Singing – the fast track to building music in your school

A guide to developing singing in any music department

Why singing?

Singing is an amazing tool for learning and it is a fast track to internalising musical concepts. Through singing, you experience melody, rhythm and chords from the inside, and really feel the effect of the music. Singing is the ultimate adaptable resource for music teachers. It creates a sense of unity and can build a cohesive community. So why is it sometimes so difficult to put singing at the heart of the musical life of a secondary school?

There are many different answers to this question. It may be that the music teachers are not singers themselves, and perhaps do not feel confident leading vocal activities with students. Maybe there is an emphasis on purely instrumental music. Perhaps the culture of vocal work has been dormant for long enough for students to be resistant to singing. Whichever of these reasons lies behind a lack of singing in your school, developing a strategy for getting singing back on the agenda can bring a multitude of benefits.

Not only will regular singing bring improved achievement in music, it will widen the range of opportunities and progression pathways open to students. It can strengthen the contribution that music makes to the school’s community and ethos, and create improved links between departments.

Formulating a departmental plan

Think about where you want the department to be in 5 years’ time. What do you want the department to look, feel and sound like? What are the steps to getting there? Set short, medium and long term goals to aim for. Start by doing an audit – what skills and expertise have you got in the department, and elsewhere in the school? Which teachers love singing and would come along to choir, if invited?

Plan for a range of singing opportunities, both within the curriculum and through extra-curricular activities, that cover a variety of styles and settings. Where will singing fit in to the curriculum, and into extra-curricular activities? How will students from Year 7 to Year 13 be involved with singing? Are there opportunities to forge internal partnerships in school – could you put on a musical production with the drama department, for example?

What about enlisting support from outside school – are there visiting musicians that could help you with singing activities? How might your music hub be able to assist you? Are there local or national venues to visit to hear a singing performance, or even to perform in? Think about setting up a transition project with your feeder schools. This might involve choosing a song that everyone learns in their primary school – perhaps with visits from your music staff to help. The project could culminate in a massed performance, perhaps on Year 6 induction day.

Strategic approaches to getting started

The first principle in getting singing going in your classrooms is that the teacher must use their own voice. Students will not sing if the teacher doesn’t, and teachers may need to overcome any fears about using their voice to demonstrate. It really doesn’t matter if you are not a great singer – accuracy of pitch and rhythm, and a willingness to have a go, are what is required.

Don’t let students opt out but do think about ways to make singing a non-scary thing for them. Make it clear that if you are singing, then they should be too. Be open about fears to do with singing and deal with them before they become an issue. Reassure students that they will not be made to sing on their own unless they want to, and that the most important thing is joining in. If everyone sings together, no one voice will be heard above the rest.

Start each session with some warm-ups and breathing exercises. Not only will this help prepare your voices for singing, but it will help to increase confidence and get students thinking about how to use their voices well. Set the Song type filter in the Song Bank to ‘warm-up’ to find lots of great examples of material to use.

Pick accessible and achievable repertoire

In the beginning, you’ll achieve better results with songs that are in unison or with very simple parts. Try starting to introduce singing by selecting songs that have a small range, aren’t too wordy or too fast. Chants can work really well, as can call-and-response activities using non-vocal sounds – this might include beatboxing, though anything that gets students using their voices with confidence and enjoyment will pave the way for singing. You could try any of the following, which are all good places to start:Big Sing Up mamboBoom chicka boomBungalowConcentrationShabuya

Bear in mind that when singing, counterpoint can be easier than homophony. When you want to work in multiple parts, it is much more straightforward to sing individual melodies together than parts that work together in chords. So, a round or a mashup of tunes will be easier to sing than a hymn in four parts. Some examples of simple rounds and mashup resources in the Song Bank include:

  • Algy met a bear
  • In harmony
  • Mash it up
  • Rose, rose
  • Senwa dedende
  • Tue, tue

Think carefully about the range of the music your students are singing. Boys’ changing voices, in particular, may be quite restricted as to what is comfortable, and a class of boys is likely to be at a whole range of different stages in the process. Find what suits your students, avoid extremes of high and low, and encourage them to sing at a comfortable pitch.

Focus on getting your students sounding great so concentrate on accuracy, control, communication and enjoyment in all singing activities. Once they feel the satisfaction of making a good sound and actively participating in a good performance, they will be ready for more varied and complex material. 

Use singing as a teaching tool

As confidence grows, introduce musical concepts using singing. Any musical idea – melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, can be explained and explored using your own and your students voices. Find or invent a vocal starter for every lesson that links to the learning objectives eg. 1, 121  to explore scales; Nanuma to explore triads; any round to explore texture; songs in distinctive styles; sing a bassline; sing the roots of chords and fill in the rest of the triad; vocalise rhythm patterns etc. or you could invent your own starters. Using the voice in this way is a quick route to students understanding and internalising an idea before translating it to instruments.

You could also try combining vocal work with physical movement eg. introduce body percussion, add choreography, plot the shape of melodies in the air while singing them, or play air guitar or air piano while singing a pattern that will later be played on instruments. This is also a fantastic way for musical content to be absorbed before the technicalities of an instrument are tackled.

Plan for using singing in every lesson. If you allow singing to be absent from lesson activities for any length of time, it will be difficult to bring it back. Once singing becomes a usual and expected part of music lessons for students, you can find new and more ambitious ways to build up vocal activity, in and outside the classroom.

Keeping singing going

The community-building aspect of singing can be of enormous benefit to the ethos of a school. Here are some ideas to help you expand the role of extra-curricular singing in your school and develop traditions:

  • Rope in as many role models as you can. Are there other teachers who might join in with singing activities and act as inspiration for students? PE staff can be invaluable here if you can get them on board. What about using older, enthusiastic students as peer-to-peer role models?
  • Consider what type of choir you might run. What type of singing might appeal to your students? If you can get them hooked with a rock choir, a gospel choir, or a beatbox choir, you will be able to expand and diversify later.
  • Think about single-sex singing groups. Boys, in particular, may feel more comfortable about singing in a single-sex context, and you can choose repertoire based on their preferences. Foster a healthy sense of competition by perhaps pitting boys and girls against each other in an end-of-term sing-off!
  • Putting on a show is a great way to build an instant buzz around singing, and get students, parents, teachers and other departments all working together towards an exciting event.
  • Plan for singing at school events. Prize-giving, assemblies, sports events could all include an element of singing. Could there be a school song? This could be chosen from existing songs or written especially. You could even plan for a singing flash mob, or a ‘School’s Got Talent’ evening.

 

Wherever you decide to start, lead by example with your own enthusiasm. Find ways to make singing a highlight, not a chore, and ultimately it will become something that is part of the fibre of your school’s musical life.

 

Jane Werry is Director of Music and a Specialist Leader in Education at Hayes School in Bromley. She is a frequent contributor to Music Teacher magazine and co-author of Teaching Music: Practical Strategies for KS3. Jane is also an A level moderator for OCR.

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