Voice Discovery in a “Safe” Atmosphere: What Every Child Needs

by Dr. Anna Langness

February 2024

This article originally appeared in the Spring 1991 issue of the Oregon Music Educator. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Singing alone—hearing one’s own voice and becoming aware of the sounds and sensations of vocal production—is a key factor in developing skills in healthy, accurate singing. Children need to hear their own voices in order to learn to monitor and assess their vocal output, and they need to know from an outside source the results of their singing (Welch, 1985). Some young children sing more accurately alone than with other voices, and seem to develop skills in unison singing (monitoring one’s voice in relation to others) at a later stage (Goetze & Yoshiyuki, 1988). Only when an individual voice is heard can descriptive, informational feedback about all aspects of the sound and its production be given.

Is it possible to have children sing individually on a regular basis in the classroom and to give them feedback about their singing without fear that they may experience failure or embarrassment? A healthy change in the experience of singing alone can be brought about by treating vocal study as VOICE DISCOVERY* rather than voice tests, voice exercises, or voice “fixing.” Voice Discovery becomes an ongoing process of exploring, experiencing, listening, observing, and describing what happens or changes during the act of singing.

This article offers ideas for creating a psychologically “safe” atmosphere for singing alone and for giving various types of feedback about the singing. It suggests ways for facilitating vocal exploration for “developing” singers and for providing many individual singing experiences within the context of singing songs in the classroom.

Create a “Safe” Atmosphere

A “safe” atmosphere is one in which every child is mentally active in a responsible and meaningful way, and the teacher is neither the authority nor the enforcer, but rather, the facilitator of student responses (singing and speaking). A “safe” atmosphere for singing is one in which children’s singing is not considered to be a skill of the talented few, but is treated like other basic skills that require the development of muscular coordination, such as walking, skipping, or running. The child’s exploration of the skill is guided and supported, and development of the skill is expected to occur over a period of time.

A sense of “safety” develops when one can trust what will and will not happen in a situation. Singing alone is often feared because of what occurs following the singing. Feedback to the singer comes from many sources—the singer’s self-critique, classmates’ nonverbal expressions, and the teacher’s nonverbal and verbal expressions. In many settings, only the teacher gives verbal feedback and it is usually of a positive nature.

As a matter of habit or pacing, the teacher often gives short, nonspecific positive feedback for class responses (“All right!” “Good!”). The teacher praises correct individual responses (“Perfect,” “Great”) and for the less-than-accurate responses, praises the student’s effort (“Good job,” “Good try!”)

While a positive atmosphere is desirable, nonspecific praise has several drawbacks (Brophy, 1981). It does not give the learner information about what was correct in the answer, and for some individuals, nonspecific praise can be embarrassing. Praising the learner’s effort may be intended to encourage the individual and to be positive, but it can also imply that the person lacks the ability to succeed. Feedback that is meaningful for students is that which gives a description, information, or correction of their response. (“There! You used plenty of breath energy and your voice matched the high pitches exactly.” “That time your voice started on a low pitch, moved a little higher and then got louder.”) In the music classroom, other students as well as the teacher can describe what is heard in the singing response, rather than judging the response only as “right or wrong,” “good or bad.”

When the whole class is charged with the task of listening to and describing sound, the individual singer is no longer the sole participant or focus of attention in the activity. Because the attention is shifted from the person to the sound, the atmosphere not only feels “safer” to the singer but also becomes much more comfortable and productive for everyone. Introduce students to their task by having them listen to and describe your singing: “Listen to the pattern I sing and notice how it sounds to you. I’m interested in knowing what you hear and how you describe it.”

After singing the pattern, ask: ““What did you hear my voice do?” or “How would you describe that sound?” The intention of this task is twofold: (1) to discover how the listener perceives sound and (2) to discover what terms or gestures the listener uses to communicate what was heard. The phrases, “sounds to you,” “what did you hear,” and “how you would describe” emphasize the importance of individual perceptions and interpretations. To establish this importance, have several students give their responses. As the facilitator and model for responding, the teacher shows interest and a curiosity in what each student heard and in individuals’ descriptions. Differences as well as agreements in descriptions are acceptable. Students may be asked to clarify what they mean in their descriptions, but their responses are not “corrected.” As this activity proceeds, the listeners grow in their awareness of the sounds they hear; they realize that not everyone hears the same thing or describes sound in the same way; and they expand their vocabulary of words and gestures for describing sound.

