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Developing the Child Voice - Our Joyful Responsibility: Part 1

by Sarah Hruska-Olson Olson.Sarah@MacPhail.org

School children singing, Pie Town, New Mexico  (LOC)

“I’m sorry, Johnny.  Our voices do not sound the same,” announced my music education professor to a hypothetical child singing out of tune.  The professor’s tone of voice was mournful, as if perhaps Johnny’s dog had died.  The professor went on to give our class of music education students a demonstration of pitch matching techniques to help individual children improve vocal accuracy. 

As an inexperienced undergraduate, I vowed that I would never humiliate children by making them work independently on pitch matching in front of the class!  Yet I now find that I actually use some of the techniques I first learned from this very same professor.  I have learned that it is quite possible to help children explore their voices and ultimately sing in tune in an atmosphere that is safe, inviting, and fun. 

Singing in tune is one of the most important gifts we can give our young students.  As an early childhood and K-5 music educator, it is my responsibility to find creative, developmentally appropriate ways to encourage vocal exploration and pitch matching while maintaining a sense of trust and safety within the group. 

 In his book, “First Steps in Music for Preschool and Beyond,” John Feierabend writes:

 “We must help children explore the sensation of singing and then give them guided opportunities to reproduce the sound.  However, to engage this age group, we must use techniques and strategies that are developmentally appropriate while remaining wonderfully childlike, playful, and fun.”[1]

I asked my MacPhail Early Childhood and Community Partnership colleagues to share some of their favorite ideas for developing the child voice.  For the purposes of this article, I will divide the responses into two categories: vocal exploration and pitch matching.  First just a quick note on terminology from MacPhail vocal music teacher, Shannon McGuire:

 “Referring to the "head voice" - This is a term more useful after the voice has changed.  It is the resonance in the head verses the resonance in the chest cavity.   Before the voice changes, all humans have a "child voice."  Boys and girls have basically the same range, which will vary a bit depending where the child's vocal folds are in growth development.”

Shannon’s point is an important one.  When we refer to children singing in “head voice” it could imply that there is some other type of healthy child singing voice.  When we are working with children and adults together, however, it may be useful to use the term “head voice” as a reminder for the adults serving as vocal models for the children in the class. For our purposes, the term “head voice” can be understood to mean the healthy, light, high, accurate, and unaffected singing we hope to guide our young students to create.

Part 1: Vocal Exploration

Before children can sing in their natural singing range, they must discover how to access that range through vocal exploration.  Here is some collected wisdom on vocal exploration.

Cheryl Henningsgaard has some tips on how to work with caregivers on vocal exploration and providing a vocal model appropriate for young children:

  • Discuss the importance of vocal exploration with caregivers, have frequent reminders of this on the board, and also model this each and every class.
  • Use the slide whistle to provide the up and down fluctuations of the voice.  This is a vocal warm up that assists the caregivers in singing with their head voices.
  • Use the glockenspiel to demonstrate where the head voice range should be.  Play and sing "Twinkle" with the glockenspiel!
  • Use call and response songs in keys that encourage head voice participation. Try "Twinkle" in D major or "Clap Your Hands" in E major.
  • Remind the caregivers that once they use a head voice while singing, it will become easier and more natural for them!; WHAT ABOUT DADS????  They can do it, too!

Aric Bieganek shares an old favorite from his boys’ choir days:

 “Throw "voice Frisbees." This is an old trick from when I was in the St. John's Boys' Choir. Pretend to hold a Frisbee in your hand, and throw your voice with it. Throw it out a window. Throw it off a cliff/mountain. Stand in the back of the room and catch it, so they know when to cut off their voices. We used to throw our Frisbees out the back of the church through the beautiful St. John's Abbey windows. Use "wooooo" as your tone for the Frisbee, and make sure you lift your eyebrow. Smiling and lifting eyebrows are two different ways to encourage head voice singing with children." 

Kate Gordhamer uses roller coaster imagery with her young school-aged children: 

“Slide whistles are awesome for this!  I have students follow the pitch with their hands as I play the slide whistle, then have them echo patterns on an "ooh."  I draw lines on the board that go up and down like a roller coaster (sometimes, if they're lucky, I even add a loop the loop) and we follow it with our voices.”

Amanda Breininger writes:

“I have my kids sing out of their "unicorn horns" to find mask resonance.  We also bend all the way over and explore high vocal sounds, and "feel" the sound fall into our unicorn horns as we slowly make our way back up to standing.  They love it.”

Kim Bahmer offers the following activities: 

Ball Toss

  1. Toss a ball in the air and have students follow the ball on an “ooh” with their voices.
  2. Toss the ball to a student while class follows the ball on an “ooh”


  1. Dribble an imaginary basketball 3 times saying “bounce, bounce, bounce”
  2. Then aim hands and say “aim” while sliding voice upwards and say “shoot!” on a high pitch


  1. Blow bubbles and ask students to pick one bubble and follow it with their voice on an “ooh”
  2. When the bubble pops or disappears from sight, they sit silently 

Sarah Olson suggests: 

“I like to use props like scarves, ribbon wands and the parachute as cues for vocal exploration.  I also use books and stories that encourage vocalization.  The Musical Trolley story “Wiggle and Waggle” is a great example, although there are many others.  The magic wand in Pete Seeger’s book, “Abiyoyo” makes a wonderful “zoop” sound. Finally, creative movement can go hand in hand with vocal exploration.  Invite children to create sounds to accompany hand movements and gestures.”

Check back tomorrow for Part 2: Pitch Matching with Children

Photo credit: The Library of Congress via Flickr

[1] “First Steps in Music for Preschool and Beyond,” John Feierabend, Copyright 2003 GIA Publications Inc. 

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