Guideline One: make every group sound fantastic
No one enjoys doing anything poorly. Mediocrity has no emotional reward. It breeds more mediocrity, and that breeds discipline and other problems. Make the singers sound great. Make them know they are great. Here are some simple tips:
1. Create a Positive Environment. In Chapter 1 I wrote about creating a supportive environment, including a segment in which I ask the children to mimic polishing their fingernails on their collars. They then repeat after me, "We are the best," followed by a whole sequence of positive phrases. These are all spoken, with no particular rhythm. I do this to create a positive environment, one in which emotions and creativity can flow. The children repeat, "We are the best!" This attitude is central to creating a positive environment. Expect the best: the best discipline (which means the best focus) and the best singing.
The song goes on, "I'm not better than you / You're not better than me." Singers must respect each other and support each other. There are a lot of adults in the world who no longer sing because other children (or teachers) made fun of their voices when they were children. There is no room for ridicule in a supportive environment.
The song continues, "We have no 'blahs'." Engage the children emotionally. We're talking operatic proportions. Singing is, at its core, an emotional experience. When we open our mouths to sing, the sound that comes out is pure emotion. The more singers let out their emotions, the more engaged they will be.
2. The Echo Technique. Echo songs are simple and easy for any group to sing. It is essential, however, that we never dumb down. If the singers don't echo accurately, tell them so (with a smile) and then ask them to do a simple thing: listen. Wake up their ears. Wake up their minds. The echo song is a perfect tool for this, but it's not enough just to echo the pitches and words. They must also echo the emotions. I call this dynamic listening—listening with heart, mind, and body. This leads to being engaged in heart, mind, and body.
I often begin a sing with a simple echo activity. It creates confidence in the singers, particularly if you can make them sound great. It wakes up their ears and prepares them for learning more challenging songs. And it engages their emotions, always the key element. (There is more info on the Echo Technique later in this chapter.)
3. The Nick Page Marshmallows-in-the-Mouth Technique. So how do we make a group of non-singers sound great? People new to singing often sing in a mushy and unenthusiastic manner. Say this to them: "Hold out your hands." They mimic all the motions. "Pretend your hand is full of marshmallows. When I give the signal, put the marshmallows in your mouth and repeat after me." They pretend to fill their mouths with marshmallows. You then sing a phrase of a song you are learning, but sing it with marshmallows-in-the-mouth mushiness. They echo (or sing along with you the first time).
Now you say, "Chew the marshmallows. Swallow the marshmallows. Now pretend your voice is like a drum. You're going to hit the note as if you are hitting a drum." You then demonstrate the same phrase with them echoing. You conclude, "This is called percussive singing. Do you notice how much better you sound?" To congratulate good work, I often give the zest hand sign (in which the children pretend to polish their fingernails on their shirt lapels as a silent signal that they're the best).
4. The Break-the-Ice Technique. We can grow irritated when children don't respond as we wish. We can jump up and down and plead with them to sing until we are blue in the face. What is happening is, they have not been given permission to let their emotions out. But sometimes the simple truth is the singers themselves are the ones who can "break the ice," giving each other the green light to open up and sing. The "ice" is a wall we all create to shield us from having to feel or express emotions, so the trick is to eliminate the wall and give permission for them to express their emotions through song.
Within minutes of beginning a sing, I find a charismatic member of the audience and have him or her come up front (sometimes more than one student). I have my volunteer echo the motions with me (the volunteer doesn't have to sing). The volunteer usually puts on a great show, giving his or her gestures a real Broadway flourish. The other children will respond enthusiastically, and instantly there is a change: the volunteer has broken the ice, torn down the wall, and given everyone permission to let out their emotions and sing. Throughout a sing, I continue to invite volunteers to help out. The children echo the emotions of their peers. Don't be afraid to ask your fellow teachers to help break the ice.
5. The Smiles-and-Frowns Technique. To demonstrate how central the emotions are to singing, try the Smiles-and-Frowns Technique. Bring up a volunteer. If the volunteer has an upcoming birthday, that's even better. Ask the volunteer to give everyone a great big happy face. Have the audience echo the happy face. Then ask for a sad, pouty face (with audience echo), then an angry face. Explain that everyone is going to sing "Happy Birthday" to the volunteer (make sure everyone knows the person's name).