A “safe” atmosphere for singing is one in which children’s singing is not considered to be a skill of the talented few, but is treated like other basic skills that require the development of muscular coordination

When students describe sound, they often refer to all of the properties of sound (dynamics, duration, clarity, resonance, and pitch) as well as its emotional qualities (happy, nervous, confident). The students’ descriptions indicate their responsiveness and sensitivity to dynamic changes, rhythmic changes, pitch changes, and to vocal qualities that are affected by the singer’s muscular tensions, the level of breath energy, and vowel formation. These “holistic” descriptions of sound make it possible to identify the various properties of sound that students hear and to make a natural progression into the exploration and study of vocal production.

When we ask students to give descriptive feedback to their peers, we need not fear their responses. Nonspecific evaluative responses (“It’s O.K.,” “Good,” “Nice”) are usually given as genuine expressions, but they are also given as a habitual response when the person hasn’t been listening, thinking, or possibly doesn’t know what to say. Whether the nonspecific responses are positive or negative, follow them with the same, interested, probing question: “What about that sound was weird (interesting or awesome)?” As a result of responding to these questions, students develop a vocabulary to deal with sound and voices, rather than having only vague, general terms that criticize the overall effect or performance. The teacher also describes the sounds he or she hears, but does so in a manner of contributing his or her perceptions, not giving the definitive or correct answer. Students learn that a description of what one hears need not be considered a criticism of the singer or the listener/describer.

A final, crucial step in creating a “safe” atmosphere is dealing with the laughter that inevitably occurs when someone sings alone. Expect that laughter will be a natural reaction to this new situation. When laughter happens, stop and address it in a non-scolding, matter-of-fact way: “Let’s stop a minute. We won’t be able to continue our study if there is laughter. When we laugh, it’s impossible to sing our best. More importantly, we can’t be sure how the singer feels because of our laughter. We can’t risk hurting people in this class. Do you know what makes you laugh?” Students will offer that they laugh because the situation is embarrassing or that they feel stupid. Affirm that new situations often make us feel nervous or embarrassed.

Did you know that there are four basic categories for the causes of laughter? They are: (1) a situation that makes us nervous or embarrassed; (2) something unexpected that surprises us; (3) something very unusual, and (4) something we consider humorous or funny.

“Seldom do we purposefully ‘laugh at’ someone in ridicule or to be ‘mean,’ although that may be how it feels to the person who causes our laughter. If we are going to study and develop singing skills, we can’t risk hurting a singer’s feelings by laughing. Let’s monitor our urges to laugh. Think about what you can do to keep from laughing. I prefer that there would be no laughter. I could make a strict rule that there can be no laughter, but I know that someone will totally surprise us with a wonderful singing sound and we’ll instantly laugh and cheer. So, if we laugh, I’ll want to know, ‘What made us laugh this time?’ You may discover some ways to control laughter. Let me know what works.”

Given this reasonable and cooperative approach, students (sixth graders) have offered many workable solutions which range from listening with their eyes closed to giving a nervous smile instead of a nervous laugh. Of course, these solutions always work best for the person or the class who suggests them.

Vocal Discovery

The activities suggested in this section are referred to as experiments and explorations rather than exercises or voice tests (Langness, 1991). As an experimenter or explorer, one is alert to observe any changes that take place and to identify conditions that trigger change. The explorer of vocal sound-making will want to be aware of what changes are felt in physical sensations and heard in the sound when it is produced.

The major goal of these experiments is for the singers to become aware of what happens in their bodies and with their voices when producing vocal sounds. This awareness of physical sensations aids the singer in “reproducing” the same sensation experience and, thus, the same resulting sound. Two basic questions are used throughout to stimulate awareness: “What happens when…?” and “How does it feel when…?” The teacher does not dictate what the singer should try to feel or hear. The singers acquire a personal knowledge of the sensations and results of vocal production.

