Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Singing Games

One approach to teaching elementary music is to focus on traditional singing games and dances at least in the earlier grades. In my experience, this approach is extremely effective in engaging children in joyful musicing. Singing games in elementary school have intrinsic motivation, meaning that the motivation to participate is contained within the game; students want to play the games over and over because of the game's inherent strategies and challenges. In fact, the teacher usually tires of the games before the students do. And, really, to help children develop the ability to sing songs with others it is essential that they sing the same songs over and over. If you try to have the students simply sit and sing the same song over and over, chances are they will become bored. Also, in the singing games are plenty of opportunities to develop interpersonal and communication skills. My recommendation for Kindergarten through at least third grade music is to have 80 to 90 percent of the time devoted to these singing games. Of course, this doesn't mean that the students simply play the games over and over, but includes activities in which the games are explored rhythmically and melodically and changed or extended. In this blog I discuss how specific singing games can be applied in this way in the elementary music classroom as well as integrated within the regular elementary classroom.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Drunken Sailor

This is an engaging dance to a tune with which most students will be familiar. Sometimes students ask me if this is appropriate for elementary school and I think it is. Drunkenness was a real problem amongst sailors in years past because a drunk sailor couldn't fulfill his work duties. So, drunk sailors were punished. For some students, a drunk parent or relative might pose equal or greater problems. I teach the students the basic dance and then have them make up new verses and new dance patterns.

A piano accompaniment is easy to add: D minor four counts, C major four counts, D minor four counts, C major two counts, D minor two counts. Left hand alternates D and A on D minor and C and G on C major--boom, boom, boom, boom. Right hand does the open fifths/fourth--d, a, d in D minor and c, g, c in C major--chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck. On the last "up she rises" take everything up stepwise (parallel motion) four eighth notes, then three quarter notes coming back to D "earlye in the morning."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Button and the Key

I love this game! Make sure the participants are bowing their heads and closing their eyes; the-one-who-is-it shouldn't allow the peekers to guess. I also encourage the participants to call each other by name and ask a question (Cindy, do you have the button?) when guessing. It's polite and it gives those who are shy a script to follow. Anyway, there was one boy in my second grade elementary music class years ago who never would speak or sing in class. I often tried to get a sound out of him, but in vain. One day we were playing this game and he had the button. I wondered how he would respond when we all sang, "Who has the button?" We sang it, our heads bowed and eyes closed . . . and in that darkness the sweetest voice sang out clearly and on-pitch, "I have the button!" Yes, I love this game.

If you don't have a button or a key, any objects will do. Also, my classes usually sang this with a triplet/swing feel. I encouraged the university students to maintain a dotted eighth feel and they did pretty well even though a true Scotch Snap (sixteenth followed by dotted eighth) seems to be lost.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


A graduate student reminded me about this Youtube link to Ken Robinson's increasingly popular discussion of creativity and public education. We so often hear music advocacy statements that claim music education increases creativity. However, that all depends on how music is experienced in schools. The types of singing games/experiences I am promoting in this blog are, I believe, the types of complex, engaging, interactive activities that will, indeed, allow for and encourage creativity.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Four White Horses

This is a singing game that I learned from a wonderful book by the New England Dancing Masters (Down in the Valley: More Great Singing Games for Children, Schools, & Communities edited by Andy Davis, Peter Amidon, Mary Alice Amidon)--possibly my favorite collection of childrens' singing games. The clip is of my Elementary Music Methods course at Northwest Missouri State University playing the game. The third group is trying to figure out a way to play the game with more than four people. I also have the class make up new hand clapping (or other movement) patterns to go with the song. We tried this with the fourth graders at Horace Mann Elementary School (our on-campus lab school) and they went the entire 30 minutes making up new, creative ways to play the game and they played the game outside of class. That's the kind of successful activity I was referring to in my previous post!

The first thing that really catches my attention in this song is the repeated and syncopated pattern, "ay ay ay". So, when I teach this song to a group I usually have them first clap on the ay's while I sing the lyrics (Four white horses on a river, ay ay ay up tomorrow. Up tomorrow is a rainy day. Come on, join in our shadow play. Shadow play is a ripe banana, ay ay ay, up tomorrow. Up tomorrow is a rainy day.) This usually takes two times through to get them all. Then, we start adding actions for the various parts of the song starting with raising hands high above the head on up and then dropping the hands again . . . the rainy fingers for rainy day . . . make up shadow puppets for shadow play . . . etc. All in all, this gives about 10 to 12 repetitions of the song at which point the students may have internalized it well enough to move on. On a subsequent day, I re-introduce the song this time keeping the beat in various ways and eventually keeping the beat with everyone in a large circle keeping the beat as if they were playing the game starting with hands out in front as if they were clapping hands with the person across from them, then clapping, then clapping the hands of the people to each side, and then clapping hands again, etc. I find that it helps to do this as a large group first so that everyone builds off the success of each other. Then we divide into groups and try the game. Then, on other days, we make up new ways to play the game. It is important to let the students demonstrate in their groups either the original game or their new way. This gives them opportunities to sing in smaller groups without being self-conscious. It gives me a chance to assess how well they are matching pitch, etc. 

This game will kind of take on a life of it's own, but could be re-visited for skill development and creativity multiple times (10 or so) throughout a school year. Yes, fun and games!!! But, think about all of the musical, kinesthetic, creative, and interpersonal skills being developed in the process.