Monday, April 18, 2016

Let's Sing! Help Me Sing on Pitch

In the article Let's Sing! Part 1, we gave some tips for getting youngsters interested in singing, and explained one big reason singing is a fundamental part of musicianship training: the first year of class focuses on helping your child think tonically.

Singing in Your Brain

If your child's brain is hearing in tune, how will her teacher know? What test can we do to find out what she's hearing in her mind?  

Singing is the best feedback. In order to sing in tune, the brain must first hear in tune.  All ear training is actually brain training, and will help any musician rise to a higher level (even if you decide to be a guitarist or trombonist instead of a singer).

If singing in tune, singing on pitch, carrying a tune in a bucket, and Echoing Ed make you nervous, keep reading for tips on how to finally get on pitch.

The Echo Family 


In every year of Let's Play Music, teachers will present a variety of ear-training games in class and will almost always request singing from the students as feedback to see what they have heard and internalized. Don't worry, it feels like a playful game, not an exam!
Teacher Kim Seyboldt and her Echo Edie

In your first year you'll meet Echo Ed, and if you've been in Sound Beginnings, you know Echo Edie (Ed's baby sister). Both of these puppets make sounds and sing, and ask children to echo back to them.  

Ed sings two notes "loo loo" and wants to know: were you able to hear the exact pitches I just sang? Pitch is the quality that lets you determine if notes are high, low, the same, or different. Pitch is determined by the wave frequency, and identified by the note name. Even if you can't identify the exact pitches, "you sang an E, then G," you probably can hear that the first note was higher and the second lower. You can likely sing back a matching note.

Were you also able to hear the exact interval between the two notes? If you sing back the same notes, your teacher knows you certainly did hear it all correctly

A new student might sing back using different notes, or a different interval. She might be confused because she can't hear the difference between the pitches yet (keep training the ear) or because she can't get her voice to reproduce the sound she hears (keep training the vocal muscles).  Training the ear and training the voice go very naturally together. Most LPM students make progress in both skills simultaneously.

Built to Sing

The good news is, humans are wired to sing. It can be learned! Don't give up! The vocal range (entire span of pitches a child can produce) is remarkably wide from birth. 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. 

We've said before that music is a language. If you child has mastered English, she's focused on the skills necessary for producing the sounds of English words.  But what about that wide vocal range that she had at birth? If she doesn't experiment with it now that she has achieved the goal of speaking, her brain stops paying attention to all the different sounds she can make, but doesn't need. This is one reason we love Sound Beginnings classes: we help babies and toddlers continue exploring and understanding sound before they settle into just a small set of skills.

I'm reminded of an embarrassing incident, before I became a Let's Play Music teacher, in which a friend tried to quickly teach me some Mandarin Chinese.  Words differ in meaning based on tone and pronunciation. I had a hard time hearing the difference between tones that were rising, falling, falling then rising, or remaining flat, especially when spoken quickly and mixed into a string of words.  She thought it was hilarious that I couldn't distinguish between the "obvious" differences.  That five-minute teasing didn't go very well, but I feel confident that with practice I could train myself to hear what my friend was trying to explain.

The same can be said for our students. With some practice, they will be able to think tonally and show it by Echoing Ed. With repetition, exposure, and engagement, children extract the meaning behind the pitch exercises. They naturally start to "get it."

Sol-what about Sol-Mi?

Using the singing voice beautifully is a learned, complex skill.  Childhood, as I mentioned, presents a window of opportunity when students are open to all experiences and are willing to explore their voices without feeling timid. No one expects them to be experts. If we show them that singing in class is the thing to do, they'll belt out some fabulous sounds.  Adults must be brave enough to try singing, too!

Educator Zoltan Kodaly emphasized singing for improving musicianship.  He
Can you sing it in your mind?
helped children master  the first step: 'inner hearing' or audiation. This is the ability to accurately hear music in the mind/imagination.  The culminating skill involving audiation occurs when a student reads notated rhythm and melody and makes musical sense of it, 'hearing' it even though it is not played aloud.
That is exactly the skill my childhood friend, Jess (from part 1), was so well trained for. Any of us who've had a song stuck in our head (an earworm) definitely can audiate to some level.  The second step is training the voice to get the sound out.