Explain that when you say "happy face," everyone is to sing with a happy face. When you say "sad face," they sing with a sad face, and the same with an angry face. For the four phrases of "Happy Birthday" I usually do happy, sad, happy, angry. Then sing the song with these facial expressions. Everyone will be amazed at the results. The phrases with happy faces sound happy and the phrases with sad faces sound sad. Bring home to everyone how central these emotions are to singing.
Next step: Say, "Now I want you all to show happiness in your faces, but don't sound happy. Show sadness, but don't sound sad. Show anger, but don't sound angry." These are the isolation exercises I described earlier. Call out the emotions as everyone sings "Happy Birthday" again. The children will see that it is a remarkable challenge. You can supplement this activity by having the children walk around the room showing happiness, then sadness, and then anger. Then have them isolate their movement and singing, moving with one emotion and singing with another—not an easy trick, but fun!
6. The Nick Page No-Fault Harmony Technique. Ask older singers who have already learned to sing in tune to make up harmonies. You may have to first explain what a harmony is. Use a simple song like "There Is More Love Somewhere" (Singing the Living Tradition, #95) or a well-known song like "Happy Birthday" or "Amazing Grace." Introduce the Nick Page No-Fault Harmony Technique. Say, "It is like No-Fault Driving Insurance where you drive until you hit something, then turn. With no-fault harmonies, you find a note that sounds good. Keep singing that note until it doesn't sound good anymore. Then find a new note, and if you sing the wrong note, it's nobody's fault."
You can demonstrate this technique by having a small group sing the melody while you sing one note, switching notes when appropriate. Then have half the singers sing the melody while the other half makes up a harmony. Be sure to give both sides their starting pitches. Then switch the roles, so the other half makes up a harmony, perhaps giving the group a different starting note. This simple technique works surprisingly well. Singers find themselves stumbling into wonderful harmonies, harmonies that could never be reproduced on the written page. Sing the song a few times, allowing everyone to be creative. By the end, they will be wondrous (see Guideline Two). Be sure to choose a simple sing. Some songs are easier to harmonize than others; repetitive phrases are a good thing to look for, such as those in "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
7. The Own-the-Song Technique. Give the audience permission to "own the song." If you are singing a simple song like "There Is More Love" or "Amazing Grace," invite singers (a few is fine) to improvise counterpoints to the melodies. Counterpoints are phrases that weave between the phrases of the song, using the words of the song itself. Something magical happens. You create something completely new. An old song is reborn. You "own the song." The folk process comes alive when we give ourselves permission to make these subtle changes. "There Is More Love" is a zipper song (see the zipper song, in Chapter 6). Ask the audience for a new word like "There is more light somewhere" or "There is more justice somewhere." Make all changes with great respect to the tradition from which the song evolved. You would not, for example, want to sing, "There is more bubblegum somewhere."
Making up harmonies, making respectful changes to the words, adding counterpoint, singing the song high, low, fast, slow, or adding a variety of instrumental accompaniment—these are all simple changes that will give everyone a sense of ownership, an empowerment in which each member of the group feels this song exists because we are singing it. And then they may come to the realization that when we change the song, the song changes us. Think of the first time one of your elders displayed one of your finger paintings on the kitchen refrigerator or school wall. In that moment, you were helping to shape your environment. By shaping your environment, it became yours; you owned it. The same is true when we respectfully change songs.
A spiritual like "This Little Light of Mine" can sound lifeless. When we invite audience members to respectfully add new words, movement, harmonies, counterpoints, and claps, the song comes to life. We create a greater empathy for the song and its culture. We create a firsthand experience in which our voices mean something—our singing together as a community means something.
This folk process can also have negative results, particularly if we disrespect the song's tradition. I once saw a chorus end an otherwise excellent concert with a show choir version of "Go Down Moses." "Go Down Moses" is a powerful African American spiritual that uses the words of Moses, "Let my people go," to speak of the universal quest for freedom. It is a song born of the suffering of slavery that also shouts of hope. A show choir, on the other hand, is a choreographed choral entertainment. Show choirs can be great fun, but spirituals deserve serious treatment.
8. Tips for teaching people to sing in tune. Many adults stopped singing as children after someone told them they were out of tune or that they should "mouth the words." Singing is a very emotional activity, so being told you can't sing can create a deep wound. For this reason, it is essential to have a supportive environment. No child should be allowed to criticize or make fun of another child's singing voice. A positive environment is one in which every problem has a solution and where everyone supports each other, solving problems together.
