Exploring the Voice and Singing More Accurately

Students need numerous opportunities in each music class to explore their voices and learn to sing with more accuracy. The following suggestions should give teachers a variety of techniques from which to choose.

  • Discuss with students the various ways voices are used (talking, whispering, yelling or calling, and singing). Have the students name the things their voices can do and follow examples of both you (the teacher) and other students as they talk, whisper, call, and sing.

  • Demonstrate and then ask young students to follow with their voice (sirens) the movement of a light scarf (gauze, chiffon, etc.) as it is tossed in the air and allowed to float to the floor. Students may also perform sirens as the scarf is held at one corner and waved or swooped in circles.

  • "Mother Cat and Her Kittens" is a listening game that also helps develop singing voices. In the traditional game, one child is chosen to be Mother or Father Cat. The cat leaves the room while four or five students are chosen to be kittens and hide in the room. The cat returns, meowing. Each time the cat meows, all the kittens who are hiding must meow. When all the kittens have been found, a new Mother or Father Cat is chosen. Of course, a high, free, singing tone is encouraged for the "meow."

  • Variation 1:
    Students remain in their places and hide their faces behind their hands instead of actually hiding.

    Variation 2:
    Kittens must mimic the quality of the cat's meows.

    Variation 3:
    Substitute skiers lost in the Alps. A ski patrol member calls "yoo-hoo," and the lost skiers answer.

  • Teach students a repertory of poems, encouraging them to use varied speech inflections. Look for poems that use colorful language, onomatopoeia, dialog, and lively speech rhythms. Try antiphonal, choral, and solo performances.

  • Expose students to live or recorded performances by masterful storytellers. Mimic the voices used for characters and the vocal sounds that create story effects. With older students, discuss the different vocal qualities. Help students expand their own speaking range as they tell familiar stories. (Many traditions include singing in storytelling: see The Singing Sack by Helen East.)

  • Provide lots of opportunities for the students to use their entire vocal range. Have them try to make the hoot of an owl, circles, sirens, the beep-beep of TV's Roadrunner, the puff-puff-toot-toot of a train, yoo-hoos, the call of a coyote, the slide of a trombone or slide whistle, and so forth.

  • Start class with a vocal echo exercise. Begin with descending major or minor triads on the syllable "whoo."

  • Be cuckoo clocks. Using some kind of cuckoo clock visual with hands that move, you or your students set a time and students (individual or entire class) make the appropriate number of cuckoo sounds.

  • Ride a roller coaster with voices. You or a student point to a wavy diagram on the board and the voices follow on "oo." Puppets are also useful for this activity. If the roller coaster gets stuck, all must call "yoo-hoo" on sol-mi or mi-do from the top of the roller coaster for help. When the roller coaster is fixed, the hand and voice glide smoothly from the top to the bottom.

  • Add sound effects with voices only (no instruments) or use appropriate character voices for stories or poems.

  • Create a "sound poem." The students suggest sounds (initially you should suggest a category such as animal sounds) and you write them on the board in no particular arrangement, although it should be visually interesting. Then you draw lines to connect some of them. To perform the poem, the students make the sound you point to. By pointing to sounds and then tracing paths to change sounds, you control the duration, tempo, dynamics, and so forth. The students can lead as well (once they are comfortable with the procedures). In fact, more than one student can lead with half of the group following one leader and the other half following the other leader. This technique works well for middle and upper-elementary students who need voice exploration but do not like activities geared toward younger students (such as "cuckoo clocks").

  • To extend students' range of phonation and help them form the concept of pitch, try the following activities.

    • Glissando between higher and lower pitches.
    • Speak rhymes with inflection.
    • Accompany pitch variation with movement in a vertical axis.
    • Provide visual representations of pitches and melodic patterns.

  • Encourage students to explore the sounds their voices can make before focusing on matching pitches or achieving accurate singing. It is often incorrect to assume that inaccurate singers are not aware of pitch or do not hear the correct pitch. Time spent teaching pitchmatching before a child has acquired the vocal coordination to sing the pitch does more to build doubts and insecurities than it does to aid the student to become a singer.

  • Play the "Lost Mountain Climber" game. You stand in a corner of the room, or on a chair, and call for help by singing "yoo-hoo" on a sol-mi pattern, for example. The students are asked to be the echo coming back from the mountain. Have students take turns being the lost mountain climber.

  • Use students' picture books to aid in echo games (for example, Bill Martin Jr.'s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?). You sing a question using a simple pitch pattern (sol-mi, sol-mi-do, mi-do-la), and the students respond with the answer on the same pattern.

  • Toss bean bags or Nerf balls and have the students accompany the movement with swooping vocal sound.

  • Do tonal rondos with the students to give them practice with specific patterns and develop their musical independence. Have the students echo a tonal pattern on a neutral syllable, some text, or tonal syllables (A). Then have them sing that pattern several times without your help. When they are comfortable with that, you sing a pattern (B) and they answer back with theirs (A); then you sing a different pattern (C) and they answer back with theirs (A). Initially, the students will want to echo your pattern. Of course, the students' responses eventually could be in smaller groups (the teacher or another student could cue a group), and then individual response.

  • In addition, the students' pattern may be reinforced with the teacher or students playing the pattern on a xylophone or tone bells when the students sing. Some ways to turn this activity into a game are included below.

    • Have the students pretend that they are babies just learning to talk and that all they know how to say is their pattern. No matter what question you sing to them, they answer back with their pattern because that's all they know how to say.

    • Build a big sandwich. The students' pattern is sung on the words "we are bread." The teacher sings something for the sandwich, followed by the students' bread, followed by the teacher putting something else on the sandwich, and so forth. This also works as a pizza with the students putting "cheese" on after each teacher topping. Later versions could include the students deciding on a topping. The class could sing the "bread" or "cheese" part, followed by a student's filling, followed by the class part, followed by another student, and so forth. Be sure that the students practice their individual parts all together first. Then they will be comfortable with what each is going to sing prior to playing the game.

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