Updated: The Adventures of Mozart the Marvelous Mouth Magician: Singing in the Head Voice

First posted on August 10, recopied with a few updates:

In Missouri, one of our music objectives is teaching first graders about singing in head voice. As we know, this is important for vocal health, to save the throat and to encourage children to sing in their natural ranges. We use sirens, scarves, and other tricks.

I am always looking for new ways to utilize my ever-growing collection of puppets in new ways. This year (2016), I had a brainstorm. Two years ago, I used a Merlin cap as part of the sixth grade program. I will admit, I'm lazy. My costumes are housed in our school basement in a corner of the STEM closet. Somehow, the Merlin hat didn't make it to the box, and I really didn't want to go downstairs to put it away. So, the hat ended up on my boy Folkmanis puppet we had named Wolfie (for Mozart, from the movie Amadeus).  This year, I looked at the hat, and Wolfie, in a whole new light. The hat remained, and I renamed Wolfie to the much more dignified name of Mozart the Marvelous Mouth Magician, complete with I.D. card (well, the picture has to be taken care of first. He has a temporary one). I decided that Mozart would make a great tool to teach first graders about head voice and proper singing. The video below shows Mozart's first introduction to the first grade:

My heart almost broke when one little voice in first grade (when I talked about how Mozart was afraid someone would make fun of him) said "We would NEVER do that." Lesson in head voice AND lesson in character education! These kids were too precious. And the Merlin hat? Terrific visual in head voice! Since the superstrain of lice hasn't disappeared, the kids can't share the real Merlin hat, but we will be making our own for their next music classes so they have their own magic hat for head voice. Hopefully I will be sharing those activities as well.

UPDATE, August, 2017: The original post came out in 2016. I revisited Mozart recently, and the first graders still love it. They wondered why he always sat there last year when they were in kindergarten without participating, and now they know. The tie-in with being bullied and teased seemed to resonate with some of my students. They are very excited to make their own magic hats. I've refined the craft since I posted about this in 2016, so that's coming up soon! They especially loved it when Mozart "whispered" the idea about the kids having their own hats in my ear. Awww, the innocent hearts of first graders makes me hopeful for the future. 

So, we're going to keep on the continuing adventures of Mozart the Marvelous Mouth Magician. Stay tuned!

***Disclaimer: I will be developing activities with Mozart for future workshops and possibly other ventures. If you should choose to share this idea, I would greatly appreciate receiving credit. Thanks!

They Can All Sing-The Primary Years and Head Voice

One of the trickiest things to get kids to sing in the primary years is getting some of them in that head voice. Whether it's because they imitate the adults in their lives who might sing in a chest voice, or just may not want to sing, encouraging that feel can often be frustrating. But there are tricks to getting these kids to get within their proper range and making it fun.

John Feierabend is probably the king of the early and primary childhood voice. That was his focus of study. If you have never been to one of his workshops, it needs to be on your teacher bucket list. His props and ideas for singing (such as the hummingbird conversation idea my students love) and his resources are full of great ideas. Most likely, you had been taught to teach songs by rote, a chunk at a time (whole-part-whole). In Feireabend's opinion, this doesn't work. It reinforces the beginning too much, and you lose them at the end. Instead, he advocates introducing the song and the games right away. Incorporate the song into other activities or as an introduction. Just sing it. For short songs, I like to sing the song and tell the students, "When you know the song, follow me and sing along". As students learn the song, they get up and follow me in a circle around the room. Students who linger? I just tell them, "You've got this! Do you want a friend to help?" A friend can walk with them and sing along.

Puppets, props, and pretty little things are great tools to capture the attention and get kids to vocalize and aim for that head voice. In kindergarten and beginning first grade, I just want them to get up there. We're not too worried about pitch (although I do introduce solfege in first grade.) Here are some examples of items I've collected over the years or created that encourage sounds that get them out of the chest:

  • Yodeling goat puppet. I bought this guy at our Books Are Fun stand one year at school. (In fact, my daughter was so enthralled, she wanted to borrow it for her university band's Sound of Music Feature.

    This is an exercise in listening. The goat "sings" The Lonely Goatherd. But my students are to NOT sing the regular words, but only echo the yodeling. Here's an example from class today:

This was a second grade class. And they were captivated. The goat is so much fun, the tough guys don't realize they're singing in head voice.

  • Sing-a-Ma-Jigs These toys apparently come in a variety of styles and it appears some have become collectors' items since I first purchased one about 10 years ago! When you squeeze the tummy, the toy "sings" a particular song (although you have to squeeze for each pitch). Squeeze its hand, and it sings individual pitches for matching. Squeeze its hand again, and you get vocalese exercises, which is what I used here with kindergarten.

Another great little toy--a versatile one--is a Hoberman sphere. Kids are fascinated by this expandable toy. I've used this for dynamics, movement cues, and for getting into the head voice, as this video shows (with first grade):

Finally, I love telling little stories in class to get the students listening and participating. I developed a little Dino Dance story, using visuals, to get my students to not only read, but to note the visual cues that indicate whether their pitch should go higher or lower. Here is a sample from class:

Vocal exploration stories are fun, short, sweet, and are actually something you can incorporate with your students later as they begin to write. They can write their own vocal exploration stories. You can find the Dino Vocal Exploration Packet on Teachers Pay Teachers. 