The pacing of these experiments during a lesson is of critical importance. Some activities involve a very short time of experimentation. In most classes, students cannot maintain their focus of attention until “every child has had a turn.” Let comfort and anticipation grow by using small doses of the experiments. Consider devoting a short amount of time for “voice discovery” in each class session over a period of time. Think of these vocal experiments as “many mini voice lessons” that will develop a consistent awareness of vocal production throughout the music study.

Voice Experiments

When children sing inaccurately, we may assume that they have problems discriminating pitches; yet, some children have demonstrated an ability to “hear” pitches and still sing inaccurately. Examination of their vocal production habits usually reveals some inhibiting or interfering condition. In many cases, the child’s vocal production lacks the breath energy necessary to sing the desired pitch. In other cases, the children’s vocal habits for producing speech make it difficult to achieve the vocal muscle coordination necessary for singing pitches outside of their speech range.

Many of these experiments focus attention on the act of “producing sound.” Notice how and when the experiments focus on which sounds to produce (pitch matching/melody). Conditions are created that bring an awareness of the breathing act and “demand” various levels of breath energy flow as voicing is added. Speaking sounds explore pitch and breath energy, then move towards singing. “Singing alone” combines a focus on production (breathing and pitch) with conditions that affect this production.

Experiment I:

Place one hand above your waist and one below. Send out all of your breath, then release your tummy (abdominal or midsection) muscles to let air in again. “What did you feel or notice when your breath was going out? … going in?” 

Students will likely describe the contracting of tummy muscles during exhalation and an outward movement or expansion on the inhalation. Notice that by beginning with the exhalation of breath, the tendency to take a shallow breath on top of the existing breath is avoided. Also the release of tummy muscles allows a quick inhalation that “fills the vacuum” created in the lungs. This is a quick, full breath rather than a “controlled” slow inhalation that invariably triggers the lifting of shoulders and the shallow, pressurized breathing that is undesirable. This experiment can be done also while laying on your back on the floor, with feet flat on floor, and knees elevated to avoid lower back strain. The habit of raising one’s shoulders can be interrupted when lying on the floor.

Experiment II:

With lips loosely together, send out puffs of air (breath-only, no voiced sound) to produce lip buzzes or lip flutters. “What do you feel “lips/face and tummy muscles?” 

The lips will make short buzzes or flutters. If the lips are too tight or tense they won’t buzz, suggest that the child place index fingers at the corners of the mouth and push slightly towards the center of lips to help them be loose enough to flutter.

Experiment III:

Produce sustained buzz or flutter. “What happens when you send more breath or a ‘faster’ breath flow?”

Sustain the flow of air. This activity demands a certain level of breath energy. When the flow of breath energy is inadequate, the buzzing will stop. Remember to have students prepare for the experiment with a full, deep breath (send out all breath, release tummy muscles to let breath in, then sustain the buzz).

Experiment IV:

Add voiced sounds to the flutter/buzzes. Let the voice move on pitch glides. Explore the voiced glides on a tongue trill or “rrrr” (with lips slightly open). “What happens to the sound when you send more breath energy?”

Students may discover that when they send a faster breath flow (with more midsection muscle contraction) the voice glides to higher or very high pitches. They may discover that the faster breath flow creates a louder sound. Focus attention on the connection between the sound that is produced and the physical sensations of breath energy.

Experiment V:

Produce pitches throughout the vocal range. Say (speak) one word, such as “Hello,” at many different pitch levels, say it with different pitch patterns or inflections, and say it with a variety of expressions.

