In tune Singing and Vocal Exploration Strategies

Hello and Happy Holidays!
This is Tanya LeJeune. There is excitement and restlessness in the air at my school; we have one week to go before a two-week winter break!
As we approach the mid-school year break I've been evaluating where the students are with their musical skills and thinking of how to adjust my year plans to get them where they need to be by the end of the year.

One challenge I face every year is with the first graders. The kindergarteners at my school do not get art, music, or PE. As a result, many 1st graders come to music class without any prior social musical experiences. My solution is to start a kindergarten curriculum in the first half of 1st grade and then, in January, begin 1st grade concepts.  It does feel a bit rushed, but those initial musical experiences must  happen so that we can build on them. The kindergarten year should be about soaking up quality songs, moving to music, and finding students finding their singing voice. Ah, the singing voice! I admit it; I am primarily a singer. As I was growing up, everyone around me sang and I just assumed it was second nature to everyone. I would never have guessed that getting kids to sing would be such a large task!

This year I have three 1st grade classes; one of which began the year with the following singing skills:
  • 11 non-singers, (students who do not use their singing voices,)  
  • 14 emerging singers (students who sing but are out of tune, usually flat), 
  • 1 in-tune singer. 
Yikes! How do I get those kids comfortable with their voices and lead them to in tune singing? Vocal exploration is a large part of building the singing voice. Students need to know what their voices are capable of and what singing physically feels like. I make a point of including vocal exploration in every 1st grade class period.

Here are my top 10 In Tune Singing and Vocal Exploration Activities:

10. Sirens

  • Have students echo first high to low, then low to high sirens. There are many ways to mix this activity up to make it more fun. I like to ask students to connect hand gestures with a specific sirens, say low to high on "whoop!" when I show a thumbs up. After memorizing three or four gestures/sirens, have a student "conductor" lead the group who must follow and "perform" the sirens that the conductor shows.

 9. Echo singing
  • There are so many echo songs that are perfect for younger grades. John Feierabend has a wonderful collection of Echo Songs that is worth owning. A couple of class favorites are Down By the Bay and No More Pie.

8. Animal sounds (pictures or puppets)
  • What kid doesn't love the opportunity to make pig sounds? Wether you incorporate animal sounds within a song, (a la Bought Me a Cat, for example,) or simply hold up pictures of animals, imitating animals is a fun way to get them exploring their voices. Aim for the upper register by encouraging "baby" animals like a whimpering puppy or a mewing kitten.
  • If you give a kid a puppet the attention is on the puppet and the puppet's voice, (not the kid.) When a child sings through the puppet, they feel less self-conscious and are willing to take more risks. As the teacher, don't forget to talk to, sing to, and make eye contact with the puppet

7. Ball games
  • Call a child’s name; toss them a ball or beanbag (underhand,) while your voice follows the arc of the ball. The game continues until every child has had a turn to toss and catch. Pitch a baseball (great for choral warm-ups)
  • Pitch a baseball/pass a football; everyone takes a big belly breath as their arm goes back and their voices let loose with the release of the ball. Don't forget to follow through! Who can pitch farthest/last longest without taking a breath? (These are a favorite for choir warm-ups!)

6. Ghost melodies
  • Student voices follow a ghost puppet or picture as it swoops up and down
  • Students write a ghost melody with pipe cleaners , yarn, or wiki-sticks.
5. Roller coasters
  • Visual: individual students draw a roller coaster and then lead (track) the class
  • Physical: students stand/sit/kneel in a circle showing different levels while a puppet takes a ride.
4. Balloon Bop
  • Voices follow the direction of the floating balloon, if the balloon is in a hand or touching the floor, the sound stops. (This is also a great “watch the conductor” warm-up.)

3.  Slide Whistle 
  • After passing out "imaginary slide whistles",  students echo the teacher's slide whistle.

2. Trace pictures with your voice (mountains, waves, ect.)
Follow the path to help Clara and the nutcracker get to the tree.

There are many fun vocal exploration files available on Teachers Pay Teachers. However, it's even easier to pull up pictures of mountains, landscapes, or any contrasting line picture and have students trace the lines with their voices.

1. Rhymes/chants/songs with different voices
The best way to have children explore the capabilities of their voice is through the wonderful literature you are already using in the music class. Many chants such as "You Must Pay the Rent" are meant for "different voices" but you don't have to limit vocal exploration to chants that require vocal exploration.  Singing Lucy Locket? Why not sing it like a mouse? Or a bull dog? Or a ghost? My students especially love to sing Bow Wow Wow with only dog barks; some are large dogs, others are yippy, little dogs.

All of these little activities can make a big difference. I'm happy to report that my 1st grade class I've been most concerned about now has shifted:
  • 1 non-singer (previously 11. Only 1 hold-out! Don't worry- he'll get there!)
  • 10 emerging singers (previously 14.)
  • 15 in tune singers (previously 1.)
Yes, there is still room for growth. Many of my emerging singers became in tune singers and all but one of my non-singers found their singing voices.

The list of vocal exploration strategies is just a sampling of ways to lead students towards in-tune singing. (And I haven't even touched on the importance of critical listening; that's another post for another time!) What are some of your favorite vocal exploration activities?


  1. I love passing out pipe cleaners and having students create their own vocal explorations. They are much more comfortable "singing the shape" that they can trace with their fingers. Plus, they could spend all day creating and singing new shapes :)

    1. Too true! Watch out for those sparkly pipe cleaners- they tend to lose their "fuzz" quickly.

  2. Wonderful list of strategies, Tanya! Thanks for the great reminders. :)

  3. Excellent list!
    Balloon bop:I do the same thing with bubbles. Follow the path of the bubble with your voice. Kids can also keep the bubble aloft by gently blowing underneath it.


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