Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Making Music Live: A Guide to Weaving Music into Faith Development Programs

Teaching songs that have hand movements

Adding body movements and hand signs to songs is an amazingly effective way to teach songs to both children and adults. It is especially effective when you are teaching songs that have a lot of words. The movement strategy is usually twice as effective as the rote method, because it is multisensory: the more senses that are involved with learning, the quicker the learning is. You only need to sing the simple children's song, "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes," a few times with motions in order for the students to learn it.

When Jim Scott teaches his song, "Common Ground," with the "circle of friends" chorus, he has the audience do the hand signs as he sings. He accompanies the phrase "In a circle of friends," for example, with the motion of drawing a circle in the air with his two hands: starting at the top, the hands arc downward in an opposing but synchronized way until they complete the circle at the bottom.

I teach a different version for "circle of friends," based on Jim's version. When you reach the bottom of the circle, use the American Sign Language symbol for the word friends: hook your two forefingers together, then switch the positions of the fingers two times in a linking motion.

For "In a circle of sound," make the circle motion I described above, followed by a symbol for sound: one hand touching the ear.

For "All our voices," touch your mouth with the same hand you used for sound.

For "will blend," hold out your hands, palms parallel to your stomach and with your fingers spread. Draw your hands together, "blending" the fingers.

For "When we touch," hold out one hand, palm parallel to the floor, and touch the back of that hand with the forefinger of the other.

For "common ground," bring your forefingers together in front of you, and then draw them out, hands moving parallel to the ground. (See Resources for where you can find music for Jim Scott's "Common Ground.")

The most effective way to create simple hand signs is to have the singers create them. Everyone knows the hand signs for the old children's chant, "Here is the church / Here is the steeple / Open the door and see all the people." Now have the children make up hand signs for a version I made up:

Here is the chalice,

Here is the flame,

Light the candle,

Our love proclaim.

Why is teaching a song with body and hand motions so effective? Mind and body are not separate; they are connected. Utilizing this connection is a natural and extremely effective way of enhancing learning. Generally speaking, movement songs teach themselves. Children pick up the melody and movement to a patty-cake song from watching and listening to it a few times. In a circle they can dance to a song like "Here We Go Looby Loo" right away. As the song progresses, everyone will join in: "You put your right foot in / You put your right foot out / You give your foot a shake, shake, shake / and turn yourself about."

While these songs are great fun for young children, make sure they sing in tune while they are having fun. If in-tune singing is in any way separated from fun singing, you are ultimately teaching the children to sing out of tune. If, on the other hand, you have to make a spur-of-the-moment choice between singing in tune or having fun, always have fun.