Music With Older Kids
Teaching Fourth and Fifth Grade Music, Part II
by Valerie Leonhart Smalkin
In my Fall 2016 PIO! column, we covered planning, welcoming, and warming up both physically and vocally. This article will focus on novel ways to help children learn and memorize melodies and lyrics. Before I knew better—that is, before seasoned teachers told me that I could not expect children to memorize an entire Christmas song—I used to take 353 elementary school children and in the space of four music classes (blessedly, only twenty in each class) help them learn and memorize their Christmas Pageant songs. It worked. Twenty years later, at the insistence of more learned educators, I succumbed to writing the words on tag board, but secretly, I still think that learning to memorize (and gaining confidence in one’s ability to memorize) is an extremely useful tool. Sure helped me in law school!
But I digress. When teaching a song, I divide the song into sections and teach one section per forty-minute period starting with the most difficult. One anthem I recall had two identical lines except for the last note. The last note stepped up in the first and down in the second. Unless ALL the children were conscious of the difference, the two lines would inevitably end up sounding the same. My solution? Create a poster for each of the melodic lines and place them on opposite sides of the room. I used 13 x 17-inch paper and laminated them for extended use. For example, from “J’aime la Galette”:
Sing one or the other melody and ask the children to move to the picture they think they heard. In a room with no desks or chairs, they can run to the picture. And yes, of course, there will be those children who simply follow the child they know is always right. In that case, have the child who excels choose and sing one of the lines, leaving the other children to decide for themselves. This method is always fun and you can encourage the “followers” to take the risk and try to figure it out for themselves.
The next game is to point to one of the posters and have the students volunteer to sing it. In the end, you will have repeated the melody at least twenty-five times without boredom! They will know it in fifteen minutes.
Puppets. Yes, puppets are a great help here. And do not worry: my eighth grade students would still ask for the puppets, and the kindergarten through fifth grade students simply adored them. Here is a list of ways puppets can help you teach lyrics:
- You sing the melodic portion you are teaching and have the puppet repeat it either correctly or incorrectly, letting your students decide if the puppet succeeded. I always make the errors blatant, so as not to cause confusion. Ask the children to explain where the puppet went wrong.
- The puppet sings the melody and the students repeat it.
- The puppet tries to sing the melody, forgets, and the students must refresh the puppet’s recollection.
- The puppet wants to hear each student sing the melody.
- The puppet wants to hear the group sing.
Never Sing With Your Students (if you can help it)
Students must be able to hear themselves. If all they hear is your lovely voice, they will think they are singing like you do. If all they hear is their own, they will learn to adjust what needs adjusting to sound better. So you sing, they repeat; you sing, they repeat, et cetera. And you ask them to listen and describe what they hear. If you ask them what you might do to improve they will impress you with their suggestions.
Teaching Students to Match Pitch
One of my all-time favorite accomplishments is to teach a child whom some would call “tone-deaf” to sing. Usually the inability to match pitch develops because no one in the child’s family ever learned to sing on pitch. To help the students understand, I ask, “What would happen if you grew up in a family where missing the ball in baseball was considered a home run?” Obviously, the child would spend his or her life missing the ball until someone informed him or her differently. So it is with singing on or off pitch.
My method for having the child experience on-pitch singing is this: First, find a time to work with the student individually, away from the other students. Second, ask the child to sing a note, any note at all, and hold it. That may take a little coaching. Sometimes I have them say the word “a” and just try to not stop saying it. I might even need to make them aware of the glottal stop involved in saying “a.” That is, I ask the child to get ready to say the word “a” but not to say it…yet. In a few seconds, I tell them to go ahead and say “a” with awareness of what’s happening in the throat. Hopefully they will feel their throat open and close. Then they are ready to say an extended “a” keeping the throat open. Third, I either match that note or sing something very dissonant. Fourth, I ask the child to say whether my pitch matches theirs or not. At first there is confusion, but after about five tries they hear it, perhaps for the first time in their lives. Seeing the light bulb go off is thrilling! And note that LISTENING is key to this process!
As for memorizing words, I have the advantage of being the world’s worst memorizer, so I can challenge students to best me and they always do. One helpful tactic, which you surely use already, is to make up movements to go with the words. There are two ways to go with this and both have merit. The first is to use American Sign Language (ASL). There is a plethora of Internet resources for sign language, one being the Handspeak Dictionary. It’s always best to check your signs with someone who is fluent in ASL, however, because like with any foreign language, you may not get it right all on your own.
The second approach is to have your students make up the signs to help remember the words. The advantage of this method is that it’s great fun for the students and not just another thing to memorize.
An entirely different tack is to write the lyrics on the smart board (or blackboard) and let the students decide which word to erase having committed it to memory. Continue doing so until there are no more words on the board.
Do you have teaching ideas to share? Please send them to me at Val@SillyGooseAndVal.com.