by Jackie Gerlach
Karl’s voice stood out from the others at the children’s Christmas Eve service. He didn’t sing louder, just off pitch. Karl might never learn to sing on key. Perhaps his teachers think it is impossible to teach someone to sing if it doesn’t come naturally. Some teachers might not think such singing is important, or they might not know how to teach this skill.
I was amazed the first time I heard first and second graders sing at our new church. This singing was not just cute; it was sweet and beautiful. I hadn’t ever heard children sing like this. The teacher took special care to teach all the children to sing on key. It took time to work individually with students but what a beautiful sound these little children made singing praises to their Savior! I began to teach in this school and learned from this teacher and I was able to achieve similar results even though I am not a great singer.
I wondered if children would be willing to work on this skill. Many adults would cringe at singing alone. I found that children enjoyed time at the piano, working alone or in small groups. It became a normal part of our day. I kept a positive attitude. One doesn’t need to say, “No, that’s the wrong note!” I found I could simply say, “Now let’s try this.” Of course my reaction was quite enthusiastic when a child matched a pitch for the first time! When I had little breaks in the day, I worked with students for short periods. Other students were busy and paid little attention to the singers. Progress was sometimes slow. At times it seemed that some would never match a pitch. But, by varying the teaching methods, students almost always succeeded. Some experts believe that all children can learn to sing.
Why teach children to sing? A simple answer might equate singing on pitch with other skills taught to children like skipping, painting, zipping a coat, or making a grilled cheese sandwich. These skills certainly aren’t necessary for survival, but they make life more enjoyable. Many who work with children will say that competence, not praise, is the key to a child’s confidence. During the holidays a famous network news anchor once covered a story about adults learning to sing. This anchor confessed one of his great regrets was never learning to sing on pitch. He wanted to sing the Christmas carols.
As Christians we might answer the question differently. Scripture urges us to sing and make music to the Lord. If we can sing the melodies, our praise is more edifying to ourselves and to our fellow Christians. We can enjoy a variety of music during the rhythm of the church year. We can do more than listen; we can hum a favorite melody during the week. We can enjoy singing to our children and teaching them “Jesus Loves Me” and “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb.”
Extensive training is helpful but not necessary for dramatic results. The main goal is to help children match piano pitches and voice pitches. Help them match the sustained pitch of another child who can sing. Help them sing in a head voice, a sweet voice. Train them to sing higher and lower. Some begin with matching pitches in only a two- to five-note range. Build on any progress. With a five-note range children can sing simple melodies. Let solid singers who have mastered a song boost the confidence of beginning singers.
Teaching children to sing on pitch in the lower grades can have an effect on the worship of an entire congregation. First graders who sing melodies accurately grow to be fifth and sixth graders who sing two- and three-part music. When these students graduate from eighth grade, they might be enthusiastic new members of the adult choir. Children who sing on pitch can handle more interesting music than a class with half singers and half non-singers. When children sing better music, they like singing more. This produces more energetic singing that can affect congregational singing.
Hearing beautiful children’s music can affect people’s perception of music in worship. Listeners grow to appreciate music as an integral part of worship. The church where I first heard those little children singing so beautifully saw its music program expand. Instruments were added: synthesizer, tone chimes (handbells that children can easily handle), Orff instruments, and even timpani. Two children’s choirs were added. And, yes, even sixth- to eighth-grade boys joined choirs. They had been singing good music for years and had learned to love God’s gift of music.
Harness Enthusiasm for God’s Glory
Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Prancer. It opens with a class of children singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” One voice stands out above all the others. A young girl sings loud and off pitch. The teacher divides the class until she finds the offender. She tells the girl, “Honey, sing a bit softer.” A classmate mutters, “Sounds worse than my dog when I kick him.” Similar scenes have probably been repeated in many classrooms.
How much better for teachers of eager youngsters to help children sing on pitch and harness their enthusiasm for the praise and glory of our Lord.
Resources are available to learn the skill of teaching children to sing on pitch.
Helen Kemp gives many practical ideas in a pair of excellent videos published by Concordia Publishing House and available through Northwestern Publishing House: Sing and Rejoice and Body, Mind, Spirit, Voice.
Everyone who teaches children to sing should read two books by John Bertalot: Five Effective Wheels of Sight Singing and Immediate Practical Tips.
Listen to recordings of children singing well and share them with the children. Try the cassettes Let the Children Sing, Volumes 1 and 2 (CS-225 and CS-256), available from G.I.A Publications, 1(800) 442-1358. Another great resource is More Great Hymns of the Church from The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1 (212) 616-6700; 800 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10017.
Since this article was first published, two other noteworthy recordings have
been released, compact discs with excellent examples of children singing.
1 - "O Lord, Open My Lips"
2 - "And My Mouth Will Declare Your Praise"
These recordings feature the children's choirs of St. Paul's Lutheran Church
and School, Ft Wayne, Indiana. The singers are volunteers from grades 3-8
directed by Barbara Resch.
The CD notes for the first recording state: "This collection is intended to
be a resource for parents, teachers in day schools [Lutheran Elementary
Schools] and Sunday Schools, and others who are interested in preparing
children for participation in the richness of the Divine Service and Lutheran
hymnody. Whether the recording is played in the classroom, during family
devotions or in the car on the way to after-school activities, we encourage
you to sing along with us or just listen and become more familiar with these
Children Sing His Praise: A Handbook for Children's Choir Directors,
Edited by Donald Rotermund; CPH, 1985. This is an excellent resource on all
topics of interest to those who teach music to children.
See also [link] "Teaching the Songs of Faith" by Carl Schalk
Mrs. Gerlach serves as teacher at Christ the Lord, Brookfield, Wisconsin.
Article reprinted from Summer 1996 “Parish Leadership”, which has been renamed “Lutheran Leader”.
“Lutheran Leader” aims to help leaders in Lutheran congregations with a Bible-based approach to ministry.
Lutheran Leader was published four times a year by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) Parish Services in cooperation with Northwestern Publishing House. It ceased publication in 2005 after serving the church for 13 years.