Do you like to sing? Maybe you like to sing, but only when you’re alone. Even then, how often do you really sing? If you’re like most of us, you spend your alone time checking your email, catching up on Facebook, and overcooking your pasta like I did tonight. Truth be told, most of us don’t sing, and that’s a shame. Singing is good for a variety of reasons, but it is particularly useful--even crucial--for learning the rudiments of music.
As a piano teacher, I rely on a base level of musical understanding to exist within a student before even teaching a first piano lesson. It is this inherent musical understanding from which I can build further musical skills. Consider the analogy of a soccer coach teaching a kid how to play the game. He can teach how to use the instep or outstep of the foot for a kick. Or, he can teach how to do a perfect header into the net. But he relies on every kid on the team already knowing how to run. Believe me, a soccer coach cannot teach soccer skills if his team can’t even run, walk, or jump. These are baseline skills, ascertained during early childhood.
Alarming is the fact that so many of our children do not have baseline musical skills. Many of our elementary schools have taken singing out of the core curriculum. I remember one piano student of mine who had taken lessons for quite some time but always struggled with even the most basic piano concepts. As I began to explore, I found she had no baseline musical skills. I asked her if she had sung in church, when alone, or even with cartoons, but the sad answer was that she had never sung. Literally, NEVER.
So what kind of baseline skills does singing produce? Singing helps with disciphering the up and down movement of sound. It helps the brain assimilate western diatonic harmony (that’s fancy talk that describes how our music sounds fundamentally different from eastern or African cultural music--it is our unique music alphabet). Singing helps build musical memory skills. It acts as the first and most natural musical outlet as music grows inside of us.
There once was a time when singing was a naturally-ocurring aspect of life. Consder an older piano student of mine who is a British survivor of the London WWII bombings. While reading her fascinating book of her memoirs, this section caught my attention:
Crowded around that dilapidated, out-of-tune, upright piano, someone could always get a tune out of it. We sang the music hall songs of my parents’ vintage, World War I songs from the trenches, songs from the famous entertainers of the day, and the good, old-fashioned folk and patriotic songs that we all learned in school. If we didn’t know the words, we’d hum along. Did the neighbors object? Not in the least even though we lived in a crowded tenement. They’d open their windows and sing along with us. English people in those days sang on their way to work, after a hard day in the factory, out on their milk rounds, when going shopping, or even hiking through country lanes. They sang all the time. No one thought they were barmy; in fact, you’d pick up the tune as you continued in the opposite direction. 1
Her description of British musical life in the ‘30s couldn’t be more opposite of what we have here today. In our day and age kids and adults alike are abashed to sing. Even with shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent (of which I am a fan), we may be inadvertantly training our kids that singing is strictly for the “idols” and the “talented.”
Lets do ourselves and our children a favor by singing, and singing often. At the very least, it makes a piano teacher’s job a lot easier.
Do you agree or disagree with my take on singing? Please share your thoughts!
Adam Bendorf and his wife, Anna, are private piano teachers in Santa Clarita, CA. In their spare time they like to... wait, they don’t have any spare time.
1. Veronica Pinckard (2012-06-22). A Damn Fine Growth: Autobiography of a Cockney Kid (Kindle Locations 308-314). Xlibris. Kindle Edition.