Singing in the Primary Years, By: Wendy Rolls

Written by: Wendy Rolls, reproduced with permission.
This article is produced in partnership with Together Sing, an annual event with the goal of raising awareness of the value of Music Education and singing together to improve mental health and wellbeing.


Singing is an intensely human thing to do, an expression of our very soul. A students once told me:
“When I sing, it is me”. Kodály said every child has a right to experience music and singing provides the
most intimate experience of music possible.

It is hard to over-estimate the value of the gift of singing. As well as providing a means for selfexpression and learning music, singing enhances social and emotional well-being and hopefully is the
start of a lifetime of enjoyment of music. Sadly, I regularly hear stories, still vivid and hurtful, from
people who were told as children ‘you can’t sing’ or ‘you’re tone deaf’; and they haven’t sung since.
If we wish to nurture singing, we need to provide:

  • An environment where singing is a normal thing for everyone to do
  • Singing experiences that promote a free and flexible voice

So how do we support the development of healthy, sustainable singing that will set children up for life?
Research in singing in recent decades has helped to distinguish between myth and science. It has
enabled us to discard some practices and focus on helpful ones. The aim of this article is to provide
some understanding of how the voice works, so that we can ensure that every game, every song and
every activity reinforces healthy voice use.

What Do We Need to Consider?

  1. Science – how does the voice work?
  2. Technique – what is possible for children?
  3. Intonation & Audiation – how to fine tune these skills?
  4. Teacher influence – awareness of our power
  5. Choir considerations – some key components

I. SCIENCE: How does the voice work?

The Larynx: where the sound originates

Humans create sound in the larynx (voice box). This structure sits in the neck between the bottom of
the pharynx (throat) and the top of the trachea (windpipe) which takes air to the lungs. Inside the larynx,
are the vocal folds, delicate folds of tissue which are part of the valve system whose role is to direct air
into the lungs and food into the stomach. Singing is a happy by-product of this system.


The larynx is made up of cartilages which are connected and moved by ligaments and muscles. It can
be felt in the front of the neck and is commonly referred to as the ‘Adam’s apple’. When we swallow it
moves up and down; when we sing or speak, it vibrates.


Because the vocal folds are inside the larynx, they can’t be seen or felt. They are like small curtains of
tissue suspended from the front to the back. When they are drawn together and air blown through, they vibrate creating sound. The vocal tract is a tube from the larynx to the lips and acts as an
amplifier of the sound.


In young children, the vocal tract is shorter and the larynx sits higher in the neck than in adults. The
child’s voice is less resonant as a result. As children grow, the larynx descends in the neck and the
vocal folds change in structure. The most dramatic changes happen during puberty, creating voice
change effects in both girls and boys. It is not until about 16 years of age, when the vocal folds develop
a vocal ligament, that the voice is close to an adult formation. The ligament makes the voice more
robust and able to cope with greater vocal demands.


The vocal setup for a child, teenager and adult are all significantly different so we must care for child
singers differently to adults.

Registers: singing high AND low

Pitch begins in the larynx when the vocal folds vibrate. Whether the note is high or low depends on
how frequently the vocal folds vibrate – that’s why pitch is also called frequency. This is affected by
the length, thickness and tension of the vocal folds. To sing the ‘A’ made by an A440 tuning fork, the
vocal folds need to vibrate 440 times per second.

