Primary Singing Lesson

About five years ago I stopped teaching private voice lessons in primary schools. My instincts at the time were that while I was not doing any harm, I wasn't doing anything particularly useful. I believed little people gained more from singing in an excellent children's choir than they did from private vocal lessons. After that, in my own studio, I only took on private primary students who needed remedial lessons - little people who were doing something that was interfering with easy, in tune singing. Once they had sorted out whatever it was, I sent them off to a choir and said - see you in ten years!

Then last year, I watched James Cuskelly in the documentary "When We Sing", working with little children. James' work with tiny children is so joyous and intelligent and musical. And for the umpteenth time in my life, James inspired me.

I thought - what is the goal of teaching singing to primary children? To lay the foundation that self expression through the voice is natural. That musical expression through the voice is natural. That musical learning through singing is natural. In a nutshell -  I could take the lessons from Kodaly training with James and Reka and Rachael and others at UQ and bring them to private singing lessons.

And then, in the way of these things, early this year, two jobs just happened to come up at primary schools so I went back (or forward) to teaching private primary lessons.

So here's how I now approach primary school singing lessons. The lessons are divided up into seven sections. If you are following along the top of the piano, we work from left to right.

1. Quick Chat

A wise music teacher once pointed out to me that instrumental tutors have this great opportunity in a child's week - we offer one on one attention from an adult. This can be a rare and special thing. She said to remember this on the bad days - when we feel like we haven't given students a PROPER music lesson. We gave them attention and that is a great thing. With this in mind, I like to start with a chat! I ask kids what they've been doing - it's an open question and usually encourages some information sharing.

2. Warm Up Songs


This begins by handing the student their ladybug shaker. If they need reminding - it's the ta beat on the foot, a titi on their ladybug and a groovy version of a pentatonic song from Sing It Yourself - 220 American Pentatonic Folk Songs. This is about a few things. Singing with a feeling of beat. (If you've ever made music with singers who don't have a deeply felt beat you'll know what an issue this is.) And shared beat. I have my own ladybug shaker and I wear my noisy shoes so my beat is loud and clear. We are jamming together - working from one beat. We sing together and sing these lovely pentatonic songs in tune. I use American songs because American folk and gospel songs are the grandparents of the pop music the kids listen to. So the kids are at ease. There's a lot to do - keeping the beat, and titis, and singing and jamming with someone else. When kids have mastered this we can introduce different ostinatos on the ladybugs! For kids who are real naturals, I get them to try the challenging experiment of titi on the feet, ta on the ladybug. To keep 'em on their toes!

During this and the next segment, I can notice any issues and address them through modelling while we are singing. For eg, if the kids are tense I start wobble dancing. If they are flat I brighten my face. If they are shouting, I change the words to a light "voo" and they follow me.

3. Rounds

in a private lesson, rounds are brutal. Little people have to learn to hold a part by themselves. That's tough! So this is what we do - taking as many lessons as needed for each step to be secure. Of course for the naturals, we skip steps. (This is another great gift private tutors have - the learning tempo can be completely suited to each student.)

  • learn the round in unison
  • sing together, with the piano doing the second part
  • sing in canon, with me singing very quietly. Sometimes we 'go into our corners' or I step outside the teaching room! The kids usually smile when I tell them - this isn't normally OK but just now, please ignore your teacher! Sometimes the kids need revision of little bits that are going wrong. Sometimes I stay at the piano and give them an occasional, scaffolding note.
  • If you've sung in ensembles you know the feeling when everyone listens as they sing, and sings into the group sound. There is this magical feeling of traction as you click in. This is the last step, as the kids get used to singing in harmony and start to be able to sing and listen simultaneously. I slowly increase my volume and build the sound with them. It makes me a bit teary just thinking about it. 

4. Animal Noises

This seemingly silly segment is where the technical work happens.

We do mimicking and generally for my beginning kids I noodle around in F pentatonic, making up little tunes. Going down to middle C and up to top F - a comfy range for new trebles. 

