Monday, May 16, 2016

Let's Sing! Help Me Sing on Pitch

Read the article below from the official Let's Play Music blog: Making Musicians

In the article Let's Sing! Part 1, we gave some tips for getting youngsters interested in singing, and explained one big reason singing is a fundamental part of musicianship training: the first year of class focuses on helping your child think tonically. 

Singing in Your Brain 

If your child's brain is hearing in tune, how will herteacher know? What test can we do to find outwhat she's hearing in her mind?  

Singing is the best feedback. In order to sing in tune, the brain must first hear in tune.  All ear training is actually brain training, and will help any musician rise to a higher level (even if you decide to be a guitarist or trombonist instead of a singer).

If singing in tune, singing on pitch, carrying a tune in a bucket, and Echoing Ed make you nervous, keep reading for tips on how to finally get on pitch.

The Echo Family 

In every year of Let's Play Music, teachers will present a variety of ear-traininggames in class and will almost always request singing from the students asfeedback to see what they have heard and internalized. Don't worry, it feels like a playful game, not an exam! 
Teacher Kim Seyboldt and her Echo Edie

In your first year you'll meet Echo Ed, andif you've been in Sound Beginnings, you know Echo Edie (Ed's baby sister). Both of these puppets make sounds and sing, and ask children to echo back to them.  

Ed sings two notes "loo loo" and wants to know: were you able to hear the exact pitches I just sang? Pitch is the quality that lets you determine if notes are high, low, the same, or different. Pitch is determined by the wave frequency, and identified by the note name. Even if you can't identify the exact pitches, "you sang an E, then G," you probably can hear that the first note was higher and the second lower. You can likely sing back a matching note. 

Were you also able to hear the exact interval between the two notes? If you sing back the same notes, your teacher knows you certainly did hear it all correctly!  

A new student might sing back using different notes, or a different interval. She might be confused because she can't hear the difference between the pitches yet (keep training the ear) or because she can't get her voice to reproduce the sound she hears (keep training the vocal muscles).  Training the ear and training thevoice go very naturally together. Most LPM students make progress in both skills simultaneously.

Built to Sing

The good news is, humans are wired to sing. It can belearned! Don't give up! The vocal range (entire span of pitches a child can produce) is remarkably wide from birth. Infants can imitate and experiment with their vocal instruments and even match pitch as early as three to four months of age.  Purposeful singing can begin at around twelve months. At this time, adults can recognize snippets of songs to which youngsters have been exposed. 

We've said before that music is a language. If you child has mastered English, she's focused on the skills necessary for producing the sounds of English words.  But what about that wide vocal range that she had at birth? If she doesn't experiment with it now that she has achieved the goal of speaking, her brain stops paying attention to all the different sounds she can make, but doesn't need. This is one reason we love Sound Beginnings classes: we help babies and toddlers continue exploring and understanding sound before they settle into just a small set of skills.

I'm reminded of an embarrassing incident, before I became a Let's Play Music teacher, in which a friend tried to quickly teach me some Mandarin Chinese. Words differ in meaning based on tone and pronunciation. I had a hard time hearing the difference between tones that were rising, falling, falling then rising, or remaining flat, especially when spoken quickly and mixed into a string of words.  She thought it was hilarious that I couldn't distinguish between the "obvious" differences.  That five-minute teasing didn't go very well, but I feel confident that with practice I could train myself to hear what my friend was trying to explain. 

The same can be said for our students. With some practice, they will be able tothink tonally and show it by Echoing Ed. With repetition, exposure, and engagement, children extract the meaning behind the pitch exercises. They naturally start to "get it."

Sol-what about Sol-Mi?

Using the singing voice beautifully is a learned, complex skill.  Childhood, as I mentioned, presents a window of opportunity when students are open to all experiences and are willing to explore their voices without feeling timid. No oneexpects them to be experts. If we show them that singing in class is the thing to do, they'll belt out some fabulous sounds.  Adults must be brave enough to try singing, too!

