Singing has always been a basic, if not primitive form of communication between parent and infant. A tender melody often lulls a colicky baby into blissful sleep along with rhythmic rocking motions.
As the tyke eventually babbles and coos high-pitched sounds that prime his vocal cords, mom or dad will respond in the same squeaky voice range, preserving a bond that began at birth.
When toddler-hood arrives, the singing activity might take second place to parents shifting attention to nursing along walking efforts, and just about then, CDs and DVDs with children’s music will be introduced replacing human vocal interactions. Mom or dad’s knee-jerk, technology-based response reflect their inadequacy about pumping out tunes in an imperfectly raw voice. They would rather sing in the privacy of the shower.
In the meantime, big screen tvs are blasting music videos at ear-piercing decibel levels making passive viewing and listening the rule. (The exception of programming GLEE on Cable TV, is a light in an otherwise dark musical wasteland)
At this point the child begins to sense that his parents are reserved about singing, so he/she will gradually absorb the same inhibition. A similar situation plays out at day care centers and pre-schools unless a teacher happens to have special musical gifts. In that case, it will be a year-by-year dice throw whether singing will be sustained and celebrated as part of a school’s program, depending on faculty shuffling and turnover.
Over months and years, the growing child will internalize the notion that singing imperfectly in the native voice, is frowned upon. And when his teachers reinforce this perception by saying, “I have an awful voice, so I won’t even attempt to sing this song,” then the seeds of singing avoidance are inexorably sown.
In this regard, I remember my mother having told me about her heart-wrenching experience over seventy years ago in primary school. Apparently, students were lined up and auditioned for choir class, asked to sing their Do Re Mi’s starting on C, ascending in half steps through two or more registers. Not a few notes into her musical trial, she was resoundingly labeled “tone-deaf” and sent briskly on her way.
How devastating to receive a vocal death sentence, wrongly rendered as it turned out.
In truth, my mother had a remarkable singing voice along with excellent pitch sensitivity. In any case, she shouldn’t have been excluded from singing activities because of the school’s rigid performance standard.
When a child comes for piano lessons at age 7 or so, most of his singing inclinations have been extinguished. In fact, he may already be hooked up to an iPod beside his pocketed cell phone. Ringtones and pre-selected tunes have been pre-siphoned into the auditory environment by parents, or these songs are on the pop list of peers. A rigged up child will often tap rhythmically on a table but not sing one syllable.
If I ask a young beginner to sing a phrase of music with me at the piano, he/she will usually drop out, leaving me to sing a solo. To make matters worse, supportive music programs in his school would have dried up due to budget cuts, making choir, chorus activities basically non-existent. And the home will probably be equipped with a digital piano that has an assortment of bells and whistles to tinker with. (Put on a pair of earphones and the electronic keyboard is SILENCED.)
Gone are the days when the family gathered around the parlor piano to sing “Home Sweet Home” in robust voices.
But why all the fuss about singing when pursuing piano studies?
1) Intrinsic to producing a singing tone at the keyboard, is knowing what one wants to hear before laying hands on the keys. In this preliminary musical engagement the teacher becomes the vocal energizer, preparing the student for a collective vocal journey replete with shapes and contours.
(She need not have a trained voice, to steer the student in sound musical directions)
2) Sculpting phrases springs from the vocal model.
3) Singing at lessons on a regular basis filters down to the student, just as language passes from parent to child. The vocal inhibition lessens in time through repeated exposures.
4) Using Solfeggio or integrating the musical syllables, “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do” into lessons allows easier contouring of musical lines than reciting note letter names. The syllables flow smoothly through phrases and individual lines in a musical mosaic that can be examined by separating soprano, alto and tenor voices when necessary.
5) Solfeggio introduces the inclusion of Sight-singing activities as a regular part of piano instruction. (At the New York City High School of Performing Arts, where I was a student, we were required to have two years of Sight-singing to develop our ear training skills alongside theory and keyboard harmony.)
But Sight-singing doesn’t have to be associated with a performing arts or conservatory related curriculum to be relevant to music study. It’s part of a well-rounded exposure to any instrument whether piano, violin, cello, clarinet, flute, etc.
And while sight-singing may appear to be tied to vocal study alone, or choir participation, it is a vital ingredient of all music instruction that aims to flesh out good phrasing, and accrued progress in note reading.
Finally to the adults, children and teachers who might be inhibited about singing at piano lessons, I suggest that freeing the body and mind go hand in glove with producing beautiful music, enjoyed to the point of ecstasy.
So sing out with spirit as Handel exhorts in his “Alleluia” chorus and let the Trumpets resound right along!
A father sings at his 4-year old daughter’s piano lesson:
She was enrolled in Music Together Classes with Jill for many years. (Fresno, CA)