A) Here is the simplest place to begin: Sing songs that are easy to sing in tune. For younger children, this means songs that have the descending minor third (na na, na na, na na na na na). It also means singing repetitive songs that don't have a large range of pitches (not too high and not too low).
B) For singers who are stuck in their lower voices, have them imitate a siren. On different vowels, have them swoop from their lowest pitches to their highest, then back again. Use beautiful, clean vowels like oo as opposed to screeching. Speaking in a very high voice, have the singers echo back in their own high voices. Use high spoken phrases like, "Hello everyone," or "What a lovely day." Use a slightly operatic tone to make it fun and to help the singers discover the higher parts of their voices.
C) Try to sing in a range in which the six notes from middle C to the A above is your center. Children are more apt to sing lower pitches out of tune, simply because they don't hear lower pitches as well as higher pitches.
D) Give the starting pitch. Using the first pitch, simply sing, "Here's your first pitch" or a similar phrase. If you're ever in a restaurant and you hear people singing "Happy Birthday" wildly out of tune, walk up to them and say, "Excuse me, I just read this great article that said all you have to do is give the first pitch and people will sing in tune." Give them the first pitch (middle C is a good note for "Happy Birthday") and see the results:in-tune singing. There is a simple formula: If you can hear the pitch, you can sing the pitch.
E) Singers who sing the pitch too low can benefit from a simple "wind-up" technique in which you ask them to slide their pitch up until they reach the note you are singing. You can pretend to wind them up as you do this. They will hear when they are singing the right note and stop sliding their pitch. With singers who routinely sing off pitch, simply ask them to stop and listen. Do this in a very positive way.
F) For boys whose voices are changing, particularly boys who don't do a lot of singing, singing the high notes becomes difficult and embarrassing. Most, at this stage, are not able to sing the low notes either. There is a range, called the cambiata range, from the F below middle C to the E above middle C. It is a small range, but it is a range that is more comfortable for boys whose voices are changing. These boys will have to sing a simple harmony within the cambiata range. Anders Nyberg edited two books of South African songs (see Resources). These songbooks (with CDs) have ideal tenor parts for boys whose voices are changing.
G) Sing a cappella. Singing without the aid of instruments requires singers to focus on listening. Instruments can drown them out so they don't really listen to themselves.
H) Right-handed people tend to have a hearing dominance in the right ear, while the left ear is usually hearing-dominant for left-handed people. In a chorus or classroom situation, seat strong singers by the dominant ear of the singers who need a little help. Don't do this in a way that embarrasses anyone.
Be rid of the popular misconception that some people can't sing in tune. Singing in tune requires two simple steps. First, singers must be able to hear the pitch. Second, they must then be able to sing that pitch. The first step is key. This process of "inner hearing" is often overlooked. People who sing out of tune are either not hearing the pitch correctly or they are hearing one of the many high overtones we create when we sing.
When we sing an ah vowel, we might not be aware of it, but we are creating several pitches simultaneously: high overtones two octaves and a third or fifth higher. The out-of-tune singer sometimes hears these high overtones, reproduces them accurately, and then we tell the singer he or she is not singing the note we are giving when the singer actually is; the singer is simply reproducing the high overtones. This is a complicated way of saying that we all hear differently. Children hear high sounds like the high overtones that many adults no longer hear. Adults hear low sounds that young children cannot hear yet.
The oo vowel is a safe vowel to have singers listen to and reproduce. It has relatively few high overtones and is the easiest one for singers to hear. The next step is to get the singers to truly listen to the pitch you give them. The key word in teaching people to sing in tune is listen. The same focus that is required to echo phrases accurately is required to listen (in our heads) to the pitches and sing them in tune. Expecting great things, like dynamic listening, creates great results.
Note that, with a very small percentage of singers, it is not about waking up lazy ears; some people have hearing loss they may or may not be aware of. The reason they can't sing a note in tune may be because they simply can't hear it. Their ears (or one ear or the other) might have range gaps where they hear some pitches better than others.
Guideline One Conclusion. Using these simple tricks, teachers can create great group singing. These techniques are tried and true; you simply have to trust them. Sometimes a beginning song leader will give up on getting a group to sing with energy. It can be frustrating. But you need to know that they can sing. Don't try to master all the above techniques all at once. Start by creating a positive environment, then eventually move to the Break-the-Ice Technique, then to the Frowns-and-Smiles Technique, then the Marshmallows Technique. You will find that each of these techniques will help make the children better singers.