Educator Zoltan Kodaly emphasized singing for improving musicianship.  He 
Can you sing it in your mind?
helped children master  the firststep: 'inner hearing' or audiation. This is the ability to accurately hear music in themind/imagination.  Theculminating skill involving audiation occurs when a student reads notated rhythm and melody and makes musical sense of it, 'hearing' it even though it is not played aloud.
That is exactly the skill my childhood friend, Jess (from part 1), was so well trained for. Any of us who've had a song stuck in our head (an earworm)definitely can audiate to some level.  The second step is training the voice to get the sound out. 

Researchers have discovered there is a progression in children's perceptual sensitivities, moving from simple to complex. The easiest interval to hear, identify, and produce is a minor third.  You'll hear it when we sing "sol-mi".  

The first few weeks, Echo Ed will sing loo-loo with this interval.  In Sound Beginnings, we have two songs each semester (with reading notes on the staff) that use exclusively sol and mi.   

Tip: Revert to Sol-Mi. Any time a student is struggling to echo back on pitch, I go back to practicing with just sol-mi patterns.  It is worthwhile to help the childmaster several patterns or songs (mi-sol, sol-mi-sol, mi-sol-sol, etc.) before moving on.
Echo Ed sings sol-mi-sol.  Are you confident enough to echo back? Pictured: Shelle Soelberg
Tip: Go to his range. Any time a student sings back using a different startingpitch than my own, I repeat the exercise using the pitch he just sang (and is mostcomfortable with).  A struggling child often successfully hears and sings a minor third when I 'meet them' at their favorite starting pitch.

Tip: Snuggle up. Hold your child close, with cheeks touching your mouth near his ear and his mouth near your ear. Very quietly sing 'sol-mi' and have him quietly echo back. This personal, loving game helps youngsters focus on listening. He can hear and feel the vibrations of your notes through his cheek! 

Tip: Any note is Sol. Let's Play Music teachers are required to have a particular skill, so youparents may as well practice it, too!  Play ANY NOTE on the piano.  Imagine it is 'sol'.  Now sing Sol-Mi.  To check yourself, take three half-steps down (that means go down 3 piano keys of any color).  Get good at hearing and singing this interval, no matter what note we start on.  

Why does Ed sing 'loo-loo' instead of 'sol-mi' in the beginning? Because we begin with experiencing and internalizing the pitches.  Even though these two words are the same (loo) they don't  sound the same.  We help the child focus on the oneaspect that is different: pitch. 

Only when tunes with sol and mi are mastered, la, is added. Dozens of songs can be composed with these three notes.  You know children love and practice with these intervals because they naturally use them over and over when they make up their own songs.  You know...these songs:
  • Nana-nana boo-boo! (sol-sol mi-la sol-mi)
  • Trick-or-treat! Smell my feet ! (sol sol mi.  Sol sol mi.)
  • Give me something good to eat! (sol sol mi-la sol sol mi)
  • You ca-an't catch me! (sol mi-la sol mi!)
  • Ring around the rosy (sol sol-mi la sol-mi)
  • Rain, rain, go away (sol, mi, sol sol-mi) 
Tip: Act like you're four. If your child is hesitant to sing, or echo in class, useall of the above songs at home frequently. Your child will start using those phrases himself.  Warning: once you invite your child to say "nana-nana boo-boo" to you, you may never hear the end of it.   

Tip: Compose. It also pays off to invent songs using the above patterns using sol, la, and mi and use them all the time: "Get into the ca-ar. Don't forget your sho-es."  These short tunes can be repeated during the day and there's a good chance you'll get some back: "Read me a sto-ry. Or I won't go to sle-ep." Yourchild doesn't need to know he's improving his ear; it just seems silly and fun. 

Do and re are added next, one at a time into songs for echoing.  Singing a pentatonic scale (Do-Re-Mi-Sol-La) is easier than mastering the entire diatonic scale (Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do), so we practice the pentatonic scale in Sound Beginnings class.  Songs that include Fa and Ti are introduced last.

Singing Voice and Speaking Voice 

We all seem competent walking around and climbing stairs,  but only someone who has specifically strengthened and trained their muscles will be able to pull off a back handspring.  Our vocal equipment is also composed of muscles, and like all muscles, they respond to training and strengthening.  Muscle memory applies to vocal muscles just like it applies to our fingers: when we repeat and practiceactions, our brain and muscles remember how to do it. It gets easier. It starts seems automatic.  

