If You Teach Children You Can Sing

[Moore, T. 2002. If You Teach Children, You Can Sing. Young Children. (July): 84-85, Washington, DC: NAEYC]

"I can’t sing. OK, I’ll sing with the children. They don’t know the difference between a good voice and a bad one." I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of these lines during my 25 years as an early childhood consultant and children’s recording artist. Even some leaders in our field refuse to sing-with children or adults-because they claim they are tone-deaf, have awful voices, or "simply can’t sing a note." Children, however, seem to have a clearer understanding of what constitutes a good voice. The children I know hear every voice for what it has to offer: Beauty. Power. A way for human beings to connect. The opening of a soul. Children who do not hear your singing voice are missing something irreplaceable. And you are too, if you never sing to them. Consider this a challenge to you, and everyone in our profession. A challenge to sing. Teachers should sing.

The effects of singing are almost miraculous:

•To quiet a room full of rambunctious preschoolers in a hurry, start singing. (The technique also works, of course, for naptime. When you sing a lullaby, the child can sleep, because the child is with a peaceful person.)

•To relax apprehensive parents at a meeting, sing a couple of funny kids’ songs with them and watch them view you differently. You and they are suddenly on the same level. If your relationship has been insecure, it can be strengthened with a few songs.

•To share something vital about who you are and your love of children, choose call-and-response songs that even young children sing back to you.

•To loosen up business or government leaders who are visiting your school, there’s nothing like a rousing rendition of "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" I know-I led my fellow Rotary members in his classic just a few weeks ago.

Why We Stopped Singing If you feel shy about singing, you’re not alone. We don’t sing as much as we used to in this country because of the television and recording industries. We have become accustomed to passively watching performers rather than making our own music, dances, and visual art. There are more and more trained singers, but they are trained to perform music, not to connect with the community. As a classically trained singer and graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, I say this from experience. The predominant culture of the United States focuses on the cognitive and shuts down the physical. Singing is a physical and emotional activity.

Think about it. How many times do you touch non-family members in the course of the day? How many times would you if you lived in Italy or Kenya? Our culture discourages even hugs for friends, let alone friendly pats on the back. I believe this lack of physicality traps and isolates us. Singing together is freeing. Some people protest that they look ridiculous or undignified if they sing. Do we worry about that when we are reading excitedly? When kissing a loved one? Or eating our favorite foods? Any activity can feel ridiculous if you think about it too long.

Creative people learn to hold their heads high while doing things that might seem ridiculous. Usually, these are the most imaginative things we do. During my early years, in rural South Carolina, my parents and relatives often sang and moved their bodies with the music. We didn’t go to concerts; my parents didn’t have the money. The porch, living room, or car was our stage. We took the music with us. What I enjoyed most about music then was having everyone be part of the song. I still do. That value-that everyone can contribute to the song-has carried on in my family through my adulthood. I’ve given a recital at Carnegie Hall, but when I visit my family, no one says, "It’s time for Thomas to sing. Let’s hear Thomas sing."

In our family we sing together. Recently at my father’s church, someone asked me to lead a song. Once I started, Dad just naturally jumped in, and he became the leader. That’s how it should be; he is the elder person in the congregation. No one protested that his voice sounded too old. I was delighted that he shared his voice with me and others.

If you’ve ever been to a Jewish wedding with dancing, you’ve seen another example of this value at work. The band strikes up "Havah Nagilah" or some other folk melody, and everyone joins the circle dance. You don’t hear a lot of protests about not being able to dance. I might add that everyone has a great time.  As early childhood professionals, we need to consider how we respond to self-expression, whether it’s drawing, singing, storytelling, writing, or any other form. We must collectively get past that part of our culture that is more critical than inviting.

What Can You Sing? If you don’t know how to begin, start at the opening of the day. Sing in your classroom as the children are arriving. In the mornings, to war up your voice and the children’s voices, hum a little bit. Show children all the possibilities through song. Sing high, then low. Soft, then loud. Change the words of a familiar song like "Twinkle, Twinkle." Change the melody. Play with your song, just as you would take a ball and dribble, roll, or twirl it. If you tell me there’s only one way to play with a ball, it limits the possibilities for me. The same is true for a song.

Pay attention to the songs you choose. Select one in a comfortable key (in other words, not too low, not to high) so children can sing it. Sometimes it’s not the song, but the arrangement that is difficult. Be aware that some songs are not designed for the average singer (as anyone who has tried to belt out a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" can tell you.) A particular song might just be a poor choice for you or your kids. Try playing The World Sings Good Night, a CD of lullabies from around the world, in your classroom. You’ll be astounded at the variety of voices-their pitch, timbre, the types of melodies they sing. It will open your mind to what constitutes a "good voice." There’s always someone who will like a certain voice and others who will not. For our purposes, that doesn’t matter. We are trying to involve and engage all children. In my experience, singing is a proven way to do this. Children won’t sing if the adults in their lives don’t sing. We say children learn through play. So we have to play with children. An important part of that is singing. I invite you to reclaim the beauty that is your singing voice. And the next time I see you, I want to hear it.

© NAEYC, 2002 Thomas Moore, Ph.D is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, early childhood consultant, and children’s recording artist. He is author of Gryphon House award-winning teacher resource books "Where is Thumbkin?" and "Do You Know the Muffin Man?". He is contributing author of Wright Group/McGraw-Hill’s curriculum, DLM Early Childhood Express and author of their literacy series "Music, Movement and More". He has also produced ten recordings for children.