Singing in the Instrumental Classroom

I get it. Like many instrumental music teachers, you may be hesitant to sing in your classroom. You suspect the kids won’t like it, you worry that you won’t be any good at it, and you know there isn’t enough time. There’s never enough time.

I can’t give you more hours in the day, but I can promise you that singing with your players is an excellent use of everyone’s time. It’s easily doable for you and if your students fight you on it, remind them that their parents sneak vegetables into their spaghetti sauce all the time.

Through my experience as an orchestra teacher, I have seen firsthand the benefits that singing offers my string students. Singing has helped them develop their ears, correct intonation issues, and greatly improve their sight-reading abilities.  At the same time, it has helped me to identify between listening problems and instrument or technique problems. What’s more, incorporating singing into the instrumental classroom borrows from proven Kodaly and choral methods and adds to your teaching arsenal.

Getting Back to that Time Issue . . .

Singing is the simplest way to go from a student’s audiating brain to performed sound. When I hear my students sing something, I know what they are hearing in their heads. If they sing the wrong interval or rhythm, I can quickly identify it and don’t wonder if it is a problem created by the instrument. When I can identify an issue that quickly, it is fixed before the students even play it. If anything, singing in my classroom has been a time saver.

Sight-reading is an excellent example. If your students perform a line of music on their instruments for the first time and it’s not “perfect,” you’ll spend the time to correct it before they play it again. This same amount of time can be spent having the students sing the line before they play it. If the students sing the line correctly they should be able to play it the same way. If they don’t, you know where to focus your time to improve playing technique.

Singing also eliminates the issue of the child that says, “I could play it if I knew what it should sound like!” If they can sing it, they know what it sounds like. May we never hear that excuse again!

Solfege as a Tool

In my classroom, we use movable “do” solfege. I like the consistency of movable “do” as we change keys. Students associate the patterns of solfege with finger patterns and can apply them to new keys and new hand positions. I always begin singing with them by having them echo-sing and then echo-play those same patterns. We start with simple patterns like “do re mi” and discuss how those are all whole steps.

When they go to play on their instrument, they have to make sure they are playing in whole steps. When we add the note “fa,” they have to take care of the half step. For violins and violas this means fingers will be touching. Cellos and basses know to add a neighboring finger and not skip a finger. This will be easy in a key like D Major where students can use open strings and familiar finger patterns.

The picture below shows a Do-Re-Mi-Fa finger pattern on a violin or viola that utilizes open string D.

Singing in the Instrumental Classroom, image 1

When we venture into less familiar key signatures, the same melodic patterns apply and the finger pattern has to adapt. The picture below shows a Do-Re-Mi-(Fa) finger pattern that does not use an open string. The whole and half step pattern remains the same. 

Singing in the Instrumental Classroom, image 2

Advanced Techniques

Associating finger patterns with solfege has greatly helped my beginning students’ intonation. For my more advanced students, the use of solfege has helped translate their knowledge to positions beyond first and third position.

When we have a piece in our repertoire that shifts outside of their comfort zone, we can easily talk in solfege about the proper hand shape. “Ti” to “Do” will be a half step whether they are in second position, fifth position, or thumb position. Being able to talk in these familiar terms has allowed strange new hand positions to be more palatable. That combined band/orchestra/chorus piece that goes into D-flat Major for entirely too long? It’s still “do re mi,” just in a different place.

Student Reservations

Admittedly, some instrumental students will balk when you first ask them to sing. I let my students know up front that I am not judging their singing on their tone quality or their vowels and that they shouldn’t judge mine either! I am listening to find out if they can match pitches and rhythm.

I invite them to “embrace the awkward” and assure them that their stand partner feels just as uncomfortable as they do. Those kids that like to play and sing but can’t fit chorus and orchestra into their schedule will be thrilled beyond belief. There are absolutely some giggles the first few times but we plow on through. By the second or third day, everyone has accepted their singing fate.

Games to Get You Started

Games and familiar songs help ease the way. Even my advanced high school players are happy to reminisce and sing “Hot Cross Buns.” After we sing the lyrics, they have to figure out the solfege starting on “mi.” After we sing it together using solfege syllables, then I let them know the instrumental starting pitch. After they’ve taken a moment to figure it out on their instruments we play it together. Suddenly, the entire orchestra is performing in E-flat Major without a thought.

Utilizing simple songs the students already know helps connect their ear and singing to their playing. If you’re working on shifting between positions, tell your students they need to play every note of “Twinkle, Twinkle” using only their first finger. If you’re feeling extra mean, everything also has to stay on the same string. Within seconds you have a shifting etude AND they already know what it sounds like.

There’s No Time Like the Present!

Introducing singing in the instrumental classroom doesn’t have to be a beginning-of-the-year thing and you don’t have to wait until the concert is over. You can do this now. Give your students the chance to connect what they sing and hear with what they play and everyone will benefit. Have some fun and sing a song!

Dr. Kelly Thomas teaches high school orchestra at Kell High School in Marietta, Georgia. She previously taught high school chorus at the same school and elementary strings in the Sharon and Braintree Public Schools in Massachusetts. She has presented at the NAfME Music Research and Teacher Education National Conference and the NAfME National In-Service Conference.

Dr. Thomas received her B.M. in Music Education from Boston University, M.M. in Music Education from Boston Conservatory, and educational doctorate from the University of Georgia. The focus of her doctoral dissertation was sight singing for string students in the high school classroom. Beyond teaching, Dr. Thomas is an active violinist and vocalist with the Georgia Symphony Orchestra, Uncommon Practice, and Keltic Kudzu. She enjoys traveling and has been to all seven continents and over 100 countries.

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