Why we need to teach the world to sing
Richard Gill believes singing is the best way to acquire a complete musical education.
Using the voice as a way of learning music seems such a logical thing to do that one wonders why it needs any sort of defence or advocacy. However, there is a view in the minds of some children, and shared by some parents and teachers, that singing at school as part of a music class does not constitute a proper music lesson. A proper music lesson only takes place when one attends an instrumental class such as a piano lesson. Perhaps time will see this disconnection being corrected, as singing makes a very special re-entry into the school curriculum nationally.
In some establishments, singing has always been a part of the fabric of school life. One school in Melbourne – a boys’ school, Melbourne High – comes to mind immediately. I have had the great pleasure to be in the school when the boys have sung several songs including music from the Baroque, folk songs from diverse cultures and a variety of contemporary songs. The singing was accurate, intense, and it was performed with incredible commitment.
While the physical benefits to be derived from good singing (through controlled breathing, controlled use of tongue, mouth, chest, neck, head, abdominal muscles and so on), along with its immediate impact in providing a sense of well-being have all been documented, I’d like to address the benefits that singing provides as a direct path to a complete music education.
Given normal circumstances, all people can produce some sort of vocal sound, which can be developed, more or less, into a singing tone. While in some people it is undoubtedly limited, it would be fair to say that we are all born with the capacity to sing to a greater or lesser degree.
We sing because it is so enjoyable. In the animal kingdom, singing is very often a way of attracting a mate. David Attenborough deals with the reasons human beings sing in a Science Show programme (ABC Radio National, January 30, 2010), which is still available for download. Excellent listening!
Through early teaching, children can learn an enormous body of songs and singing games while simultaneously incorporating movement. This vocal material then provides opportunities for children to be creative, encouraging them to improvise on the familiar song material by inventing patterns in movement like clapping, stamping and clicking (often called body percussion), and inventing rhythmic patterns using classroom instruments such as wood blocks, triangles and tambourines. The imagination is stimulated, listening skills are developed, memory is enhanced, and children learn to discriminate musical sounds one from another, commenting on how they and others have created new musical ideas.
Later on this material becomes the basis for the teaching of the formal concepts associated with the reading and writing of music, while an ever-increasing body of new material can be consistently taught which feeds the imagination. This in turn produces new creative ideas from within the child.
A sequential and developmental programme for teaching children the identifiable phenomena associated with music through the voice prepares them for instrumental tuition. Fortunate is the teacher of a musical instrument who inherits a pupil already singing in tune, reading rhythm and pitch from staff notation, improvising in given styles, moving confidently to music, demonstrating an understanding of a wide range of musical concepts including harmony and musical form, and with a good background knowledge of recorded music. And all this at no extra cost to the parent!
These days we hear numerous claims made for the benefits of a structured music education on a child’s capacity to learn. While these are true, and supported by strong empirical evidence, it has to be remembered that these benefits are bonuses and not reasons for teaching music to children. We teach music to children so that they might develop a lifelong association with – and a love of – music for its own sake. We teach music to children because music is good; music is unique; and music has a potent effect on the heart, mind, spirit, soul and imagination of a child, from out of whom can emerge wonderfully creative musical ideas in the form of improvisations and written compositions.
With all this, why wouldn’t you teach children to sing? None of this is new information, of course. We just need Australian states to implement it universally. We could change many lives for the better!