Researchers have discovered there is a progression in children's perceptual sensitivities, moving from simple to complex. The easiest interval to hear, identify, and produce is a minor third.  You'll hear it when we sing "sol-mi".  

The first few weeks, Echo Ed will sing loo-loo with this interval.  In Sound Beginnings, we have two songs each semester (with reading notes on the staff) that use exclusively sol and mi.   

Tip: Revert to Sol-Mi. Any time a student is struggling to echo back on pitch, I go back to practicing with just sol-mi patterns.  It is worthwhile to help the child master several patterns or songs (mi-sol, sol-mi-sol, mi-sol-sol, etc.) before moving on.
Echo Ed sings sol-mi-sol.  Are you confident enough to echo back? Pictured: Shelle Soelberg
Tip: Go to his range. Any time a student sings back using a different starting pitch than my own, I repeat the exercise using the pitch he just sang (and is most comfortable with).  A struggling child often successfully hears and sings a minor third when I 'meet them' at their favorite starting pitch.

Tip: Snuggle up. Hold your child close, with cheeks touching your mouth near his ear and his mouth near your ear. Very quietly sing 'sol-mi' and have him quietly echo back. This personal, loving game helps youngsters focus on listening. He can hear and feel the vibrations of your notes through his cheek!

Tip: Any note is Sol. Let's Play Music teachers are required to have a particular skill, so you parents may as well practice it, too!  Play ANY NOTE on the piano.  Imagine it is 'sol'.  Now sing Sol-Mi.  To check yourself, take three half-steps down (that means go down 3 piano keys of any color).  Get good at hearing and singing this interval, no matter what note we start on. 

Why does Ed sing 'loo-loo' instead of 'sol-mi' in the beginning? Because we begin with experiencing and internalizing the pitches.  Even though these two words are the same (loo) they don't  sound the same.  We help the child focus on the one aspect that is different: pitch.

Only when tunes with sol and mi are mastered, la, is added. Dozens of songs can be composed with these three notes.  You know children love and practice with these intervals because they naturally use them over and over when they make up their own songs.  You know...these songs:
  • Nana-nana boo-boo! (sol-sol mi-la sol-mi)
  • Trick-or-treat! Smell my feet ! (sol sol mi.  Sol sol mi.)
  • Give me something good to eat! (sol sol mi-la sol sol mi)
  • You ca-an't catch me! (sol mi-la sol mi!)
  • Ring around the rosy (sol sol-mi la sol-mi)
  • Rain, rain, go away (sol, mi, sol sol-mi) 
Tip: Act like you're four. If your child is hesitant to sing, or echo in class, use all of the above songs at home frequently. Your child will start using those phrases himself.  Warning: once you invite your child to say "nana-nana boo-boo" to you, you may never hear the end of it.   

Tip: Compose. It also pays off to invent songs using the above patterns using sol, la, and mi and use them all the time: "Get into the ca-ar. Don't forget your sho-es."  These short tunes can be repeated during the day and there's a good chance you'll get some back: "Read me a sto-ry. Or I won't go to sle-ep." Your child doesn't need to know he's improving his ear; it just seems silly and fun.

Do and re are added next, one at a time into songs for echoing.  Singing a pentatonic scale (Do-Re-Mi-Sol-La) is easier than mastering the entire diatonic scale (Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do), so we practice the pentatonic scale in Sound Beginnings class.  Songs that include Fa and Ti are introduced last.

Singing Voice and Speaking Voice

We all seem competent walking around and climbing stairs,  but only someone who has specifically strengthened and trained their muscles will be able to pull off a back handspring.  Our vocal equipment is also composed of muscles, and like all muscles, they respond to training and strengthening.  Muscle memory applies to vocal muscles just like it applies to our fingers: when we repeat and practice actions, our brain and muscles remember how to do it. It gets easier. It starts seems automatic. 

So, each person has only one voiceWhen using it for speaking, muscles create succinct sounds at moderate volumes with small changes in inflection and pitch.  This seems easy because we have lots of practice speaking, and we don't demand great exertions 

When singing, we use the same equipment in a very different way: producing vocal overtones at great volume, held for long periods, covering a large pitch range. It's not surprising that singing requires more training than speaking, and that a singer often sounds very different when singing than when speaking! 