So, each person has only one voice.  When using it for speaking, muscles create succinct sounds at moderate volumes with small changes in inflection and pitch.  This seems easy because we have lots of practice speaking, and we don't demand great exertions.   

When singing, we use the same equipment in a very different way: producing vocal overtones at great volume, held for long periods, covering a large pitch range. It's not surprising that singing requires more training than speaking, and that a singer often sounds very different when singing than when speaking!  

Can you sing an octave like the major scale?
A Let's Play Music student is learning how to get into his 'singing voice.' At first, he may be nervous to try to make sounds outside the few pitches that he uses for speaking.  Activities like swooping andhooting are used in class to encourage exploration of the vocal range. The tessitura (span of pitches that arecomfortable for singing, smaller than thetotal vocal range) for Let's Play Music children is between middle D and treble B, so our songs are written within that range (except the major scale going from middle C to treble C...a little stretch).

Tip: Be A Siren. If your child has a hard time leaving his favorite pitch (sings monotone), play siren games as often as you can work them into daily life.  When driving toy cars or airplanes, make swooping high and low sounds.  Fly a bite of food on your fork with swooping sounds before it makes it to the hangar.  As you walk down the hallway with a laundry basket, announce that the ambulance is coming and "wee-ooo wee-ooo".  Now that you've modeled the swooping, encourage your child to do some, too.  He'll get in the habit of experimenting with high and low sounds, and start to expand his range.

Carrying a tune requires us to jump from note to note, covering the intervalsexactly. We practice in class by working out our voices, practicing the intervals as they appear in songs and isolated.  Working the voice muscles in this way buildsmuscle memory to give us confidence that next time we need to jump the given interval, we instinctively know exactly how much to flex our vocal chords.   
By the third year, teachers show the students intervals with their hands (solfege) and they audiate and then sing.  This sight singing is a testament that audiation has occurred and that students' muscle memory for vocal muscles is well-developed. 

Use tone bells to train your voice!
Tip: Muscle Memory. Play Do-Re-Do on your tone bells. Sing it back.  As you go about your day, sing Re-Do-Re or Do-Re-Do and have your child echo you. If you can't quite remember it, or can't quite get it right, go back to the piano or bells to check.  Tomorrow add Do-Mi-Do to your repertoire, then Do-Fa-Do, etc.  Any piano key can be Do!  Your vocal muscles are mastering the intervals.

And what if you have the child who is happy to sing loud and proud, but doesn'tnotice that he's not hitting the right notes?

Tip: Listen to Yourself. Encourage your child to listen to himself. In a large group, it's easy to get carried along and lose track of what sound is coming fromour own voice.  It might help to sing along sometimes to a very quiet CD so he can really hear his voice.  In a large group he might need to plug one ear occasionally so he can hear his voice separate from the rest of the class.  

We're Singing Now!

If your child is able to sing along with the CD and even feels comfortable singingwithout the CD, he is likely ready for a bit more challenge!  Creating harmonychallenges the child's ability to audiate: can he hear his part and sing it, even when other singers are doing something different?

Ostinati (short, repeating melody) and rounds are the best way to teach children to hear and sing in harmony. An ostinato produces harmony because the notes are sung against the main melody of the song.  When we sing "Three Blind Mice and you are asked to sing 'mi re do' over and over, you are singing the ostinato.
This is an easy way to introduce harmony because it has a persistent nature; the student can focus on repeating his harmonic melody while also hearing the main tune.

Singing songs in rounds, like "Are You Sleeping" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"gives a slightly more challenging opportunity to create harmony and strengthening audiation.  Now he must audiate and sing his entire song while not being distracted by other singers.  

Tip: Increase the Challenge. If your child is catching on to singing, repeat the songs and activities from class.  Assign family members to sing in a round, sing an ostinato, sing two-part songs like "Horsey Horsey", or multi-part songs like "Solfege Sea Friends" or "Treble, Bass, Line, and Space." Long car trips or hikes are a great time to initiate a singing challenge!

Sing Now, Sing Later    

I have had a few parents say to me, "we will give it our best shot, but what if hejust doesn't learn to like singing?"  

