Music Gold: Vocal Training for Children in Every Grade

by Jeff Swanson

Good singing habits start early, but they need to be maintained with regular practice. In this video, Jeff Swanson draws on his years of music teaching experience to highlight some practices, tips, and tools proven to yield “music gold” at any grade level. By regularly practicing good posture, pitch-matching, rhythm, and vowel formation, music teachers can push all students toward excellence in singing.

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My name is Jeff Swanson, and I am the music teacher at Shalom Mennonite School, which is a K-8 school. And I teach all the music classes there, and I teach there for half a day. And around lunchtime I go to Terry Hill Mennonite High School, which is across the driveway. It is a separate school, and I teach 9th through 12th grade music there. And I teach all the music classes at Terry Hill as well.

Beginning Class

I like to start the day, especially if they’re not used to it, with reminding them that a good singer always has their tongue up against their bottom teeth. And that gives you one whole set of overtones in your sound. And maybe overtones isn’t the best word, but resonance. And it’s so easy, and it’s visual. I just show them like this and they can do it, and that is actually not exaggerated. If you’ll watch good singers, it’s always there.

I remind them that their posture—they should have their corners of their mouth in really at all times. And then again, that’s very visual for all grades, and it makes a lot more sense than just saying “open your mouth when you sing.”

And the chin alignment is very important. And so I teach them to make an L and then put it here. It’s very hard to overcome the L, so we don’t want students to sing like that, and obviously we don’t want them to sing notes like this, even though it might make it feel like they can sing lower.

And I ask all my students, and this includes Church youth choir members to sing with their hands by their sides. It looks neater and singingwise, pedagogically, if your hands are next to your sides, you’re not going to collapse your rib cage, which we don’t have enough time to talk about that specific of things in singing, but it takes care of that. And so I ask them all the way K-12 in youth choir and others to hold their hands by their side. And those few alignment things are really gold for a singer, and they’re so attainable for children.

And I’ve also realized that if you’re a long term teacher, which I hope you are, that if you start these things really young, it’s just not painful to do them when you’re older.

Pitch Matching

Something that I think is important to start days with their rehearsals is pitch matching, and all I do is I will sing in falsetto like this, even in the high school, and that way that the men can match the exact same pitches, the ladies. And so sometimes we’ll go in octaves, and so obviously with the children, they all need to be on that.

And I will usually base it around C is Do and then just pick different pitches and have them match them. And the children and the youth can match pitches so well in tune.

And I think a lot of times we think “I want the students to hit the right note,” and that’s not totally true. I tell the students that I don’t want them to hit the dart board with the dart. I want them to hit the Bull’s eye. And I think when we make that expectation, I think it makes a lot of sense. So I want it right here, not somewhere out here. And that’s going to make them a lot more accurate with just hitting the note anyways.

Hearing Incorrect Pitches

And I also talk to them about plane engines. Plane engines usually are the exact same engine on both sides. And you can hear when you’re in a plane, they’re out of tune. And instead of going [sound] they go, [sound]. And so that’s the physics. The sound waves are not matching up with each other. And so I will sing a note like [sound] and have a student sing with me and I will bend the pitch so that it goes [sounds]. And third graders can immediately hear it. And we say, “Well, that’s not what we want. We want to have just one sound and not have that harsh clashing.” And so that’s one of my favorite things to do with all grades. With the elementary students and my freshman class sight singing theory class.

Solfege Hand Signs

One of the first things I like to do with them is sing the major scale using the solfege hand signs and have them sing in unison, usually in half notes, very slow. And I think this is gold that they have this in their head. I think since many of our students don’t play instruments, that the hand signs give some physical something to grasp hold of so that they can understand what the notes are. And that’s what instrumentalists have over singers is that they can press a button and always know that that button is the right pitch. That’s what these hand signs can be to students who don’t play. And for many of us, it’s not an option to play the instruments anyways. And so it’s very important. And I think it’s tactile and that’s wonderful for the younger students.

Based Around C

So I like to do it slowly once in unison. And for high schoolers, we’ll do in octaves. Let the ladies sing in their octaves. I always start on a C. I think we should base everything around a C. In Europe that’s the immovable Do anyways. And so I’d like to get it so that they can actually hear that C, and they know that’s coming somewhere in class. And so that if they don’t have perfect pitch, which most of us don’t, they can always find a C and get their their bearings off of that and know what a C is.