  • Faster = higher notes, slower = lower notes.
  • A larger larynx makes a lower note – larger humans usually have a larger larynx. Smaller
    humans have a smaller larynx so sing higher notes, but struggle with lower notes.
  • The larynx tilts forward and down when singing higher. Lifting the chins to reach ‘high’ notes
    makes the tilt difficult and the notes even harder to reach.
  • To have a full and healthy voice for singing, we need to develop the whole range.
  • Singing in the higher part of the voices does feel different to singing in the lower part of the
    voice. These different parts are called registers. There are many different names for the upper
    and lower registers, including Head and Chest voice (nothing to do with the voice actually, but
    rather where the vibrations are felt).
  • One way of describing these is to think about what the vocal folds are doing (developed by
    voice scientist, Natalie Henrich):
    • Mechanism One (M1) is when the full mass of the vocal folds vibrates. This happens in
      healthy speech (modal voice) for both men and women. In singing, it is the usual singing
      voice for men, lower range singing for women and in CCM (contemporary commercial
      music) singing. It corresponds to the singing quality of ‘Chest Voice’.
    • Mechanism Two (M2) is when only the thin outer layer of the vocal folds (the ‘cover’)
      vibrates. This happens in falsetto for men and classical voice for women. It corresponds
      to the singing quality of ‘Head Voice’.
    • Like adults, children can sing in both M1 and M2. It is most important for children, both
      boys and girls, to learn to use their M2 voice. Using M2 helps children sing with less
      effort (sing gently!) and match pitch more readily. As children mature, they need to sing
      in both M1 and M2 to develop the full range of their voice.
    • Mechanism Three (M3) isn’t yet completely understood (it is thought to be when a small
      part of the vocal folds vibrate). This happens in whistle register, a super high sound (think
      Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria or Minnie Riperton’s Loving You). Young children who
      sing will often sing in the M3 range. If they stop using it though, the ability is lost.
    • Mechanism Zero (M0) is when the folds vibrate chaotically instead of in a waveform (as in other mechanisms) and there is very little airflow. This happens in creak or fry.

To help singers feel the mechanisms, I use a simple, but clever, exercise devised by Shelli Hulcombe,
Lecturer in Voice at Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University:

  • Put a hand on your chest (to feel the resonance)
  • Say ‘Hey’ – this is M1 (a bit like an Aussie ‘mate’)
  • Say ‘Woohoo!’ This is M2
  • Make a high pitched ‘puppy whimper’. This is M3

Flicking between mechanisms can be made into a game. Watching a cue from the teacher (high, low,
very high) promotes vocal flexibility and helps children (and adults) discover that they can use their
voice in different places, not just the range they usually use.

Jaw: open wide but not too wide!

We know the mouth needs to be open for the sound to come out BUT that’s not the whole story. The
jaw opens at the TMJ (temporo-mandibular joint) which is a hinge joint. Opening too far creates tension
in the mouth and a harsher sound in the voice. Aim for Position One: feel just in front of your ears and
lower the jaw carefully as the hinge joint opens. When you feel a ‘clunk’ creating a hollow under your
fingers, you have moved into Position Two. This is wider, and so the sound is louder but quality is
reduced. Remember that every jaw is different and the opening space will be different for everyone, so
be careful when modelling how far a child needs to open their mouth!

Tongue: make it work FOR you, not against you!

Tension in the muscles of the head and neck, especially the tongue, creates problems. Unfortunately,
it is difficult for singers to hear themselves as others hear them. Because sound travels better through
solid (tense) tissue than soft (relaxed) tissue, by tensing the singer perceives a more resonant sound
BUT tension is the enemy of healthy singing. Tension in the tongue root is especially problematic
because the muscles are extremely strong, difficult to relax and hard to retrain. Tongue root tension
creates a sound which can sound fabulous to the singer but is muddied and distorted to everyone else.
Cupping the hands behind the ears in ‘Mickey Mouse’ style, is a surprising and startlingly effective way
for singers to truly hear themselves.

II. TECHNIQUE: What is possible for children?

The voice is essentially a wind instrument. It needs a steady supply of air through a larynx which can
move freely in the neck. Singing technique can be based on three core components: balanced
alignment, management of breath, and tapping into primal sound. However, to develop these
attributes, we need to have good body awareness (proprioception) and processing ability (cognition).

This is usually beyond the capacity of lower primary school-aged children, under about eight years old.
In fact, they may well end up with unintended problems due to tension and bad habits. Keep it simple
at this age!

In upper primary, as children grow and mature, it is possible to work more on the core components
mentioned. Care is needed though, to ensure children develop a healthy setup for singing. As activities
are learnt, the working memory becomes procedural memory creating motor learning – habits for a
lifetime.

1. Balanced Alignment: getting the body organised to sing

A habit of balanced alignment is the foundation of good singing and one of the core components of
singing technique. Initially, clear and regular focus is needed but, with time and practice, subtle cues
will be enough to prompt a quick adjustment.

