Aural Training: Singing in Tune for Beginners

Over the years I've had quite a few pupils who are hung up about the aural tests in ABRSM exams, especially the requirement for candidates to sing. In truth, I personally don't feel it's a good idea for non-singing candidates to be tested on their singing.

Many musicians play their instrument incredibly well, and yet possess very little vocal ability! Also, there's a difference between a pupil enjoying singing for themselves or in a group and being asked to do so, solo in an exam situation! 

HOWEVER... as a piano teacher (who particularly loves singing), singing is an avenue I explore with all of my pupils at one stage or another. I believe singing is one of the building blocks for musicianship and can sometimes be a tool to determine how a pupil hears or understands a passage of music. Some pupils take to this more than others, so I never force the issue, but I do think for those who are persistent and interested, being able to pitch a tune is a useful skill for a musician to have and can be immensely enjoyable, too! 

I think many instrumental teachers feel out of their depth when working with a pupil who seems unwilling or unable to sing. So I'd like to share a few methods and ideas I've developed, in the hope that other teachers may be able to pass on the joy of singing to their own instrumental pupils.

No fear!

If a pupil is afraid to sing, their pitching will be shaky, their rhythm apprehensive and their sound a mere whisper. And the chances are, they won't enjoy it. It's not uncommon for pupils to refuse to sing altogether! For nervous pupils, It's vital to acknowledge and alleviate some of the fear:

1. Ask if they'd mind doing some singing. Explain why you would like to. Perhaps it's part of an exam, or perhaps you genuinely feel it would help their musical skills. 

2. Tell them you really appreciate their efforts and you understand how scary/embarrasing/weird (delete as appropriate!) it must be for them. Acknowledge how brave they are for working through the 'fear factor'. Make them feel good for just trying.

3. Tell them that this is just a small section of the lesson. You might say, 'I'd like for us to do this for ten minutes, and then we can work on your pieces.' Knowing what's next can lessen a pupil's anxiety.

4. Point out that singing is a skill just like playing an instrument - it improves with practice... and the reason they may find it difficult is because they've not really done much of it before!

Model a good attitude and good posture

Smile and be confident in your own singing. Allow the pupil to trust that you know what you're doing and that you are enjoying listening to and helping them. Ask the pupil to stand or sit with good posture, arms hanging loosely by their sides. Release any unnecessary tension, especially in the hands and face. For super-anxious pupils, take some slow deep breaths first. They can count in their heads to measure an exhale that is slightly longer than their inhale.

'Finding' one's voice

Many younger children (especially under the age of about 7) sing out of tune simply because they haven't learned how to listen to their own voice. Occasionally, I've worked with adults to whom this applies, too. Here are a few child-friendly tips for this. For teens and adults, you'll need to modify the way you explain this, but the principles are the same regardless of the pupil's age:

1. Tell them to 'switch on their ears' and listen to their own voice as they sing. If you're singing at the same time, ask them to imagine your two voices are travelling up into the ceiling and over to the walls, and 'having a party' together. Can they hear those two voices around the room? (This encourages them to project their voice.)

2. Start with a vocal warm up; try 'meow' for children or just a hum or an 'ah' sound, sliding high and low between pitches. Aim for the siren to be as smooth as possible and listen to see if they're missing any sections of notes. Match this with movement. For children you could kneel down when they're making a lower sound and gradually stand up as they ascend. For younger children I like to hold their hands when we're doing this in a piano lesson. A more teen/adult-friendly version would be for the student to move their hand high and low to match their siren. They will need a good siren before they'll be able to pitch.

There is a lot more to be said on this subject, so perhaps I might write another article at a later date. For now, I hope this helps! Good luck!