Model the idea of saying “Hello” at various pitch levels in several ways, (i.e., as a greeting, in a questioning way, in a calling manner). Use a variety of pitch intervals that are rising and falling. Let the children echo your examples. Then encourage their ideas and exploration by asking these questions: “Let me hear your voice say ‘Hello’ with low pitches …medium-high pitches, …very high pitches.” “Say ‘Hello’ with different pitch combinations (high and low, medium and high).” “How would you say it if you were: …very shy, …nervous, …very happy to see someone?” “How would you say it if you were calling someone?” Encourage the production of lower pitches with a “cushion of breath,” especially if student production tends to be heavy or “chesty.” Suggest that they “Say ‘hello’ in a ghostly, spooky sound” with lots of breath.

Involve the students in a variety of ways by balancing the time for group exploration with time for individual experiences: (1) have all students try ideas as a group, (2) listen to several individuals, (3) have class echo several individuals’ ideas, (4) have several individuals describe how their “Hello” sounded to them when they said it, (5) have several listeners describe what they heard.

Experiment VI:

Move from speaking to singing. “Hold out” parts of the word. Use many pitches as you “move” the word with your voice. Extend this to a word phrase (i.e., “What are you doing?” “Where are you going?”).

Sustaining sound with the vitality supported by adequate breath energy evokes a singing sound, or brings a “‘singing” quality to speech. A distinction between singing and speaking need not be made at this point. This experiment can become quite dramatic and interactive with much joy and delight in echoing the ideas.

Experiment VII:

Explore the effects of gestures. Use gestures that evoke breath energy as well as gestures that show differences in pitch (rather than pitch levels).

Use gestures while singing that relate to the continued intensity level of breath energy flow. Have singers use gestures, such as circular or flowing motions, that show energy moving throughout the sustained sound or the phrase.

Think in terms of showing pitch “changes” on a variety of planes (horizontally to the side, or in and out) rather than on static, vertical positions of “high/low” pitch levels. Avoid using gestures that “reach” above your neck or head for high pitches; in response, many young singers tend to lift their jaws to “reach” the pitches, “squeeze” out sounds, or raise the larynx for high pitches.

“Release” high pitches with breath energy. Explore the effects of dropping your hands, arms outstretched, when producing a“‘high” pitch. Notice whether or not your motion evokes additional breath energy.

Experiment VIII:

Produce tongue trills (rrrr) on pitch patterns and melodic outlines of familiar songs.

Sustain the “rrr” sound through the pitch changes (i.e., Do-So-Do or So-Mi-Do) and throughout the melodic outline (i.e., show pitch changes with hand signals, Do–––––––––So––La––So––Mi–––Re–––Do––”). Keep hand signals within the shoulder to waist height area. Explore having signals for “higher” pitches move on a horizontal plane out away from you. Sustain the “rrr” throughout the phrase on a continuous flow of breath energy.

At this point, avoid the exercise of pulsing or “hissing” the rhythmic pattern of the song. It will defeat the purpose of using breath energy flow and often results in excessive involvement of neck muscles. It may also evoke a type of production that is not desired. Also, avoid allowing these experiments to become “endurance contests;” endurance contests create a competitive spirit that shifts the focus of attention from personal concentration on sensing and monitoring sound production to “who’s the winner?”

Experiment IX:

Explore the production of a pattern from a song by combining the experiments for speaking, breathing, and singing.

Speak, rather than sing, the text of challenging patterns of phrases in a song “around” (near, on, and above) the target pitches. Produce the interval or the contour of the phrase on tongue trills (rrr) on and around the target pitches. Sing the pattern on neutral syllables, such as “loo.” Sing the pattern with the text. Add gestures that help focus breath energy and awareness of pitch changes. Sing the pattern in the context of the phrase.

Experiment X:

Provide opportunities for individuals to sing and monitor their own voice within the context of the song. Antiphon familiar songs in a variety of ways.

Some children can sing accurately alone, but not with other singers, and some children sing accurately with other singers, but not alone. The following ideas provide individual singing experiences within the song without interrupting the flow of the song and without creating the feeling of “testing” voices.

