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Singing and vocal work

Choosing repertoire

(From Teaching Primary Music pages 41-42).

'Children’s musical preferences deserve to be acknowledged … as this is the repertoire in which they are already steeped; it is part of their selfhood, their own identity. Their music may warrant inclusion in a class session, lesson or program. As we plan for our lessons and learning experiences with them, we must understand something of children’s musical selves. We need to know them in order to teach them and to acknowledge and validate them through recognition of who they musically are.'

(Campbell, 1998: 201).

Repertoire choice is crucial and is often a factor in whether or not children are excited and motivated by singing. Remember, though, that not all of the song choices need to be yours – you could (and should) also include ideas from children. Ideally, material will be a combination of songs children know and additional new repertoire in a range of different styles and from different cultures, times and places, with a view to expanding children’s aural sound bank and musical experiences. There are many different purposes for singing and times when you might sing and the repertoire will vary with the context; for example, singing for pleasure at the end of the day, a repertoire related to a particular theme for an assembly or a learning purpose, for a warm-up or an informal concert somewhere. How repertoire relates to a unit of work and what you plan to do with the music apart from singing it are also important factors.

There are a number of crucial things to consider when choosing a repertoire, whether for singing or another purpose:

  • What do you want to get out of it musically? Specific music learning will often be the key purpose, for example to develop simple part-singing, to develop accuracy of intervals beyond notes that are next to each other, or to explore beat-boxing sounds. If all repertoire is chosen just for the lyrical content (e.g. to fit in with a topic on the dinosaurs), the focus of the learning may be lost, therefore knowing what you musically want from the lesson is the most important starting point. Deconstructing musical phrases is a very useful way to help children understand many aspects of music, developing and honing skills and techniques.
  • How is part-singing developed? Moving a group towards simple part-singing through rounds and partner songs (two or more songs sung at the same time) and simple harmonies is experience, not age, dependent. In some schools, this is well established by the end of Year 2, whereas in others, it will be a year or two later.
  • Are the musical challenges of the song suitable for the group? Think about the vocal range and the difficulty of the melody, lyrics and pronunciation. Children’s vocal range develops as they mature. In the early years, it is likely to range from D above middle C up to B; in Key Stage 1 it will be around an octave from middle C to the C above. Most suitable melodies will move stepwise (notes next to each other) or include small leaps (notes in fairly close proximity). As children gain experience, suitable repertoire may become more chromatic and with bigger leaps, with more complex rhythms and harmony parts, switching between the head voice and the chest voice. The speed and difficulty of the words needs to provide attainable challenge for the group. We can also expect more attention paid to expression and vocal techniques as children become more experienced singers.
  • Will the children enjoy singing this material? This does not mean that all songs have to be jolly and uplifting, but they do need to appeal to your class, although often your attitude to the music and how you introduce it are important factors. If you are unfamiliar with the class or have not sung with them before, you might want to start with a familiar song. Repertoire needs to be age-appropriate. Be brave and try out things you may not be sure they will instantly love.
  • Does some repertoire introduce children to something new, and can you provide tangible links? There are many idioms, styles, genres and traditions represented in music and these come from a wide range of historical periods and cultural contexts. Try to explore some new musical influences with children and help them to make sense of it in their own world.
  • Is the song culturally suitable? The material should be checked to make sure it is suitable within each setting. In some schools, repertoire suggesting, for example, religious meaning may not be considered suitable, whereas in other schools it is fine and expected. This will be dependent on the context within which you are working.
  • Are the lyrics suitable? You should avoid explicit lyrics or messages (direct or indirect) considered unsuitable for the class or age group. Language needs to be accessible to your class for them to make some sense of the words, and the words need to be within their technical capability when pronouncing them, which may also be impacted by the speed of the music.
  • Could you explain the lyrics if questioned? This is particularly important in relation to songs with language that children may not be familiar with. You should be able to translate the meaning if in a foreign language or a language which children might not understand, such as words from old English or occasional tricky vocabulary.
  • Will it suit all of the voices? At a younger age, our lung capacity and vocal systems are less developed (Sergeant and Welch, 2008). Additionally, we often think about boys’ voices starting to mature as they reach adolescence and go to secondary school, making it ‘somebody else’s problem’ in terms of primary school teaching. However, Martin Ashley’s (2015)1 work shows that we need to be aware of boys’ voices changing/developing across a longer period of time and from a younger age.