In Let's Play Music, we will do our best to equip your child with skills to succeed as a musician.  A musician who rarely takes time to sing can still be a virtuoso on his instrument.  Although he hasn't trained his voice to confidently and accurately produce the pitches for singing, his brain is able to distinguish and audiate them.  This skill will be powerful to him as a musician, and could not have been introduced at age four without a few years of singing.

Please tell us in the comments- have you had a reluctant singer? or a child who struggled to match pitch? How did you help?

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher  

Don't miss part 1: Let's Sing: Why singing is fundamental 
Another post you may enjoy: Musical Superpower: Perfect Pitch 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

We Value Play

Here is another great post from our corporate blog Making Musicians. Find the direct link here

We Value PLAY

Children Learn Through PLAY
It's March, and if you live in a snowy place you might be feeling the effects of cavin fever by now.  Your family needs to have some fun and movement- the good news is you'll get it this week in Let's Play Music class!

 At Let's Play Music, we value PLAY.  We believe that fun, spontaneous experiences heighten enjoyment and create magical discoveries.

Play is how children figure things out; play is HOW they learn.  Fred Rogers states it perfectly: "Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.  But for children, play is serious learning.  Play is really the 'work' of childhood."

Four Reasons to Play

Kids learn best when they're playing, but why?  Here are my top four reasons with an explanation of how you'll see play shape our classes.

1. Play gives children the opportunity to try out new ideas in a safe environment. When "it's just a game", a student has freedom from evaluation and judgement. During games, it's easy to embrace mistakes with a laugh, because they are a built-in expectation.  (Read the post on the learning process to see why embracing mistakes is so necessary!) 

I think of many games, like Frog in the Middle. I am secretly giving students practice finding and matching a beat, aurally identifying melodic patterns, and matching and singing pitches. The students love this "practicing" because it's so silly! They are excited to take a turn showing off their dance.  They don't worry about performance tests, but they DO strive to master their moves and hand signs so the game will be better each week.

Every LPM game has a secret agenda, but to avoid damping the fun, I don't tell students about it during class. (Watch for next month's post on being sneaky.)

It makes sense that all of us are willing to try new things when we're unafraid of punishment for not being perfect.  In making music, we have to start somewhere, and it's far from perfection.

2. During play, children practice human values: cooperation, sharing, turn-taking, and conflict resolution. I recently heard a lecture from a child psychologist who would gauge these skills by timing how long children could sustain a group game.  One child would invent parameters for the play, "Let's play house", but others would inevitably add suggestions, "no, superheroes!" When the children could compromise, resolve conflicts, and be flexible, then they could keep the game going instead of giving up ("mom! we're bored!") or losing participants ("forget it! I'm not playing with you!"). Play time is an opportunity to practice interacting with others. "Okay, let's be a superhero family and we can pretend to go on a trip."  

By now you've caught on that Let's Play Music classes are about more than just teaching your child to do something.  Let's Play Music is about teaching your childto become something.  Our game-oriented class gives opportunities to practice these skills.

When I play the games like Circle Left, with my class, they work because everyone participates in making the circle rotate.  I offer each student a turn to decide how we will march/fly/skip/dance.  I remember one class when a student flopped to the floor during a game, upset about some offense.  Another classmate also stepped out of the game and gently went to him. "Oh, are you sad? Will you come back to the game? We would all like if you come be part of our circle. Will you come with me?"  My heart swelled as Sylvi reached out to her classmate. Her focus on considering everyone showed that she was practicing these skills.

3. The child at play is self-motivated and actively engaged.  Too-common are the stories from adults who took a few piano lessons as kids but for some reason didn't stick with it. Was practicing drudgery? Were lessons like a lecture? Were you wondering when it was going to start being fun? Did you wish going to lessons was as fun as going to Let's Play Music!?

I know your child will practice every day if it's part of your daily routine, and if he's looking forward to a weekly prize, or if he knows he doesn't get screen time until it's done.  Each of these extrinsic motivators has a definite place for establishing the practice habit early on, but what will happen when you take those motivations away someday? (I, for one, am planning on having my kids move out someday.)  