Remember, focus on what you DO want rather than what you don’t.

Balanced standing – starting from the ground up:

  1. Feet – think of a tripod (big toe + little toe + heel).
  2. Knees – these need to be soft and unlocked.
  3. Pelvis – where the legs join the rest of the body (think of a skeleton). Think of a bowl holding up the top part of the body (the torso). Roll imaginary ‘marbles’ around in the ‘bowl’ or use an imaginary hula hoop to keep everything an unlocked and ready to move, essential for effective breath management.
  4. Lumbar vertebrae – stack up and connect to the chest. Think of balancing Jenga blocks – these are important for balancing the upper part of the body.
  5. Shoulders floating on the chest.
  6. Head floating and balanced on the top of the neck.

If the first four connection points are set up well, the shoulders and the head will feel balanced on a
stable foundation.

Another useful image is to imagine sitting on your kangaroo tail!

Balanced sitting – sit on your sit bones:

  • Sit on the ‘sit bones’ – parts of the which pelvis point down and out. Sit cross-legged with
  • fingers under the bottom and rock side to side. The crunch of bone on bone is a clear indication
  • you are in the right spot!
  • Once everyone is sitting in this position, set up the upper part of the body. When the spine is
    balanced, the arms are too short for elbows to rest on the legs. Instead, wrists rest in the lap.
  • This expectation needs to be clear and regularly reinforced, but once ingrained, it will become
    the norm.
  • Helpful cues: rocking from side to side with arms up promotes a sense of balance. Add a rhyme
    such as ‘rickety rockety rickety rockety sit with your hands in your lap’ to help young students. Later the arms up action may well be reminder enough.

Some Thoughts

  • Avoid making any muscle work harder than it needs to – remember most muscles are paired so
    find the balance point.
  • A balanced spine has gentle curves – straightness and stiffness are definitely not helpful.
  • Avoid instructions such as “sit up straight” and “shoulders back and down”.
  • Use helpful instructions such as “sit as a singer” “ready to sing” instead.
  • ‘W’ sitting (foot either side of the body making a W shape with legs) puts undue pressure on
    the growing hip joint. Discouraging this position helps the child’s development as well as setting
    them up for singing.
  • Two common errors are ‘knee-locking’ and ‘chin-poking’. Overly keen choristers sometimes lean forward towards their conductors, destroying their body’s balance in their eagerness.
  • Promote a healthy stance light-heartedly, using more carrot than stick.

2. Breath Flow and Support: powering our singing

The lungs sit high in the chest but powering the out-breath can be managed by muscles in the lower
abdomen. Encouraging this takes time and care. With younger children, focusing on a few principles is
safest and easiest:

A balanced body finds it easier to breathe

  • The diaphragm muscle is used to breathe IN. It is an unpaired muscle which contracts and
    moves down, drawing air into the lungs and then relaxing and moving up again. We have no
    conscious control over it except to start an in-breath. The diaphragm cannot power singing.
  • Singing happens when we breathe OUT. Air flows out of the lungs and through the larynx,
    making the vocal folds vibrate and creating sound.
  • The outflow of air can be managed by the abdominal muscles, especially the deepest
    (transversus abdominis) muscle. This makes a ‘belly-in’ movement as we breathe out (and sing).
  • The inflow of air can be helped by relaxing the abdominal muscles, helping air to flow quickly
    and silently. This makes a ‘belly-out’ movement as we breathe in. This is called a ‘drop’ or floor
    breath and also a ‘splat’ breath2
  • Beware raised shoulders when singers breathe in! Apart from being inefficient, this produces
    tension in the vocal tract and badly affects the sound. The trouble is that if we ask very young
    children to take a breath, this is exactly what they will do.
  • Don’t even talk about breathing with very young children. Instead help them set up their bodies
    in a balanced way. Encourage them to keep shoulders relaxed. ‘Hula hoop’ actions can be
    useful here to keep the lower body balanced and unlocked.
  • Older primary school children can begin to learn breathing skills if the teacher has a good
    understanding of what they are doing.
  • Remember there are natural limitations to breath flow: smaller bodies = smaller lungs
  • Children have smaller lungs which means they need to breathe more often and so sing shorter
    phrases. It is better for them to take more breaths and sing with a free tone than to sing a long,
    tight phrase.
  • The following guide is useful (thanks to Dr Ron Morris):
    • 0-5 years – children can sustain the same number of seconds as years of age
    • 5-8 years – can sustain age + 2 seconds (so a 7yo can sustain 7-9 seconds)
    • 8-10 years – can sustain age + 2 or 3 seconds
    • 12-13 years – adult age phrase length is possible.
    • Non-singers average 15 second exhalation, singers 20-30 seconds.

