Music is one of life's greatest pleasures. So how can teachers encourage shy children to sing? Jane Wheeler is a singing leader on the British Council's World Voice programme teaching children around the world to sing in each other's languages. She shares her tips here.
Does singing help students in other areas – not just music, but science and maths and literacy too?
Good singing requires the ability to count, plus plenty of practice in counting; awareness of shape and structure; clarity of diction; an understanding of the text of the songs being sung; and good vocal control through breathing and tone production. Singing in different languages also fosters an understanding of geography and different cultural contexts, in order to interpret the songs with as much authenticity as possible. So developing singing skills also helps with maths and literacy, not to mention subject knowledge across the curriculum.
What about other areas of learning -- confidence, leadership, teamwork -- does singing help with these things too?
When children begin to find their voices in the safe comfort of singing with others; and when they learn about the strength of good singing posture, and how to project and be clear about the words of the songs they are singing, their confidence increases. This confidence boost is clear to any teacher who has had the opportunity to lead singing with the same group for a time.
Any opportunity to follow up with a well-planned performance allows children to receive tangible acknowledgement and encouragement, as they see the audience enjoy their singing. Their increased confidence naturally spills across into the rest of their lives in school, helping them shine all the more. When you sing in a group, you learn the pleasure of working together as a team to create something polished and special to share with friends and family. This is of great personal benefit, not just for young people, but adult singers too.
How can you get students to overcome their shyness?
Sometimes children feel too shy to put their hands up, or speak out in general class time. Singing as part of the whole class, or in an assembly, creates a safe space for such children to find their voice and learn to share it out loud in public. I have seen children who are shy to speak out, or who struggle with words for whatever reason, express themselves loudly and confidently when they have a song to sing. On many occasions, these children will sing a solo part too! This gives their peers an opportunity to see them in a different light.
Isn’t it hard to get students to sing in a language that isn’t their own?
Singing in a different language does several things. First, it helps everyone discover the challenges and joys of learning a few phrases in a new language. This can help foster respect between children who have different languages as their first language. Second, singing in different languages puts everyone on the same level, except perhaps for the one or two children who happen to speak that language.
This brings me to a third benefit. In this country, for children who don't speak English as a first language, who may spend much of the time ‘hiding’ who they are, trying to catch up with ’native’ speakers, it is hugely empowering to become the person who can help with pronunciation and translation. Pride in oneself and one’s own language and culture is given space to breathe on such occasions. This recognition and acknowledgement can be the very springboard that a child needs to gain the confidence to succeed across the curriculum.
Are there countries where singing is more woven into everyday life than it is in the UK?
Cultural differences in singing across the world seem to be continually on the move. On the whole, in my experience, societies in more rural, traditional settings tend to sing more frequently and readily for everyday reasons, just to connect, pass the time, lift spirits, celebrate, commiserate and so on. In many rural parts of the world, people sing indoors, outdoors, while cooking and working in the fields; and children play singing games outside much of the day, in and out of school.
However, where formal, modern education is taking hold, often singing gets pushed into the background, as I have experienced in the Eastern Cape of South Africa and Kenya. It is seen as a traditional activity that will not help one progress academically in a modern world.
In the UK, our own tradition of singing has changed enormously over the last century. We used to have a culture of singing for entertainment at social gatherings and in church. Until recently, we had lost much of our traditional singing activity to formal and professional settings, where there's more of a divide between professionals who ‘can’ sing, and the audience, who ‘can’t'. Singing in church and football chants are perhaps two examples where 'inclusive' massed singing has continued to be welcomed.
However, recent research-based findings have shown that singing is invaluable for building personal and musical skills and confidence. This has led to the introduction of such programmes as Sing Up, and an increase in mass singing programmes for schools across the UK. I believe strongly that sharing songs and connecting singing leaders internationally can build understanding and respect between nations, provided it’s handled with absolute honesty and respect from the outset.
Why singing? Why not another kind of musical performance?
Singing lets us ‘become’ the music. It is not the violin that plays when a violinist plays, it is not the guitar, or drum kit. It is the musician. Their sense of time, rhythm, pitch, structure, dynamic contrast and overall expression can all be learned through singing, body beats and movement. And we all have a voice. It’s free!
I invite you to try an experiment: put a violin for the first time in the hands of a child who has been singing a wide range of songs for two years or more on a regular basis, and another in the hands of a child who has not. Then see which child makes the fastest progress towards mastering the violin. How satisfying for that child to only be grappling with the dexterity and co-ordination of playing the instrument, rather than both this and all the other aspects of music skill and understanding required to make a musical and rewarding sound.
How can teachers incorporate the benefits of group singing in the classroom?
There will always be different levels of skill between children in an everyday classroom. Some will have sung at home to nursery rhyme recordings since before they could walk. Others may have had quieter, more contemplative backgrounds.
On occasions where teachers feel too daunted to sing with their children, they can still enable their class to sing by being authentic and honest about their own fear and inviting more confident young singers to help them. It's OK for teachers to acknowledge that they didn’t have a chance to develop confidence in singing, and want to ensure this doesn’t happen to any of their pupils. I recall the fact that my mother never learned to swim. She was honest about this, and always told us she didn’t want us to be fearful of the water. I could swim well before I could even walk. Children also are much less likely to judge a teacher for the quality of their singing. They are more likely to judge them for not providing the opportunity to sing!
Children are our best teachers. They are generous in sharing what they know, and love to be able to teach their teachers. We can all grow and learn through new songs and new languages. As long as we open ourselves and our hearts to authentic and respectful connection, we can build new singing communities and learn new ways of expressing ourselves through music.
Having worked extensively as a secondary classroom teacher and music advisor, Jane Wheeler is now director of her own small business, Livingsong.co.uk, which concentrates on creative vocal work and choral music education.
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