RTRL.51: Research on Children’s Singing (Hedden, 2012)

Source:

Hedden, D. (2012). An overview of existing research about children’s singing and the implications of teaching children to sing. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 30(2), 52-62.

What research exists on children’s singing and what insight can it provide for music educators?

What did the researcher do?

In order to offer suggestions for helping children learn to sing, Hedden conducted a literature review of existing research studies pertaining to prepubescent children’s singing. This included studies of both internal factors (e.g., vocal range, pitch matching, sex differences) and external factors (e.g., solo versus group, use of accompaniment, use of text, vocal modeling).

In synthesizing the 50+ studies on children’s singing, Hedden identified many important themes. While I cannot present them all in this post, here are a few I find to be particularly valuable for teaching elementary general music:

✴ Young children can sing short patterns more accurately than whole songs.

Hedden summarized numerous studies that suggest young children may struggle with singing complete songs. Children in these studies were more able to accurately sing short patterns or individual pitches.

✴ Children benefit from whole group, small group, and solo singing experiences.

A number of researchers have studied whether children sing more accurately in solo or in large or small groups, to varying results. Ensuring that students experience both seems to be most beneficial.

✴ Children may benefit when singing is introduced on neutral syllables before text.

Though research findings have varied, there is some evidence to suggest that children may sing less accurately when learning songs with text. “There appears to be some merit in introducing singing on neutral syllables to offer one challenge at a time” (Hedden, 2012,  p. 58).

✴ Learning a song by rote or immersion may be more effective than phrase-by-phrase.

Children may have an easier time absorbing and retaining a new melody when they’re given numerous opportunities to listen in a focused way before being asked to sing. “As the child hears the song several times, [they] will gain familiarity with the pitch contour…. This process is akin to that of language acquisition, in that the young children hears certain words and phrases repeatedly before attempting to replicate them” (p. 58).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Because young children initially sing short patterns more accurately than whole songs, we can provide students with opportunities to echo short tonal patterns or chime in on short melodic patterns within a song. For example, you might model singing “Frog Song” and pretending to make your hand hop upward on the “ga-gung” pattern. Then you might invite students to chime in on that pattern whenever it occurs during the song.

Most music classes feature ample opportunities for students to sing as a whole group. To build musical independence, we can also add opportunities for students to sing in small groups and in solo. For example, once students are familiar with “Frog Song,” I add a frog finger puppet on the “ga-gung” pattern, inviting students to sing the rest of the song as I sing that pattern in solo while moving the frog puppet in an upward motion. Then I pass out three puppets to three individual students, who each sing one “ga-gung” in solo with the puppet while the rest of the class sings the rest of the song. Once students are familiar with the activity, it also provides an opportunity for singing assessment, using a rating scale such as the following:

  • 4 = Student sings the entire tonal pattern accurately.
  • 3 = Student sings the tonal pattern with slight intonation error. 
  • 2 = Student performs the pattern in singing voice but inaccurate pitches.
  • 1 = Student performs the pattern in speaking voice.

You could also have students echo short tonal patterns in solo, as shown in this video:

Kindergarten Students Echoing Tonal Patterns on Neutral Syllables

When teaching students a new melody, one approach is to use this process for teaching a song by rote, common among practitioners of Gordon’s Music Learning Theory: 

  1. Teacher models singing the song while students listen.
  2. Teacher models singing the resting tone (on “bum” or solfege) and invites students to audiate and sing the resting tone whenever they pause and gesture during the song.
  3. Teacher models moving to the microbeats (e.g., tapping, etc.) and invites students to move to the microbeats as they listen to the teacher sing the song.
  4. Teacher models moving to the macrobeats (e.g., swaying, etc.) and invites students to move to the macrobeats as they listen to the teacher sing the song.
  5. Teacher and students move to simultaneous macrobeat/microbeat while the teacher sings the song.
  6. Students close their eyes and sing the song silently in their heads, raising their hands when they are finished. (Teacher should be sure to give a starting signal/cue.)
  7. Students sing the song independently (without the teacher).

Songs can also be taught through immersion by engaging students in imaginative play as you expose them to the song. For example, you might…

  • Pretend to stir a different ingredient into a big pot of soup each time the teacher sings the song. Invite individual students to suggest ingredients to add!
  • Pretend to make a pizza, acting out a different step each time the teacher sings the song (stir, roll dough, poke dough, toss in the air, sway and sing or chant “tick-tock” to the beat while baking, slice to the beat, eat!)
  • Pretend it’s a snow day and do a different action each time the teacher sings the song (wake up/stretch, jump for joy, build a snowman, sledding, snow angels, snowball fight).
  • Pretend to bake cookies (stir, roll dough, use cookie cutters, “tick-tock”, frost, eat!), acting out a different step each time the teacher sings the song. Here is a video of this activity using a song in Lydian tonality sung on neutral syllables:
Informal Music Guidance: Kindergarten Students Absorbing a New Song

Playful activities like these allow students to hear and absorb the song a number of times so that by the time you ask them to sing it, they can already audiate it and are ready to sing.