The most common question I am asked by young singers is “How can I improve my breathing?”

Accent Method breathing is an evidence-based method developed originally for speech therapy and
since adapted for singing. It taps into the body’s natural mechanisms of breathing without tension, and
can be used with young children to adults. Accent Method has a carefully mapped sequence to
develop coordination of the abdominal muscles. For singing, ten sounds are used: the fricative
consonants, unvoiced and voiced as well as the voiced [w] (also known as ‘puffy cheeks’) and the
French [ü]. Some Speech Therapists use names for the fricatives to help young students.

See table:

If you want to help singers or your own vocal health, Accent Method is your friend.

3. Primal Sound

Primal sounds are the sounds we make when we don’t mean to make sound. When we are angry,
upset, exhilarated, frightened or tired and grumpy, without even realising it, we will yell, sob, laugh,
scream, sigh or whinge. The emotions we feel automatically trigger a primitive network of nerves and
muscles, making our bodies move and make sound. This makes primal sound a powerful tool for our
singing and can help create a clean, energised sound.

Many of the primal sounds are better used with adults than children (for reasons beyond the scope of
this article). The ‘whinge’ however is very useful with children! A whinge produces twang in the sound
(NOT to be confused with nasality, which is completely different). Twang is produced just above the
larynx and is used by opera and musical theatre singers to be heard above the orchestra. It is a clean,
undamaging way to increase volume. Other twang triggers include cat meows and duck quacks.

Ask ‘Does it hurt?’ to check – hint: it should never hurt!

Beware: seeing raised blood vessels in the neck of singers is ALWAYS a danger sign of too much
tension, risking vocal fold damage.

III. INTONATION & AUDIATION: How to fine tune these skills?

Developing the ability to match pitch takes time and is heavily dependent on early musical
experiences. Some children sing in tune at the age of two while others are well into their schooling
years before it happens. They will get there with patience, encouragement and the right activities –
very few people are truly ‘tone deaf’.

Joining the loop: larynx + ear + brain

A carefully calibrated neural loop needs to develop between the larynx, ear and brain: the larynx
makes a sound, the ear listens to it and the brain adjusts the larynx to change the sound. The brain
must have a pitch in mind to match to the created sound (intonation). This means that young singers
need to ‘audiate’ or think in sound. Thinking in sound and singing in tune are learned skills, not innate
talents. Development of these skills is helped profoundly by carefully scaffolded musical experiences.

So what experiences are useful?

Students benefit much more from actively participating in singing than listening to the teacher
or a recording.

  • Singing games are very powerful. Because they are fun, children keep singing and moving.
    Keeping the beat while singing or joining in the actions also improves the accuracy of singing.
  • Allocate time for gentle, musical singing. Narrow range songs (C4-B42) with a starting pitch (A4 to C5) encourage singing in M2, making it easier for children to tune their voices. Singing in a group seems to create a gravitational pull to match pitch.
  • Tapping into the senses: visualising the melodic contour by pointing in the air or following
    drawn shapes high and low, helps externalise and develop the sense of pitch.
  • Tapping into language skills: the power of pentatony. The falling minor third (as in so-mi) seems to be the easiest interval to match accurately. For this reason, songs with a tone set of so, mi and la are the perfect starting point. This leads easily into using the pentatonic scale as
    children’s musical literacy matures. Using solfa names for notes connects with language skills.
  • ‘Inner Hearing’ activities involve singing notes, words or sections of songs ‘inside your head’
    creating an audible gap in the song which is filled by the mind. It is also helpful to give time to
    ‘think’ the pitch before singing it.

