Most of my posts have dealt with my compositions or other repertoire up to this point. This post is different and hopefully will be useful to conductors of children’s choirs.
Developing beautiful singing and quality musicianship with young children in a choral and classroom music setting is extremely rewarding. An important part of the process is helping the student’s discover their head voice and how to use it.
The techniques I will describe have worked well for me with all levels, but I will focus this post on ages 6 to 10 (Elementary: typically 1st through 4th grade). This will not be comprehensive, but rather mention four helpful tips/tricks to achieve a beautiful head voice from your young singers.
1. Teach what is beautiful
A lot of our children may have a very narrow aural palate. Perhaps they’ve only heard a specific music type such as pop music. The good news is that when they’re young, they are very open to various sounds. I will often sit at the piano, and for half a minute play a beautiful melody with simple harmonic accompaniment, or play a beautiful sounding progression of chords, or a portion of a beautiful piece (or play a recording of a fine choir, orchestra, singer, player, etc…). I will then tell them that this is beautiful music. Children must be taught what is beautiful, and as music teachers, we share part of that responsibility. When they are singing let them know when they make a beautiful sound, especially in the head voice. Timely reinforcement is so simple, but so effective. Let’s not forget it!
2. “Hooty” sound
I use much singing on an “oo” sound. One of the best techniques I’ve found is having students imitate animal sounds. Most love it. The target is to create a natural head voice sound on “oo.” “Owl” and “Mourning Dove” imitations are excellent. I will instruct them to hoot like an owl. Often this will be three “hoots,” with the first two staccato and the last one sustained (hoo, hoo, hooooooo). This is mostly on one pitch and needs to high enough in pitch that it is not easy to do in a “chesty” voice. Remember to let them know they sound beautiful when they get it right. I tell them this is “hooty” sound. Having them echo the teacher on various “hooty” exercises of one or more notes (often staccato) is effective. Keeping the head voice sound on sustained pitches is usually more challenging for them, but over time they will get it. Then you can move to other more difficult vowel sounds such as “oh,” “ah,” “eh,” and “ee.” When singing, it is so helpful to be able to remind them to use their “hooty” voices.
3. Start high and work toward low.
When teaching the “hooty” head voice, starting an exercise above the middle of the average child’s range will often promote use of head voice. Like I mentioned above, do high to low practice. I often start “hooty” voice exercises starting between the 2nd “b” and the 2nd “d” above middle c. Most young students will do one of two things, either really try to yell the note, or revert naturally into a “hooty” beautiful head voice (especially if done on staccatos). The yelling issue is easily resolved for most students by the next trick.
4. Soft Singing
Soft singing on the above exercises all but guarantees they will find head voice. (Most can naturally do it, they just need to learn that it is generally preferable for singing.) Remember to tell them how beautiful they sound when they get it right. They will be excited that you are excited about them! However, don’t be surprised if the quality of sound changes, and the head voice disappears when the volume goes up, or the vowel changes. This takes repeated practice.
Something that has helped me with maintaining beautiful tone in head voice while increasing volume is word imagery. I tell them to keep the sound soft even when getting louder. Example: “Imagine that you’re petting a soft cat, the sound should be like that soft fur. It is easy to ‘feel’ the soft fur when you sing quiet, but when you get loud, you must still ‘feel’ the soft sound.”
I hope some of these teaching tips and tricks will be helpful for you. Be patient with your students, as this doesn’t usually develop immediately, but can take weeks, months, or even a couple of years. But with persistent and consistent practice, your young children’s choirs will discover and love using a beautiful head voice tone. Just make sure they have fun in the process!
* By the way, these same techniques work well with middle and high school levels, as long as they are adapted to their age level. They will shut down if they think you are treating them like “little kids.” However, if you acknowledge their maturity (no snickering now middle school music teachers), these techniques (modified) can help them also!
* A second note: nothing shuts down beautiful tone like a bad acoustic environment in performance. This is not because the kids switch tone, but because parents will complain about not hearing their children well (and they have a point) and often tell their children to just sing loud at the next program (this really happens). Most parents I know prefer bad tone they can hear well to beautiful tone they have to strain to hear from their young children. If you’re in a gymnasium, set up a shell or use mics (I hate amplifying the choirs with mics, but sometimes it is the lesser of evils) so they can be heard well. You want your students to be able to use that healthy beautiful tone (without parent complaint) as it will pay off big dividends for them musically as they mature.