Three tricks to singing better with children

January 10, 2017 - 06:20

When children sing, they’re learning language. But the right tempo and tone of voice are important factors for them to be able to sing along.

Can the way you sing help explain why your three-year-old doesn’t sing along like the boy in the picture? Music therapy researcher Liselotte Ågedal says yes. (Photo: Dag Jenssen / Samfoto / NTB scanpix)

Anyone who has spent time with children knows that some kids sing all the time. Others prefer to listen. Or do they?

Music therapist Lise Lotte Ågedal believes that adults who sing with children – whether at home or in kindergarten – can use a few tricks to get everyone in on the act, not just the kids who sing nonstop anyway.

“They’re things anyone can do,” she says.

“The point isn’t that it has to sound so beautiful! The goal isn’t for them to become wonderful singers. It's about bonding, about enjoying it, about practicing language and learning concepts, learning about feelings. So many things can be learned through song,” says Ågedal.

She has just finished her doctorate at the Norwegian Academy of Music, focussing on how singing can teach children to speak better.

1. Sing with a brighter tone

Generally, it is important for the person leading a song to be clear in their role, Ågedal says. From her own experience, she has seen children fade out when they are unsure what to do, what to sing or how to sing.

Part of this leadership role, which can be essential for getting children to sing along, is to choose a pitch that is not too low for them. Adults have naturally deeper voices than children.

But how does one determine what is bright or high enough so that the children, e.g. in a kindergarten music class, will be able to sing along?

Ågedal suggests asking one of the kids to start singing the song.

The person leading the song has to create a structure, which includes finding a common tone, says Ågedal.

Not all adults can sing in tune. But if you’re worrying that as a parent you are giving your child a poor singing start in life, you can take comfort in knowing that they are hearing nice pure tones elsewhere – like on TV, in kindergarten and through children's music.

Your child benefits from singing with you even if you’re not Julie Andrews.

“Singing with children involves lots of love and language learning,” says Ågedal.

2. Sing more slowly than usual

You might have wondered why two children’s singing enjoyment can seem so different.

It may be that the child who doesn’t join in the singing can’t keep up with the song tempo, so the child drops out.

Some children aren’t able to follow the song or at best manage to grasp only the last word in the sentence. For them it’s essential to find a tempo that they can keep up with, says Ågedal.

“If we sing faster than children can pronounce a word, they feel defeated. They may be able to figure out the final words of a sentence, which probably gives them a bit of a feeling of mastery and they gain limited language skills from the experience.

But how slow is slow enough?

Tricks if it gets boring

“If I think of the tempo I would use with a group of adults, I'd probably try halving that tempo, that is, sing the song half as fast,” says Ågedal.

“That’s what I do when I sing with younger children or children with language challenges,” she says.

But sometimes it gets boring to sing slowly, both for adults and for children. Then the leader can vary the way they sing the song.

Ågedal gives as an example to sing slowly, but play the guitar or drum rhythm twice as fast. That adds some swing and life to the song.

You can also sing the song slowly once, then sing it again faster.

She adds, “You can sing it in a playful or strange way. For example, you can tell the children: ‘Now we'll sing like an old man’ or ‘Now we'll sing it like a little mouse.’” Then it’s not boring anymore.

3. What if your child still doesn’t join in?

If your child still does not chime in on Baa, baa, black sheep, Ågedal has another card up her sleeve.

“If the child stops singing, so do I. I hold the note and give the child the first sound of the next word. It signals the child to rejoin the song,” she says.

“Teaching a new song doesn’t need to stay rhythmically correct. If a child stops singing, it may be appropriate to lengthen the sounds until the child resumes,” she adds.

With major differences in a group of children, like in a nursery, Ågedal thinks one idea would be to split up the group sometimes, but not always.

“In a large group where some kids have a high language level, the others can be pulled along. But if a child has severe speech difficulties, I would practice in smaller groups or individually,” says Ågedal.

She strongly believes in working systematically with language through singing, for example by choosing a song with a word that the child is struggling to pronounce the sounds in.

“Songs are intrinsically motivating. No one is demanding that the child learn this word – it’s more ‘Now we'll sing and have fun,’” says Ågedal.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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