Influences from adults

  • Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) is mostly sung in M1 by adults. This means that the
    keys and style effects won’t always be kind to a child’s voice. Take care singing along with
    recordings. Instead, find a key that fits young voices (even if not comfortable for the teacher). In
    trying to copy a singer they admire; children may try to stay in M1 higher than is comfortable for
    them. The jaw will lock, the chin lift, and the sound becomes increasingly tight as the pitch rises.
    Once this habit is established, it can be difficult to break.
  • The vocal model provided by the teacher has an effect on student singing. A healthy, free voice is the most effective model for children. A male voice singing comfortably is better than a tight falsetto, even though it is an octave lower. Female teachers can usually sing comfortably in a range that suits children.
  • Teacher vocal health: for women, singing in M2 with students is quite fatiguing for the voice. To balance this, be sure to speak with healthy modal M1 voice. A voice that sounds unhealthy with roughness or constriction can be unconsciously detrimental to young singers due to the mirror neuron effect. Another reason for teachers to look after their voice…

IV. TEACHER INFLUENCE: Awareness of our power

The power of what we say about singing

  • Singing and the student psyche are inextricably bound, so it is critical that the teacher is supportive and encouraging
  • Remind everyone that singing ability is on a continuum

The power of ‘yet’

  • A growth mindset is hugely important so students can believe success is possible
  • Effort and practice have an effect – talent is not a pre-determined ‘lucky dip’
  • Even though young singers may not be able to do certain things with their voice now, help them remember that it doesn’t mean it won’t happen one day.

Feedback: You ≠ your voice (even though it feels like it)

  • Specific feedback takes a tiny amount of time and effort but give powerful affirmation of the student’s sense of success:
    • Noticing accurate intonation as we move by in a singing game: “Hey, nice in-tune singing [name]”
    • Commenting that a student matches my voice when singing a solo response: “Lovely matching with my voice, [name]”
    • Sometimes, the pitch might not match but the melodic contour is accurate – it is also worth commenting that the student matched the song. “I heard the shape of the song, [name] – great progress”
  • The very least we must do, when a student sings alone or in a small group is to thank them for
    singing. If students allow themselves to be vulnerable in our presence, this demands respect.
  • Remember that your voice feels like it is ‘you’ so be careful to distinguish between ‘your voice
    is’ and ‘you are’.
  • Honest feedback helps students to trust our appraisal and judgement. ‘fake praise’ is noticed
    and the dent in our trustworthiness may never recover.

Silly sounds: Playing with vocalisation

  • Vocal exploration is important for freedom of the vocal mechanism.
  • Awareness of others’ opinions can hinder freedom of expression – find age-appropriate ways
    to do it anyway!
  • Having fun is key. Games can allow children to ‘lose themselves’ and sing regardless.

V. CHOIR CONSIDERATIONS

This area is covered more extensively in the article: Getting Started with Early Primary Choirs
Bearing in mind that children’s voices are significantly different to adolescents and adults, here are a
few points:

  • Breathing is key – don’t neglect it
    • If singers lift their shoulders, they don’t breathe effectively – and the sound will be tight as a result.
    • The sound will improve if singers breathe lower. It is as simple as that.
  • Alignment is key – don’t just talk about it at the beginning of the year
    • Find quick easy ways to check in with the body at the start of every rehearsal
    • Model alignment checks – it takes seconds and is silent
  • A common fault in choral singers is to crane their necks forward towards the conductor
    • This has disastrous effects on alignment (neck and jaw tension compromise the sound) as well as breathing
    • It may not be evident from the front, so wander around to see singers side-on
  • Warm-ups need to have a purpose and sequence
  • Spend time on breath flow and alignment.
  • Small adjustments can have a significant effect. For example:
    • Many exercises use a five note scale. Due to the placement of the semitones, singing these ascending (drmfs) can be difficult for young singers to sing in tune. Singing descending (sfmrd) is easier and will be more in tune. It also helps children sing in M2 and smooth register changes.
    • Using glides over a fifth is a very useful tool early in the rehearsal. Begin in the middle of the range before moving higher or lower.
  • Exercise the whole vocal range when warming up.
  • When choosing repertoire, pay attention to the range and tessitura (where most of the notes sit
    in the voice) so that it is comfortable and sung with ease.
  • Voice classification – don’t let your students think of themselves as a ‘soprano’ or ‘alto’. This classification is not biologically possible until well after puberty. Instead speak of ‘singing the alto part’ rather than ‘being an alto’. Alternatively, have Part 1 and Part 2 (and then get them to swap).
  • Notice the difference between M1 and M2 in our singers. Mark the score where the change needs to happen. Developing both gives a greater choice in tone colour.
    • Overenthusiastic singers can become ‘shouty’ – this means they are pushing and may need to ‘change gears’ or simply ease off on the effort level.
    • Remember the ‘hey’ ‘woohoo’ exercise.
  • Dynamics and expression – use emotion and story to create light and shade instead of piano or forte, soft or loud.
  • Repertoire choice – help students experience a range of musical styles, not just the songs they are used to hearing.
  • Accompaniment – beginning singers benefit from being able to hear themselves singing.
    • Resist the urge to have a piano play all the time with the choir.
    • When learning parts, allow the singing to be unaccompanied at times.
    • Sing canons unaccompanied.
    • a cappella pieces also give singers a musically satisfying challenge.