For the younger students, for first through 8th grade, I like to teach them to read rhythms with the Takadimi system. Ideally, I think they will all learn to do it with counting, and we’ll introduce the counting in the 7th and 8th grade. In the 9th grade, I think Takadimi is wonderful because I think it takes less brain power than trying to understand subdivisions. And I think that we should always have things on a level they can understand.

So for first through 6th grade, I teach them to write rhythms and sing and recognize rhythms from whole notes, from half notes, quarter notes, 8th notes, and 16th notes with no syncopations and no ties. And we also teach whole rests, half rests and quarter rests. And when we sing sustained notes like whole notes or half notes, if we’re in four—so 1, 2, 3, 4, is the beat—this is how we sing a whole note “Ta a a a.” A lot of times people teach whole notes is 1, 2, 3, 4, but that’s too similar, I think, to quarter notes, because that’s the way we count it. And I learned that when I was observing as a teacher, and I thought that was just gold.

I love the way that does, so half notes, if you’re thinking 1, 2, 3, 4. 1- 3-, 1- 3-. We’re also very negligent as singers to hold beats out enough—to hold out long notes enough. And so if you can think that there’s a little accent on the beats, it works wonders for timing. And they all laugh because they’re going [prolonged] “one.” They laugh when you teach it to them. And after that, it’s wonderful. It really teaches them to keep time, which we really need to do as singers.

Pronouncing Vowels

One thing I love to do is vowel unification. And so we usually start—in the high school as well—but in the elementary school with “oo.” And we’ll sing “to you.” It’s words that they can remember. I encourage them to pucker their lips like they would kiss a baby. Like that. And that brings the sound out of their throat and out of their mouth. We want the sound away from their face. So we would sing, [singing] “To you.” And the lips are so visual, and it cleans up the sound.

And I show them that if I spread, which many people do, what it sounds like, which is not ideal [singing] “to you.” And then I’ll have them go back to [singing] “to you.” That makes a lot of sense to a lot of them, and that’s an easy one to incorporate for children.

The second favorite one I have is “say” and “pray,” which would also be “praise” and “lays.” We don’t want to use American diphthongs. And so instead of singing “say,” we want them to sing, sɛ. It sounds kind of silly when you say it, and it sounds wonderful when you sing it. And so instead of pray, which is an important word to us, we would sing prɛ, and so we would sing, [singing] “Sɛ. Prɛ.” Make sure their tongues down like that, and that their corners are in—prɛ—and say R a little bit open, but not too much. So just encourage that their corners are in, which is part of their alignment. And that’s a wonderful one to incorporate.

And then we’ll look for songs where we have the A sound or the “praise” sound. And so we would sing that a couple of times in half steps. In both schools, I usually do our warmups. Even though we’re allowed to use instruments, we do them acapella. So [singing] “Sɛ. Prɛ.” And then I’ll give them another note, half step down. [singing] “Sɛ. Prɛ.”

And if you’re able (ladies would be fine) but men teachers, if you’re able in the falsetto, I think it’s very good for the children to hear that, especially first, second, third, and fourth graders. So, [singing] “Sɛ. Prɛ.” And the students will laugh when they hear a man do that the first time because they’re not used to it. And after a while it just seems like culture to them, and they can do that.

My last one that I like to work on with the younger grades is the ah sound. And again, corners in. And so we use “God” and “bread,” and so young children can articulate Ds at the end of words just like older students should. So in addition to having the ah sound, we also have the D.

So we sing, [singing] “God and bread.” and “God and bread” are actually all ah sounds. And so we’ll go through a series of those. And if they could unify those, if we can unify those, our coral sound will just revolutionize.

We’re not talking Es. We don’t do that. That can be difficult. And O is another good one. But I stick with those three. If we can get past those, it’s wonderful. And I would work on the O sound in the high school as well.

I’ve studied voice for about six years, and I’ve realized that first graders and second graders and third graders really can meet up to expectations that we have for them much more than we realize.

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