Sing with your children and you will give them a gift that keeps on giving for a life-time! But some of us feel daunted by the very idea. Maybe we weren’t sung to, or feel self-conscious about competing with the plethora of professionally recorded children’s albums. Maybe we don’t realise we’re already doing it, and that it’s easier than we thought. Wherever you’re at, I hope that this post will give you some simple ideas that build your confidence and enjoyment of singing with your children.
First of all, if you already sing with your kids – a huge well done to you, because that is the most important point I am going to make in this article.
- Sing, sing, and sing again! No matter what, when, where or how, whether operatic arias or a simple spoken rhyme – if you sing with your child you are giving them a wonderful gift. You are engaging with them, fostering their enjoyment of human interaction, teaching them to read body language and pick up social clues, giving them a chance to mimic and imitate you, introducing them to the joys of listening, soothing their discomfort and in the process giving them a vital tool to get over life’s many bumps and scrapes. In short, you are doing a fantastic job as a parent! But there are a few simple considerations which, if you heed them, will make the experience even more enjoyable for both of you and help your child acquire a good ear.
- Move to the music. We often do this instinctively, swaying baby in time to a lively dance tune or rocking them softly to sleep singing a lullaby. Our toddlers love rowing their boat and bouncing on our knees riding to market with Father, Mother and Uncle John. It’s so important! Singing and movement are inextricably linked. According to one study I read, a young child’s ability to keep a steady beat is the best predictor for later academic success. And as the wonderful Nikhil Dally of Stepping Notes impressed on us at a recent teacher training course, the voice gives accuracy to the body because simultaneous singing and moving requires conscious listening. So move as much as you can and turn singing into a multi-sensory experience. There are many different ways to do this, from simply patting the pulse to a variety of rhythmic actions. You can bounce baby or bounce a stuffed toy, wave a scarf or play peek-a-boo, go on a bear hunt or chop food, walk, run, skip, crawl – the choice is yours!
- Rhymes are great! They contain all the rhythmic elements but are simpler than songs, making them especially suitable for very young children who may want to copy you, but for whom a certain tune may be too complex. It’s also a great starting point for adults who want to sing with their kids but may lack the confidence. Rhymes are fantastic in their own right – I love using them as a teacher because you can stitch a story together so easily. I often “cook” with my music school children – “Chop, chop, choppity chop| chop off the bottom and chop off the top| what there is left we will put in the pot| chop, chop, choppity chop.” Then we “Stir it round| stir it round| tell me what you have found.” Or we make a cup of tea – there’s a huge selection, and tickling rhymes such as “Round and round the garden” or “Criss, cross, applesauce” are a wonderful way to get the giggles going.
- Start simply. Similar to learning to speak, singing in tune is a skill that is acquired in early childhood. And as with language, there are pitch combinations – two sounds sung consecutively – that are easier for young children to manage than others. We start our babies off on “mama” and “dada”, not “encyclopedia”. The music equivalent is the minor third, the cuckoo sound. “I’m the king of the castle”, so-mi for those acquainted with tonic solfa – if you have a piano (or any other instrument), play a G-E.
It makes sense – even a child calling “mummy” or “daddy” in a sing-song voice is likely to end up on those two notes. Please note that it doesn’t have to be the exact notes G-E; what matters is the interval, the minor third. You could sing/play F-D, D-B, E-C sharp or A flat to F, to name just a few. What matters is the interval you create each time – the minor third. It is the music equivalent of “mama” and “dada”, the interval around which all Western music is structured.If you think of music as a diet, then songs containing this interval are your basic staple. At the Len Tyler Music School we use these songs a lot: “Cobbler, Cobbler”, “Mary Anne”, “Look, Lamb, Look”, “See, Saw, Up and Down”.
Songs containing just mi, so and la or just do, re and mi are also very easy for children to manage; see below for a few examples (a blog post explaining tonic solfa is in the pipeline).
- Consider the range. This is the difference between the lowest and the highest note in any given song. Some songs popular in parent and toddler groups can have a huge range that even most adults struggle with. I remember my futile attempt at trying to figure out the tune of “The Sun Has Got His Hat On” after hearing it sung at a Tiny Talk group. Not surprisingly, it has a huge range – an octave and three, or a total of ten consecutive notes. Others, like Humpty Dumpty and Sleeping Bunnies are similar. They are the musical equivalent of running a marathon, and while children love listening to them and doing the actions, there is no way a young child could sing these songs comfortably and in tune.
Most young children’s vocal range is situated between Middle C and A. In fact, when we begin to encourage solo singing, we usually stick to F and D initially, and then slowly increase the range. As a rule of thumb, if you’re singing with under-5s, stick to songs in their range such as Twinkle Twinkle, Incey Wincey and Wind the Bobbin Up. There are many other songs that use even fewer notes, including traditional songs such as “Rain, Rain, Go Away” and lots of Colourstrings songs. If you would like more inspiration, please feel free to contact the Len Tyler Music School, and we will be happy to help you! And if you have have a song that you love, but which is way out of Bubba’s range, you can always teach it as a rhyme.
- Use backing tracks judiciously. There is a huge selection of pre-recorded children’s songs out there and for us adults, putting on a favourite CD or Youtube channel may seem less daunting and possibly even better quality than doing our own singing. However, it’s been shown that babies and young children learn barely anything from canned entertainment. In fact, as the “Baby Einstein” controversy shows, it may even hinder their development. This is because babies need the face to face interaction with a trusted adult – they don’t just need the sound, they need the whole “dance of communication” and your voice, facial expressions and responsiveness to your child are simply non-negotiable. Also, many backing tracks have complicated instrumental arrangements and sound effects and while these may sound fun to us adults, to our babies and young children they may simply sound like a mess. There’s too much sensory input for them to process. Your voice on its own does a much better job. Does that mean you can never play a CD? Of course not! If you eat a healthy diet you can of course enjoy the occasional sweet and if you do plenty of singing with your child, a CD here is a great way to broaden their experience of music, especially if you choose one produced with the above guidelines in mind. Colourstrings International has produced some beautiful CDs to accompany their books, and Steve Grocott’s Bright Sparks CDs are wonderful, too.