Final Thoughts

Singing is a learned skill – be encouraged by this!

A music teacher with many years of experience once told me that having singing lessons for herself
had been surprisingly empowering. I encourage all who work with young singers to sign themselves
up for even a term or two of singing lessons. What other Professional Development feeds the soul,
provides the undivided attention of another human being whose sole focus for 30 minutes is you, and
is tax deductible?!

One last encouragement – if your singing teacher doesn’t teach you Accent Method breathing, find a
course and do that as well.

The vocal tract thrives on habit – we need to find ways to weave in repetition of the important
elements to foster healthy singing. Singing that is free from tension and constriction is the sound that
will blend best and last longest. Take balanced alignment, add breath flow, then add voice and enjoy!

Further Reading

  • Chapman, J. L. (2017). Singing and teaching singing: A holistic approach to classical voice(3rd ed.). San Diego: Plural Pub.
  • Conable, B., & Phelps, T. H. (2000). The structures and movement of breathing: A primer for choirs and choruses. Chicago: GIA Publications.
  • Conable, B., & Conable, B. (2000). What every musician needs to know about the body: The practical application of body mapping to making music. Portland, OR: Andover Press.
  • Henrich, N. (2006). Mirroring the voice from Garcia to the present day: Some insights into singing voice registers. Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology, 31(1), 3–14. doi:10.1080/14015430500344844
  • Kodály, Z., Halápy, L., & Macnicol, F. (1974). The Selected Writings of Zoltán Kodály.(Translated by Lili Halápy and Fred Macnicol.). Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers.
  • Morris, R., & Hutchison, L. (2017). If in doubt, breathe out! Breathing and support for singing based on the Accent Method. Oxford, UK: Compton Publishing.
  • Phillips, K. H. (2012). Teaching kids to sing (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Schirmer Books.
  • Roubeau, B., Henrich, N., & Castellengo, M. (2009). Laryngeal vibratory mechanisms: The notion of vocal register revisited. Journal of Voice, 23(4), 425-438. doi:10.1016/j.jvoice.2007.10.014
  • Shewell, C. (2009). Voice work: Art and science in changing voices. Chichester, West Sussex: WileyBlackwell.
  • Svec, C. L. (2018). The effects of instruction on the singing ability of children ages 5 to 11: A metaanalysis. Psychology of Music,46(3), 326-339.
  • Thurman, L. and Welch, G. (2000). Bodymind and voice. Minneapolis, Minnesota: The Voice Care
    Network.
  • Williams, J. (2013). Teaching singing to children and young adults. Oxford, UK: Compton Publishing.

About the Author

Wendy Rolls has partnered with Together Sing to share this article. It is shared here with permission.

Wendy enjoys working with singers of all ages as a teacher, conductor and performer. She has extensive choral & classroom music experience. Wendy has a wide-ranging background including MMusSt (Vocal Pedagogy), BVSc, BEd, and Kodály Certificate. Her current PhD research is exploring the development of adolescent female singers through voice change. www.wendy.rolls.id.au

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