Can you sing an octave like the major scale?
A Let's Play Music student is learning how to get into his 'singing voice.' At first, he may be nervous to try to make sounds outside the few pitches that he uses for speaking.  Activities like swooping and hooting are used in class to encourage exploration of the vocal range. The tessitura (span of pitches that are comfortable for singing, smaller than the total vocal range) for Let's Play Music children is between middle D and treble B, so our songs are written within that range (except the major scale going from middle C to treble C...a little stretch).

Tip: Be A Siren. If your child has a hard time leaving his favorite pitch (sings monotone), play siren games as often as you can work them into daily life.  When driving toy cars or airplanes, make swooping high and low sounds.  Fly a bite of food on your fork with swooping sounds before it makes it to the hangar.  As you walk down the hallway with a laundry basket, announce that the ambulance is coming and "wee-ooo wee-ooo".  Now that you've modeled the swooping, encourage your child to do some, too.  He'll get in the habit of experimenting with high and low sounds, and start to expand his range.

Carrying a tune requires us to jump from note to note, covering the intervals exactly. We practice in class by working out our voices, practicing the intervals as they appear in songs and isolated.  Working the voice muscles in this way builds muscle memory to give us confidence that next time we need to jump the given interval, we instinctively know exactly how much to flex our vocal chords.   
By the third year, teachers show the students intervals with their hands (solfege) and they audiate and then sing.  This sight singing is a testament that audiation has occurred and that students' muscle memory for vocal muscles is well-developed.


Use tone bells to train your voice!
Tip: Muscle Memory. Play Do-Re-Do on your tone bells. Sing it back.  As you go about your day, sing Re-Do-Re or Do-Re-Do and have your child echo you. If you can't quite remember it, or can't quite get it right, go back to the piano or bells to check.  Tomorrow add Do-Mi-Do to your repertoire, then Do-Fa-Do, etc.  Any piano key can be Do!  Your vocal muscles are mastering the intervals.


And what if you have the child who is happy to sing loud and proud, but doesn't notice that he's not hitting the right notes?

Tip: Listen to Yourself. Encourage your child to listen to himself. In a large group, it's easy to get carried along and lose track of what sound is coming from our own voice.  It might help to sing along sometimes to a very quiet CD so he can really hear his voice.  In a large group he might need to plug one ear occasionally so he can hear his voice separate from the rest of the class. 

We're Singing Now!

If your child is able to sing along with the CD and even feels comfortable singing without the CD, he is likely ready for a bit more challenge!  Creating harmony challenges the child's ability to audiate: can he hear his part and sing it, even when other singers are doing something different?

Ostinati (short, repeating melody) and rounds are the best way to teach children to hear and sing in harmony. An ostinato produces harmony because the notes are sung against the main melody of the song.  When we sing "Three Blind Mice and you are asked to sing 'mi re do' over and over, you are singing the ostinato.
This is an easy way to introduce harmony because it has a persistent nature; the student can focus on repeating his harmonic melody while also hearing the main tune.

Singing songs in rounds, like "Are You Sleeping" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" gives a slightly more challenging opportunity to create harmony and strengthening audiation.  Now he must audiate and sing his entire song while not being distracted by other singers.  

Tip: Increase the Challenge. If your child is catching on to singing, repeat the songs and activities from class.  Assign family members to sing in a round, sing an ostinato, sing two-part songs like "Horsey Horsey", or multi-part songs like "Solfege Sea Friends" or "Treble, Bass, Line, and Space." Long car trips or hikes are a great time to initiate a singing challenge!

Sing Now, Sing Later   

I have had a few parents say to me, "we will give it our best shot, but what if he just doesn't learn to like singing?"  

In Let's Play Music, we will do our best to equip your child with skills to succeed as a musician.  A musician who rarely takes time to sing can still be a virtuoso on his instrument.  Although he hasn't trained his voice to confidently and accurately produce the pitches for singing, his brain is able to distinguish and audiate them.  This skill will be powerful to him as a musician, and could not have been introduced at age four without a few years of singing.

Please tell us in the comments- have you had a reluctant singer? or a child who struggled to match pitch? How did you help?

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher 

Don't miss part 1: Let's Sing: Why singing is fundamental
Another post you may enjoy: Musical Superpower: Perfect Pitch