Share your vocal exploration ideas here for the chance to win a $10 TPT gift certificate! Contest ends September 1.

Next time: A revisit to Mozart, the Marvelous Mouth Magician. I introduced him last year, and it's time to see what's going on with him this year.

They Can All Sing....Part One: Intermediate-Ages 4-6

True confession time: as a former band director and one who really only sang in church choir and the bare minimum to get vocal certification, I was (and often still am) a nervous singer, especially solo in front of other adults. More on that later.....

As a teacher, though, I've found my voice and courage to sing in front of my students. I honestly believe, because of my background, I have an understanding of how my older intermediate students feel about singing. As much as I encourage them to sing, I know, for various reasons, many are nervous or refuse to. It can be as simple as that dastardly voice change (which happens younger and younger....but that's for another blog), parents who didn't sing to them, social pressure that singing isn't "cool" (baloney!), or just plain shyness. As I tell my kids, I understand why they feel that way. The voice is the instrument that is at true extension of oneself. Make fun of that instrument...make fun of that person. You can't disconnect yourself from your voice.

So, in a class where we strive to make our kids feel safe, have fun, and be relaxed, how can we encourage reluctant singers to participate? I'm going to be running an ongoing serious of helping students find their voices, discourage bullying, and dealing with various voice issues. Today, I'm focusing on a group that I have found challenging in the past, but actually enjoy helping find their voices now: that intermediate age of grades 4-6.

First of all, I LOVE showing them YouTube videos of vocal folds. The boys get a kick out of it, the girls get grossed out, but they need to learn what is in there and why they should take care of it. I don't think they have any idea. For the longest time, I thought of vocal chords and long, tendon-like things in the throat. How can you care for an instrument if you don't know how it works? Here's an example of a video I like to show.

Another thing I discovered besides the fact that preteens like to get grossed out: they are pretty competitive and silly. They'll buy into something if it involves competition and a unique way method of presentation. So, over the years, I've developed some rather unconventional ways to get most reluctant singers and participants to become engaged, at least more than they had.

For quite a few years, I have used a Vocal Football bulletin board system, very similar to the Recorder Karate system. I set up a bulletin board much like this:

Each student in grades 4-6 has a little paper "football jersey". I keep them in envelopes by class. As individual students sing various warm-ups or solfege patterns, they pin their "shirt" on advancing yard lines, aiming for a goal. Once they hit the goal, they are eligible for the Superbowl of Vocal Football. Those patterns are even more difficult. If they achieve that, they get a bonus, such as free seating or a prize, a certificate, and their name posted outside my room. This year, I needed that bulletin board for something else, so I am developing the same activity in Smartnotebook, where each class can have a file. I actually have a Vocal Football packet on Teachers Pay Teachers, which you can get here.

Another neat activity that turned out to be loads of fun (even if it was a mess) was a yarn game. Some of you might know the discussion activity involving yarn or string that is meant to encourage people to participate in discussions. One person contributes to the discussion, tosses a ball of yarn to someone else, and holds on to part of it. This continues, until the class ends up with a rather cool design. I decided to try this last year, but with solfege singing with my older kids. We sang a diatonic scale with solfege. One student started on pitch (and the class worked with that person if they weren't quite on). Once leader sang the pitch, the class echoed it until everyone was in tune, and the leader tossed the yarn, holding on to one part. The next person sang the next solfege pitch, and we continued. With my bigger classes of 28, we did have to go through the scale more than once, but it was a blast, as you can see here!:

Fourth grade class enjoys singing solfege with their yarn patterns

My last idea for today was inspired by a video by Bobby McFerrin. Bobby was demonstrating the beauty of the pentatonic scale in this video, and immediately, signals started going off in my head. I used large dots corresponding with the Boomwhacker colors and developed a Solfege Shuffle. I even use this with second grade. I started off as the conductor, using simple so-la-mi patterns (green, purple, and yellow spots). As I tapped each spot, the students sang the corresponding syllable. It helped my second graders understand that going to the left meant singing lower and going to the right meant singing higher, a nice segue for instruments later. For my older kids, as they sang various intervals in tune, I gradually started adding more dots until I had a full diatonic scale. When I was brave enough, I encouraged various students to be the conductor. I noted that the reluctant singers were not so reluctant to be conductor. Not only that, but when others were the leader, those "reluctant" singers were no longer quite so reluctant.

Student getting ready to do the Solfege Shuffle.

I love this game a lot! It's fun for me, and a quick assessment to see who was trying to do their best and who was having difficulty matching. You can find a version of the Solfege Shuffle on my TPT page here

Finally, once I encouraged students to focus through the use of audiation, singing improved remarkably. Our kids have trouble focusing, and that includes true listening. Kids don't stop to listen. By adding accompaniment as the last thing, modeling, and using student models, my students, slowly but surely, are matching better. One trick with audiation I use it to sing a pattern of a song we are learning and make them sing it in their heads before singing it back without me. When they are forced to stop and the room is quiet, pitch match is not only improved, but the ability to sing in harmony gets better because the phrase becomes innate. Stopping for silence before singing might seem like a time waster, but like stopping to review rules, in the end, it saves endless frustration and wasted rehearsal time. And the kids feel better!

Please feel free to share ideas of how you encourage your intermediate kids how to sing and participant. I love the idea shares. Next time....working with primary head voice.