Singing with 3-7s: the stages of singing development
‘ “You can’t sing!” …my music teacher told me when I was seven’
How many times have you heard somebody say this? As a musician, it comes up in conversation fairly frequently for me. Usually, this sweeping judgement was made in the context of a school music session. A few small words, uttered in an instant, that in many cases carry a lifetime of limiting self-belief. /p>
Usually, when someone makes a statement like this, they are referring to some point during their childhood, when they were alerted to the fact that their vocal musical skills did not meet the expectations of what a particular teacher, or adult, considered ‘singing’ to be.
Perhaps the child couldn’t distinguish between different pitches and so they tended to ‘drone’ on one note rather than having the vocal flexibility needed to pitch different notes precisely, or perhaps their level of vocal projection was too strong, or too weak, to be considered ‘correct’ by the individual making the judgement. Or perhaps it was neither of these extremes, just more that the child had difficulty pitching the intervals as securely and swiftly as the adult was expecting.
Whatever the reason, this would have been quite a damning, and damaging, judgement to have been placed upon a young child. It harks back to the Victorian approach to education, where children were objectified and considered to be mini-adults from the outset: already formed and therefore, in many cases, without any hope of future improvement. Labelled for life as a ‘singer’ or a ‘non-singer’.
The speed of the assessment would have taken a few seconds, but the personal impact could last for years and be so wide-ranging.
Fortunately, these snap judgements are not so frequently, or overtly, made these days. However, I still receive a number of questions from well-meaning music specialists regarding how they can get their young learners (often 5-7-year-olds) to sing ‘properly’. When I get the questionner to unpack this further, so many times what they are really asking is; ‘how can I get my children to sing in tune?’
Thankfully, we now have an ever-increasing wealth of academic research to help us out with an answer.
The developmental stages of singing
When it comes to developing singing skills, it’s helpful to think, in broad terms, of a ‘developmental continuum’.
At one end of the continuum, singing is described as being totally out-of-tune, with little pitch accuracy or rhythmical definition, whereas the other end of the continuum is characterised by sophisticated singing skills – confidently in tune and securely rounded in tonal colour.
Children may move backwards and forwards along this continuum as they develop, depending upon the musical contexts and circumstances they each experience.
Welch (2006) in line with a number of other researchers, suggests the continuum can be divided into a number of stages:
- Stage One: the child may find the words of the song more interesting than the melody. Because this is the dominant feature that they are concentrating on, their pitch-accuracy may be quite limited. (In the early stages their pitch-competency is naturally small – perhaps just accommodating 1-5 different pitches at most)
- Stage Two: children begin to realise that they can control their own vocal pitch by concentrating on moving their voice higher or lower.
- Stage Three: they begin to experiment with pitch ‘jumps’ (or intervals). Their pitch accuracy is increasing and they can begin to sing using pitch contours that are similar to the melodic line of a song
- Stage Four: they can pitch some intervals more accurately, and with more sophisticated tonal flexibility, within the bounds of their (relatively narrow) vocal range
- Stage Five: the vocal range has developed and children can match vocal pitches more confidently.
As you can see, it’s therefore very important not to judge children’s singing abilities based on one context or scenario. For example, very young children may be fairly skilled at reproducing simple songs of their own musical cultures if they have been exposed to these since infancy within their family setting, whereas they may be less skilled at singing ‘school’ songs or nursery rhymes if they have had less exposure to them.
I believe as educators, we should focus our attention on the process of singing development rather than the outcome. Throughout life, all of us acquire skills at different rates and in different ways. Offering our children the opportunity to increase their singing skills as they move backwards and forwards along this continuum helps us to scaffold their learning effectively and efficiently.
“it’s … very important not to judge children’s singing abilities based on one context or scenario
Three actionable ways to help develop young children’s pitch awareness:
- i) Start by chanting one sound (‘ooh’ or ‘ah’ or ‘too’ ‘tah’ or ‘lah’) on one pitch in a very simple, predictable rhythm (- engage the children’s imaginations by being robot, aliens or the like). Once they are doing this confidently, change the pitch slightly and use a different sound
- ii) Next, make one stepwise pitch change as you offer a visual clue, (such as moving your hand up as your voice moves up, and then down as you return to the original pitch) and see how many of the children can follow your lead
- iii) Observe your children and identify who finds this task easy, moderately easy, difficult. Map your findings onto the continuum and plan your next small step…
We hope you find these three simple suggestions to be helpful. If you would like to learn more, sign up now for our weekly newsletter, which is filled with useful tips and suggestions.
Dr Clare Seymour
Clare has spent much of her professional career (over 30 years) in international settings. Part of her Doctoral research involved exploring the often hidden aspects of institutional racism. As a result she has a longstanding interest in, and passion for, promoting positive Diversity.
In addition to school music-teaching, Clare also has over 10 years’ experience working as an international music examiner – an understanding and respect for Diversity is so crucially important in every aspect of her practice.