For onset, we have monkey noises. To stop harsh glottal stops, we make sure the monkey is a little baby monkey. "Now when humans sing they go 'ha-ha-ha' but when baby monkeys sing they go 'a-a-a'. Can you be a baby monkey?" (For thoughts on teaching onset to young voices, and many other wise thoughts on singing pedagogy, please check out Karyn O'Connor's magnificent resource SingWise.)

For light mechanism we have the sooky pocket cow. "As you know normal sized cows go "MMMOOOO" but tiny little pocket cows (gestures) go "moo". I don't know why, but pocket cows are very sooky little creatures so when they say "moo" it sounds quite sooky. like this...". The kids like mooing to Brahms' lullaby. As time goes on, and depending on the student, we can glide from this little sound into a bigger sound and talk about it how this feels like gently stretching a hair elastic. 

For brightness we have the pussy cats who sing "Meow" and "Ngeow". And as time goes on and depending on the student, I get the kids to notice how the M and NG help their voice feel into their forehead and how the vowel feels in the same place.

For slowing exhallation, we sing the snake song. Counting the first S's off on our fingers - I start with four beats on s and build up over time.
ssssssssssssuper Sally snake
sssssssssssslithers on the sand
sssssssssssslithers in the sun
ssssssssssssuper Sally snake
For kids who have body awareness we notice how their trunk feels as they sssss and stays the same during the other words. For kids who don't, I just model the movement of the ribs slowing moving in, using my hands, during the song and remind myself these brilliant little people mastered an entire language by the time they were five just through modelling.

I've been slowly collecting animals for this segment. I took the photo of the top of the piano a while ago, when my collection was limited to the chickens. Spotty chicken is chest voice - starry chicken is head voice. When the kids are pushing up in spotty, they have learnt to feel it and grab starry. They either just hold her, or toss her in the air. Sometimes we throw the chickens at each other, to get a feeling of forward sound. (But only with some students - I use throwing more with high school kids because I'm always concerned that little ones can easily turn this into pushing.)

5. Musicianship/Theory

If you teach using a Kodaly approach you will know that all elements of music theory can be taught through singing songs. If you haven't studied Kodaly - you should sort that out! I went to the Queensland Summer School. It changed my life. (There are other wonderful courses around Australia offered by different Kodaly branches.) Kodaly is a wonderful wonderful method for teaching theory to singing students. If you can't get to a summer school, invest in The Kodaly Method 1 by Lois Choksy. For other instruments, musical literacy is a standard part of lessons. It's important that we honour singing students by giving them the same power of literacy.

When I first taught primary singing, I made a theory book for singing students. On my list of things to do is rewrite this. As I'm planning to do a new, much revised edition, I'll share the old one here for you for free. 

6. Conscious Singing Technique

In an adult lesson, this segment might consitute half the lesson. For kids, this segment is the smallest part of their lesson. I like to introduce one tiny idea, being very careful the idea is simple and easy to do. We get it, then we apply it in a song. It might be lifting the pillars of fauces. "You've seen on cartoons that dangling bit in the back of people's mouths? And there's these arches either side of them? (Drawing if necessary) When you lift them up it feels like smiling on the inside - between your ears. (Thanks go to the mighty David Jones for this imagery).(Gesture, model) You do this when you've just been given a lovely surprise present and you say 'oh thank you'. Try it...". "Let's do it together in this song...". During my first stint of teaching primary school, years ago, I also made a tutor book for this. I also plan to significantly revise this. (Is it Oprah who says - I did as good as I knew how. When I knew better, I did better?) There is a lot I'm planning to do better - but it'll get you started!  

7. Singing Proper Songs

I've got a collection of songs I love teaching kids. We sing through a song or two from this collection, applying whatever technique they 'got' during the lesson. (I'm sure you have your own collection.) Or we just sing a song through because they've done enough application work and it's good to just sing. Finally some kids bring in their own pop song backing and the last three minutes of their lesson might be spent in karaoke with them trying to emulate a highly curated and worked into sound created in a studio for non pedagogical reasons. I figure the world will keep turning if we do this for three minutes, but I've never managed to come between the kids and the sound of the recording - they just try their darndest to emulate the sound they hear. Which means I can't teach them anything during this time. But it does mean they connect their singing with the song that currently matters to them, and share that with me, and that matters.