Our long-term goal is to help studentsdiscover the fun and joy and playfulness that can be found in making music, so they will eventually be self-motivated, intrinsically-motivated, to continue with practice and music studies when they graduate. Yes, making music takes focus, effort, and WORK (so does mastering the final level of Super Mario Bros). This brings us back to the fuzzy line between work and play: when your child can find the PLAY within the WORK, he'll have the motivation to stick with the training.

We don't pretend music-making is not hard work, but we do find every opportunity to highlight the silly and fun potential.  The process of finding joy in the work of music is sometimes a long, slow, road. So we keep our eye on the goal and make sure to help students recognize the joy whenever we can.

4. Play provides opportunities for fine and gross motor development. This truth applies to all of the playtime activities your child enjoys.  I'm thinking about the countless hours my own daughter spends dressing and undressing her baby dolls: definitely lots of fine motor practice there!

Moving around doesn't just improve motor skills; mounting scientific evidence from neuropsychologists and neurophysiologists teaches us that movement is crucial to learning.  Experiential, active instruction is most likely to lead to long-term memory of new concepts.  Playing a game in which you run to the magnet board, add your skip or baby step, and dash back to your seat helps you internalize the concept more strongly than if your teacher just showed it to you.

Not surprisingly, physiological stress reactions can negatively affect learning.  When your mind is in "playtime" mode, you are physiologically relaxed and ready to learn at your best.  Physical movement helps the brain perceive events and information in a non-stressful way so is learned more easily. Teaching via physical games is a winning strategy we use in Let's Play Music class!

Stages of Play

Finallly, one more big difference between Let's Play Music and other options is our group class format.  Parents sometimes wonder if their child would be better off with a private teacher right from the beginning.  Now that we know children learn through play, classes are formatted to accommodate the style of learning and playing at this age, and that translates into playing with friends.  
How do children play at each age?

Ages 0-2 : Solitary Play: Plays alone, starts to interact with adults. 

Ages 2-2.5: Spectator: Observes other children and copies them, enjoys repetitive motions.

Ages 2.5-3: Parallel: Plays along-side other children (not necessarily with them), copies actions of other adults and children. Play is imaginative.

Ages 3-4: Associative: Starts to develop cooperative play, starts to develop friendships, shows interest in 'why' and 'how' things are done during play.

Ages 4.5-6: Cooperative: Thrives in small-group play, enjoys cooperative games, enjoys learning and applying rules and demonstrating mastery.

When music theory is taught via silly group games, our students are set up for success.  Learning with a group of 5 friends is easier and more engaging for them than having a teacher one-on-one.

Our Teachers Model Play
Check out these Let's Play Music teachers using playfulness to enhance teaching:

Sarah McKay in Marietta, OH, introduced the song BINGO to her class, and realized they needed a few moments to treasure the joy of pretending to be doggies. After a moment of play, they had laser focus for learning the rhythms.

Michelle Bellingston in Pittsburgh, PA, helps her daughter find easy and playful ways to make practicing fun, like putting on a show for her stuffed animals.  

Marie Guthrie in Mesa, AZ, finds ways to sneak learning into playtime with her family.  During the popular card game, Sleeping Queens, they sing melodies from our Royal Problem puppet show when a dragon card is drawn!

Ann Cue in Madison, WI, makes sure parents have fun and play along, because kids love it!  When it's time to put on silly "root-finding glasses," moms get to dress up in style! Finding the roots of the chords has never been sillier or more successful.

The Results are In

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has identified the importance of playful learning in supporting children's development.  They also note the importance of joyfulness in learning- not typically assessed as an outcome of programs, but identified for its importance. When children find something fun, they learn more effectively.

If you are excited about PLAY and its role in your child's education, be sure to register for Let's Play Music classes, and then perhaps enjoy some additional reading:

The Power Of Play: Learning what Comes Naturally, by David Elkind.
Smart Moves, Why Learning is Not All in Your Head Carla Hannaford 
Play=Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children's Cognitive Growth, Dorothy Singer.
Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Stuart Brown
A Moving Child is a Learning Child, Gill Connell
Playful Learning: Develop Your Child's Sense of Joy, Mariah Bruehl.

Stay tuned as we focus on one of our CORE VALUES each month. Our classes are patterned and structured differently from other programs; you'll understand why as we explain what we value.

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music teacher