to other musical learning and activity. Sometimes we get ground down by the relentless focus on differentiation and assessment but as long as repertoire is age-appropriate and possible to sing you can relax – it’s what you do with it that makes the difference.

Choose an appropriate key for the group you’re working with – sing repertoire through before the lesson making sure it doesn’t go too high or low. Decide on the starting pitch and play the note to be sure. Music based on repeating harmonic patterns (such as Count on me, I won’t give up or We will rise). Many African songs would also work well – try Nanuma, Oleo, Senwa dedende, Si si si and Tue tue) offer endless possibilities for simple harmonies, improvisation and rhythmic/melodic layers. Simple instrumental parts can easily be added (ukeleles are great for encouraging singing!). You could video an impromptu performance and play it back for pupils to critique and further develop, and to provide a record of progress.

Recognise, acknowledge and value pupils’ developing musical identities

Perhaps we are sometimes guilty of thinking that young people only want to sing pop music. A read of John Finney’s recent blog on Music Education Now ‘Year 7 still singing and it’s nearly half term’ shows that this assumption is unfounded. We need to embrace young people’s ideas, talents and preferences but there is also a place for exposing them to new or different influences, experiences and ideas. Some children really identify with certain styles or aspects of singing – last week I saw a Year 7 group perform an extract of David Bowie’s Life on Mars to their class. They included solo lines, duets and choreography, with all creative decisions about the performance taken by the pupils. It is perhaps unlikely the majority of pupils were previously familiar with this song but this didn't hamper their enthusiasm and the flexibility of the task and possibilities for ownership opened the door for creative exploration.

Using the space

The layout of the room can make or break classroom singing. Ideally, arrange chairs in a semicircle of two or three rows. Try to encourage more confident singers to spread themselves around and also towards the back of the group so that their voices are projecting towards the ears of others. This arrangement allows for a critical mass of noise, whereas sitting behind desks can make children think that their voice is very exposed. Alternatively, you could organise pupils into a horseshoe shape so that everyone can hear and see each other. Encourage pupils to walk around occasionally as they sing (especially when trying out their own vocal ideas) – it is a very different experience!

Also try to think about the acoustics if you have a choice of spaces. A little natural reverb often gives a more satisfying sound, but there is merit in trying to create different acoustics for different repertoire and combinations of voices. Carpets and curtains absorb sound, and the height of the ceiling also affects the sound. Try out different areas of your room and layouts to maximise the quality of the sound and create best opportunities for pupils to focus.

‘Normalise’ singing

As you can see, there is a lot you can do to encourage singing in your secondary classroom. The most important advice is to ‘normalise’ singing and vocal work with the class community by embedding it regularly. The more you do it, the more confident you will become at working out what works best for you and each class – it may not always be the same! Choose repertoire wisely and rehearse it in advance. Develop the quality of the singing so that it sounds satisfying to you and the pupils. And remember, there is much to talk about related to the music you sing – all music is linked to culture, time, and place so there is plenty of scope for thinking about tangible and intangible cultural heritage, as well as the aesthetic qualities of the music. 

Other suggested reading

You might find some of the following suggestions interesting further reading:

See Martin Ashley’s book for plenty of practical ideas and tips, particularly in how to encourage and motivate boys to keep singing –

Ashley, M. (2015) Singing in the Lower Secondary School. Oxford: OUP

See also – Lamont, A., Daubney. A. and Spruce, G. (2013) Ways of supporting singing in primary schools. (pp41-44) This article, whilst focused on case studies in primary schools, exemplifies a range of strategies for the promotion of singing more generally and is relevant to secondary school teachers. It is also a reminder to teachers that many pupils enjoyed singing and thrived in Year 6, just before crossing the humpback bridge to secondary school!

Repertoire –  there are loads of fantastic resources on the Sing Up website! If you are interested in folk music and aural traditions, there are also many resources and tips in the English Folk Dance and Song Society Resource Bank and some examples of songs being used as the focus of wider learning within and beyond music. 

Dr. Alison Daubney is an experienced and qualified teacher of Music, teacher trainer and international curriculum development expert. Over the last 20 years, she has worked as an instrumental teacher and as Head of Music in primary, secondary and special schools and taught all stages from pre-school to postgraduate. Ally currently works part time with trainee and in-service teachers at the University of Sussex and undertakes consultancy, research and training work in the UK and far flung places for a number of organisations including the ISM, University of Cambridge International Examinations and many music education services, hubs and local and national arts education organisations. Ally has developed many materials for the new National Curriculum, including advice and guidance published by the ISM and co-authored with Professor Martin Fautley. 


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