My Kid Can’t Carry a Tune in a Bucket

I actually hear this a lot.  Parents regular stop me with concern over the fact that their child has not yet learned to “carry a tune”.  First of all, let me say that I am a big believer in “making a joyful noise” regardless of your ability to match pitch.  You can in fact read my post on my Dad who in all honesty can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but whose singing is very precious to me.  But that’s another topic, let’s talk about vocal development and what you can expect and when.

Some kids actually sing before they speak, though you probably wouldn’t call it that.  However, I often hear kiddos in our classes for babies and young toddlers trying to sing along and once in a while we’ll even have a child fill in a note on the correct pitch on a song like “BINGO” where the adults all leave out some of the notes and words.

The children in your Our Time class will be all over the map in terms of vocal experience, development, and confidence. Your child may be saying only a few words out loud or may be well on his way to telling elaborate stories.  Your child may jump right into the singing or may need to listen and observe for awhile. Or, your child may respond somewhere in between. This wide range is completely normal within any group of toddlers.

Most children between 1 1/2 and 3 years old are in the stage of vocal development that some music specialists call “approximation of singing.” First, they will attempt to “imitate” a word, phrase, rhythm pattern, or vocal inflection. It can be easy to miss this attempt because it rarely happens in the middle of a singing activity. Instead, your child may begin to make these imitative sounds out of context, singing or humming while playing alone. This musical play is vitally important to help your child master the muscular feel of producing a singing sound and to help him distinguish the difference in what it feels like to sing versus what it feels like to speak.  It is only through play and experiencing the joy of singing without the pressure to perform, that children develop their complete singing range and ability.

Gradually children learn to make this differentiation between singing and speaking.  In fact, after the age of 3 you start to see more children who are able to sing whole songs by themselves within a limited range matching pitch most if not all of the time, though this skill can still develop well into elementary school.  (It is only in the rare case of physical deformity that someone cannot learn to sing.)  The key is provide children with as many opportunities to sing as possible in settings that are ripe for success.  That means giving children the chance to sing and hear singing that is unaccompanied in a range of about 5 notes (usually D above middle C to the A just above that).  Now you understand why so many of our songs in class are shared without recordings and why our songs often only have 5 notes in the toddler and preschooler classes.

And once the singing starts be prepared.  Just as their imaginations, expressiveness, and creativity are exploding in other areas, you will find lots of creativity at work in singing preschoolers.  Oftentimes they will even make up their own songs about their day or whatever they are doing.  At times, living with a preschooler can be a little like living in a Broadway show where people randomly burst into song.

I often think of the great composer and teacher Zoltan Kodaly when I think about teaching singing.  Kodaly believed strongly that learning to sing was the key to developing true musicianship.  So, whether they can carry a tune in a bucket or not quite yet, you can rest assured your child is well on the way to learning to be a strong musician.

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