Finally, since children may initially sing more accurately without text/lyrics, consider first teaching songs on a neutral syllable, such as “bum”, “loo”, “da”, or a combination of syllables.

RTRL.44: Using a Trauma-informed Approach to Supporting Students (Rosenbaum-Nordoft, 2018)

Source:

Rosenbaum-Nordoft, C. (2018). Building teacher capacity for trauma-informed practice in the inclusive elementary school classroom. Early Childhood Education, 45(1), 3-12.

What did the researcher want to know?

How can teachers support students who have experienced trauma?

What did the researcher do?

Rosenbaum-Nordoft conducted a review of research studies and other literature pertaining to childhood trauma. She synthesizes these findings in her article and provides suggestions to equip teachers to more effectively support students in elementary school classrooms.

What did the researcher find?

Rosenbaum-Nordoft first gives an overview of the roots and effects of complex trauma. Trauma is rooted in the body’s fear response, which is “the brain’s natural reaction to perceived or actual threats” (p. 4). When the brain is alerted to possible danger, it suspends logical thought and prepares the body to protect itself through one of three responses: fight, flight, or freeze. “A fight, flight, or freeze response can lead to a rapid reactivity to a perceived threat, including self-protective behaviors such as agression, withdrawal [e.g., running away], or freezing [e.g., becoming non-responsive]” (p. 5). Repeatedly experiencing this fear response over time can lead to chronically elevated levels of stress hormones, hindered brain development, mental health concerns like anxiety or depression, poor impulse control, and impaired ability to concentrate and learn. “Children in a state of fear retrieve information from the world differently than children who feel calm” (Perry, as cited in Rosenbaum-Nordoft, 2018, p. 5). Therefore, it is important for teachers to acknowledge the long-term implications of complex trauma on physical and mental health and  use a “trauma-informed lens” in the classroom.

“A trauma-informed approach to supporting students … expands the lens through which educators view educational success so that it includes both academic achievement and mental health” (p. 6). Teachers should be on the lookout for signs of trauma in students and take this into consideration when responding to student behaviors. For example, rather than seeing a student as “‘bad,’ unmotivated or hostile” (p. 6) and asking “What is wrong with this student?”, a teacher might shift their thinking to instead ask “What is the function of that behavior?” Asking the latter question can help the teacher identify triggers for the behavior, which can then be prevented or mitigated. Rosenbaum-Nordoft provides several examples of how behavior can be analyzed in this way using functional behavioral analysis.

Finally, the author stresses the importance of relationships in supporting students who have experienced trauma. For example, she cites a study in which the researchers “found that having a trusted adult in the school was associated with greater academic gains” and “that teachers who take the time to listen and communicate an attitude of acceptance, accessibility, warmth and knowledge supported the trust in the relationship” (p. 6). Taking the time to get to know students and build a positive relationship will help them feel safer in school, thus enabling them to learn more effectively.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Life has changed drastically over the past five months throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, it is likely that many of our students are experiencing trauma. In order to help our students through this difficult time, we must first attend to connecting with them and making them feel seen, valued, and safe. Building relationships should be our main priority as we move forward with our students.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provides a number of helpful resources, including “Trauma-Informed School Strategies during COVID-19.” Visit their website here.

RTRL.39: Accommodating Transgender Singers (Aguirre, 2018)

Source:

Aguirre, R. (2018). Finding the trans voice: A review of the literature on accommodating transgender singers. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 37(1), 36-41.

What did the researcher want to know?

What guidance can existing research provide to help music educators better meet the needs of transgender singers?

What did the researcher do?

Aguirre conducted a literature review of existing research studies pertaining to the transgender singing experience or that provide suggestions for working with transgender singers.

What did the researcher find?

Aguirre first presents definitions of relevant terminology:

  • sex = designation (male or female) assigned at birth
  • gender = social construct that encompasses both gender identify and gender expression and exists on a spectrum (not only male/female but also nonbinary, etc.)
  • transgender = describing one whose birth-assigned sex does not align with their gender identify, gender expression, or both. Note: “The proper term to use when discussing this population is transgender, not the past tense verb ending in -ed, as using the verb form of this word implies that something has happened to this person” (p. 37).
    • male-to-female transgender (MtF or trans-female/woman) = someone whose birth-assigned sex was male but identifies as female
    • female-to-male transgender (FtM or trans-male/man) = someone whose birth-assigned sex was female but identifies as male
    • (**NOTE: Some feel that the the terms MtF/FtM are inappropriate because they suggest that something “happened” to the person. Instead, we might use the terms AFAB (assigned female at birth) or AMAB (assigned male at birth).

