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The power of singing

9 years ago

  Professor Graham Welch, President of the International Society for Music Education, reflects on the impact of singing on children. Singing is a musical behaviour and a characteristic form of human expression worldwide. Why is this so? Because the voice is a fundamental means of human communication. In singing, the melodic and rhythmic features of speech are heightened and extended into an art form. Lyrics, in particular, are given greater emotional emphasis. There are a wide variety of potential impacts that arise from engaging in singing at any age. This is especially true during childhood when formative experiences can shape lifelong views of musical identity and a willingness to engage in subsequent musical activity. However, depending on the nature of the experience, the impact can be negative as well as positive. For example, the following comments come from a 43-year-old mother of three remembering her experience of singing in school as a child: ‘Then aged 11... I stood up to sing... and she told me to sit down and that I couldn’t sing. Well, I was devastated... I’m sure I wanted to cry.’ This is not an isolated example and almost any group of adults is likely to contain at least one person whose musical self-view has been coloured negatively by their experience of singing in childhood. When such cases surface, the concept of ‘tone-deafness’ is often invoked as a culturally acceptable and inevitable reason for a perceived disability in singing, even though the evidence for this as a widespread condition continues to be challenged. Such singing ‘disability’ is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of singing development. Singing should be understood as a behaviour that is susceptible to developmental process. It should not be characterised as a ‘can/cannot’ musical ability. It is something that develops over time in a context of appropriate opportunities, such as within a family setting. This theory is supported by the latest evidence from a national evaluation of the Sing Up initiative in England – a four year UK government-backed programme to ensure that all children have at least one positive singing experience a week. The assessment was based on more than 10,000 children across the first three years of the programme (2007–2010), and confirms earlier research findings across diverse continents and cultural settings that younger children tend to be less developed singers than their older peers. It also supports findings that singing competency usually improves with age. It is normal for young children to take time to develop their singing skills; some demonstrate immediate ability, while others take much longer to reach the same level. With experience, most children improve and, with appropriate support, even the small minority who continue to struggle can be helped in some way, even in adulthood. Achieving more advanced levels of singing capability is not always the case, as demonstrated by the quote earlier. This is usually because of insensitive comments by adults or peers, which are based on an inaccurate understanding of the nature of singing development. Nevertheless, where children have extended singing learning opportunities with skilled teachers and peers, singing skills will be fostered. This is demonstrated in the Sing Up research, as well as in an earlier Italian study of singing development in infancy. In both sets of research, a sustained and enriched singing experience enabled children to be two years in advance of their peers (on average) in terms of their singing abilities. Furthermore, the Sing Up research in England suggests that being able to sing competently and confidently is likely to bring additional, wider benefits. In particular, more competent singers are likely to exhibit more positive self-esteem and a greater sense of social inclusion. In addition, where children engage in successful singing experiences (i.e. without fear of failure or a sense of shame at their current level of development), they are likely to experience benefits to their physical health (through improved cardiac and respiratory function, as well as boosts to the immune system), alongside positive psychological impacts (such as improved mood and reduced stress), whether singing alone or as part of a community. The onus on us as music educators is therefore to recognise the power of singing and to ensure that we maximise its benefits while minimising the possibility of negative impacts, such as through our own, perhaps inadvertent, lack of understanding of its multi-faceted nature. Singing is our birthright.


ABRSM publishes a range of resources for singing including The ABRSM Songbook. This series of five books features over 100 art songs, drawn from Grades 1 to 5 of the Singing syllabus, numerous folksongs and a rich collection of authentic unaccompanied traditional songs from around the world. Each volume also comes with a CD of piano accompaniments as well as recordings of the text to every song, performed by native speakers.

This article was originally featured in the January 2011 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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