Antiphon Familiar Songs

Antiphonning is a type of “vocal relay” or “fill in the blank” game in which the leader begins singing and the group sings whenever the leader doesn’t. The object is to keep the song flowing intact as the leader and group sing various portions of it. There are no rules about how much or little the leader sings as long as the song can continue. Antiphonning can take place in a multitude of ways: (1) between a leader and the class (read the leader’s lips), (2) between a leader and a small group, (3) between two singers, (4) from person to person as the song is passed around a circle, or (5) with a leader who conducts when two groups sing.

The game of antiphonning serves many purposes for intriguing study of song. The advantages of individual and independent singing, however, are always present. The challenge for singers can range from “Can we pass the song around the circle without missing a word?” to “Let’s pass the song around the circle so it sounds like the same voice is singing it!” Before we make a challenge for perfection, experience of games such as “Mystery Singers” can lead towards that goal.

The Mystery Singers Game

The Mystery Singers Game stimulates an intense listening and a special awareness of singing qualities. In a standing circle, the class has their eyes closed and heads up for a comfortable singing position. To begin, the class sings the song once, then it is antiphonned by individuals who sing only while they feel the teacher touching their shoulder. The teacher moves around the outside of the circle touching singers for their time of singing. One, two, or more people may be singing (touched) at the same time. When beginning this game, some singers are more comfortable knowing that at least two singers will be singing at the same time, however, they may not be standing side by side. Notice that everyone in the circle needs to be singing in his/ her “inner hearing” in order to be ready to sing when “touched.”

Once the game has been established, experiment having a child be the one who “touches” the singers. Try other variations such as having several small circles play the game independently. In the large circle, have two sets of singers at the same time (two people “it”). For more experienced singers, play the game with partner songs. Have half of the circle sing one song and the other half the other song (i.e “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “London Bridge”). Choose a person to be “it” for each song or side of the circle. For a greater challenge, play the same partner song game, but let the singers choose individually which song they will sing.

Following the Mystery Singers’ Circle game several types of discussions can evolve: “How did you feel when you were listening with your eyes closed?” “How did it feel when you were singing?” “Did you recognize the voices of the singers?” “Did you sense when it was going to be your turn? How?” “Did you notice what happened with some voices?” “What happened that made us lose our place in the songs?” Students who experienced this game became fascinated with the intrigue and challenge. The experience of the song is very different with such intense focus, anticipation, and listening. Many singers produce greater “in-tune,” blended, and balanced singing.

What Every Child Needs—And Every Teacher Wants

When children SING ALONE the benefits are amazing! Our students will become intrigued and fascinated with the sounds they produce, rather than being afraid of the outcome. They can produce sounds and singing in experimentation that surpass what we would ever have dared ask of them. And, our students will listen to voices, support, encourage, and “teach” each other!

In this “safe” atmosphere, students will become confident, capable, supportive participants. Much is expected of them as they are guided to a way of productive involvement. In this environment, students will risk singing alone because they are caught up in suspense and play, because they are curious about what their voice will do and how others will hear their vocal sound, and because they can trust how their singing will be treated. For these same reasons, they will eagerly involve and encourage other students.

Our goals towards achieving excellence in singing can be accomplished through interesting and satisfying experimentation of vocal production. Our students will achieve skills in using adequate, efficient breath energy, producing sounds throughout an extended vocal range, and singing with expression and accuracy. As the teacher, you are a guide, a facilitator, and a model of nonjudgmental acceptance, and your students will experience vocal skill development as their personal discoveries and achievements.

Endnotes and References

* ”Voice discovery” is a term coined by Leon Thurman, and is the title he gives to class sessions at Voice Skills Impact Courses that are devoted to personal vocal exploration and development.

Brophy, J. (1981). Teacher Praise: A functional analysis. Review of Educational Research, 51(1), 5–32.

Goetze, M., & Yoshiyuki, H. (1989). A comparison of the pitch accuracy of group and individual singing in young children. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 99, 57–74.

Langness, A. (1991). Developing children’s voices. In L. Thurman & G. Welch (Eds.), Bodymind and Voice: Foundations of Voice Education (318–331). The VoiceCare Network.

Welch, G. (1985). Variability of practice and knowledge of results as factors in learning to sing in tune. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 85, 238–247.

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