Aguirre’s review of the literature found the following:

  1. Many educators feel unprepared to work with the LGBTQ community.
  2. While some studies show that many transgender students report having more positive experiences in their music classes compared to the rest of school, other studies show that some music teachers are not comfortable using gender-neutral language in their classrooms.
  3. The choral classroom may be a more likely source of obstacles for transgender students than other music classrooms. This is due to gendered voice parts, gendered ensemble types, gendered rehearsal language, and/or gendered concert attire that are prevalent among many choral music education programs.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Music educators should be sensitive to the unique needs of all students but especially of their transgender students. Existing research shows that transgender students notice and appreciate their teachers’ efforts to provide a more inclusive environment. Here are some ways that music teachers can make their classrooms a more inclusive environment for their trans students:

  • Avoid gendered language when addressing students. Instead of “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen”, try using a gender-neutral term, such as “students”, “musicians”, or “everyone.” Specifically in the choral classroom, try referring to students by voice part rather than sex (e.g., “sopranos and altos” rather than “ladies/girls”).
  • Be sure to address students by their correct pronouns (e.g., they/them, she/her, he/him). At the beginning of each semester, you might ask students to complete an information/background form, in which you ask them to indicate their preferred pronouns. After reviewing these, prepare for class by devoting conscious attention to practicing the correct pronouns of any students you find yourself misgendering. Practicing the proper pronouns outside of class will help you use them more comfortably and automatically in class. It is also acceptable to avoid pronouns altogether and use a student’s preferred first name. This article provides some helpful tips for using gender-neutral pronouns.
  • Teach your students that “voice part, like sexuality, is independent of gender identity or gender expression…. Tenors and basses do not have to be males, while sopranos and altos do not have to be females” (p. 39). Note that this is not an entirely new concept, as some cisgender females with low voices may sing tenor or cisgender males with high voices may sing alto/countertenor.) (NOTE: Cisgender refers to someone whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth.)
  • If you currently have gendered ensemble names, consider renaming these to be gender-neutral. For example, “men’s choir” could become “tenor/bass choir”; “women’s choir” could become “treble choir”. 
  • Choose gender-neutral concert attire or allow students to choose the option in which they will feel most comfortable. 
  • Be aware of specific needs of trans men versus trans women. Some female trans students (AMAB) may be able to sing in their falsetto if their preference is to sing the also or soprano part. Provide such students with this option as well as guidance in doing so. Male trans students (AFAB) who are starting testosterone may experience voice change similar to adolescent cisgender males and need the same sensitivity and guidance from their teacher.
  • Rewrite vocal parts for specific students when needed.

Resources:

 

RTRL.24: Developing a Culturally Responsive Mind-Set in Elementary General Music (Kelly-McHale, 2019)

Source:

Kelly-McHale, J. (2019). Research-to-resource: Developing a culturally responsive mind-set in elementary general music. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 37(2), 11-14.

What did the researcher want to know?

What practical steps can elementary general music teachers take toward developing a culturally responsive mind-set?

What did the researcher do?

In order to make practical suggestions for elementary general music teachers, Kelly-McHale synthesized a variety of research studies and other sources pertaining to culturally responsive pedagogy, the purpose of which is “to improve the achievement of students of color and those who have been marginalized due to culture” (p. 11).

What did the researcher find?

“Culturally responsive music educators seek to develop a mind-set that enables them to understand, appreciate, and incorporate the experiences and the music of the students within their classroom, their community, and the world we live in” (p. 11). Teachers can work toward developing this culturally responsive mind-set by focusing on two areas: context and content. Here are some of Kelly-McHale’s specific suggestions:

Context/Classroom Environment

  • Greeting and Learning: Connect with each individual student by saying hello as they enter, making eye contact, and working to learn their name. This sounds simple, but “when a teacher mispronounces or arbitrarily changes a child’s name, the child begins to develop a disjuncture between school and home” (p. 12).
  • Know Your Biases: Develop awareness of habits that may portray unintended favoritism, such as teaching more to one part of the class or calling on boys more than girls.
  • Listening to Your Students: Try to get to know your students by truly listening to them, particularly during casual conversations in the hallway or as students enter the classroom. Kelly-McHale also suggests setting aside a few minutes of “sharing space” in each of your classes, during which students are invited to share something about themselves.
  • Representation: Include images in your classroom that look like the students you teach and others in the local community as well as national community. Incorporate music that is representative of students’ backgrounds and music that is composed or performed by people who represent other backgrounds as well—not just during a specific month but throughout the whole year.

Content/Classroom Materials

  • Representation: Rather than making assumptions about what music your students will connect with, “the students in the seats should be where you start when choosing music” (p. 13). Some ways we might learn about the musical lives of our students outside of school include surveying them about the music they listen to or how they engage with music at home or by surveying their parents about what music they enjoy at home or even asking them to share in person. 
  • Contextualizing Repertoire: Engage students in discussion about the music you make and listen to in class, “situating the music within the greater societal context” (p. 14).
  • Recognizing Your Music Bias: Respect students’ musical tastes and values. “Just because we are the experts due to our degrees and experience does not mean that we are the arbiters of quality when it comes to music” (p. 14). 

What does this mean for my classroom?

“The development of [a culturally responsive] mind-set begins with an exploration of teaching context in terms of who the students are and what communities they represent; this knowledge should then inform the content that is used in the music classroom” (p. 11).

Note: Online access to Update: Applications of Research in Music Education is included with NAfME membership. In addition to research studies and literature reviews, this journal has recently added new “Research-to-Resource” articles, designed to provide teachers with practical suggestions supported by research. NAfME members can access these and other articles by logging into the NAfME website and clicking “News and Publications” under “For Teachers.”