Inspiring Singing in the Classroom

Author Name: 

I have a few special memories of past groups of students performing exceptionally well at a Christmas or spring program. Something is inspiring about young children and high school students throwing their hearts into carefully rehearsed praise. Of course, the opposite is true. Did you ever attend a program where the students seemed incapable of getting excited about what they were doing? The students barely open their mouths during a program while a teacher tries bravely to wring forth some sound. How discouraging! How can we inspire students in the classrooms of our Christian schools to excel in singing?
Does it matter if our children learn to enjoy singing? The Bible mentions the subject of music over 500 times. Something mentioned so often must have a place close to the heart of God. The book of Job mentions singing at the time of creation. Throughout scripture, you repeatedly find that God’s people sang in response to His workings and in worship of who He is. For example, the children of Israel sang after crossing the Red Sea. We find them singing in the desert while digging wells for water God had promised. Singing was a central feature in the dedication of the temple. And they sang again when the temple was rebuilt under the direction of Ezra. In the book of Revelation, God’s people sing around His throne throughout eternity. The music thread weaves itself throughout the entire Scripture. Ephesians 5 specifically instructs us to sing. Yes, God’s people will sing.
We probably often undervalue the gift of singing. Is there a better way to collectively praise God? When we sing as a group in a school setting or in congregational singing at church, we engage in praising God physically, emotionally, and spiritually. How do you measure the spiritual and emotional value of a group of believers blending their voices in hymns of faith that saints have sung for ages? Together we sing songs that exalt God for Who He is and songs of commitment and dedication. Our hearts are stirred with songs of devotion and hope. Our faith is strengthened as we commit our lives again to Him. When we teach our children to sing well, we give them a gift that is much more than a physical exercise. We provide them with the ability to join in unified praise to God.
If we are going to inspire our children to sing well, we will be most successful in working together as a church, home, and school. Our Anabaptist communities value congregational singing. What can we do to encourage a generation of students to embrace this heritage? Group singing should be a regular part of family life and worship. Before children enter school, they should be taught to sing the melodies of songs. During this time, it is good to sing unison with your children so that they become comfortable singing the melody. Teaching your child to play an instrument is an invaluable way to help them become more musically capable. The music lessons that often accompany learning to play an instrument will help them become confident with timing. The instrument will help them tune their ear, which will make them more confident both when singing the melody and when they begin to learn to sing other parts. Often a middle schooler that is confident singing alto or tenor plays an instrument at home.
However, you choose to handle music in your home, be sure to not discourage your children from giving their best to learning music. It is hard to teach a sixth-grade boy to sing tenor after he raises his hand and declares, “My dad only ever sang soprano, and he says that is good enough for him.” If you are not musically inclined, encourage your children to apply themselves to learning music and enjoying a lifetime of singing.
Our schools present a huge opportunity to promote Christian songs and singing. Sometimes students enter our classrooms without an ability to sing on tune. We should begin working on this issue early in their schooling before they become too self-conscious. If the student struggles with carrying a tune, spend some time working with him one on one. Take him aside and practice a variety of pitch exercises. For example, blow a pitch on a pitch pipe and have him match the tune by humming along. You may need to direct him to hum higher or lower. Keep the sessions short so that they do not become too tedious and always be encouraging.
As students go up through our schools, we should continue to offer a music program that helps them to grow and expand their musical abilities. This should include a music theory curriculum as well as group singing. Our music theory classes should teach our students about notes, key signatures, time signatures, and chord progressions. By middle grades, the scale, note values, key signatures, time signatures, and lines and spaces should all be memorized. Use flashcards and speed drills to rivet these facts just like we do Math facts. It should also include sight-singing exercises. There are a host of free music worksheets available online. You can also practice sight singing by taking any hymn book and practicing a song that no one knows. Open a hymn book to a random page and get your students to identify the time signature, the key, and the starting pitch. For an added challenge, use songs with round notes. Again, a piano or keyboard in our classrooms is an invaluable help to these kinds of classes.
We also need to teach our students to lead singing. We want boys that can go on to lead singing in our worship services at church and girls that can lead singing in the classroom. Our goal should be to send our students out the doors of our schools with an ability to pick up an easy set of music that they have never seen before, identify the pitch, and sing their way through it. If we can do this, we will always be able to learn new songs during a hymn sing in our congregations. In the upper grades, encourage your more advanced students to try writing songs. There is a need for more new Anabaptist hymns.
The other part of our music teaching is choir or group singing. As with any part of our curriculum, our group singing should continue to stretch and develop our students. Begin your choir classes with warm-ups that get everyone started singing and develop singing skills simultaneously like the little chorus, “Now for the Sound of the Singing School.” You will find many good warm-up exercises available online. A verse of a familiar song or a favorite from the last program can also make a nice warm-up. Don’t spend too much time warming up before moving into practicing some songs you chose ahead. It is a good idea to use folders with songs that you want to practice throughout the year. Work on a song that your students are singing well and move from there to a new song or more challenging music. End the choir session with a song that your students have mastered and enjoy singing so that they can experience the fruit of some of their hard work. Make sure that your students are singing a new song correctly from the start. Once young students learn music incorrectly, it is difficult to relearn it. Keep singing classes enjoyable and inspirational. Don’t continually bog down on music that is too hard for your students. If you insist on always singing songs that your students can’t master, they will become discouraged. This often creates an environment for behavior issues. Resist the temptation to address behavior or attitude issues during a choir practice in front of all the students, especially in the middle and upper grades. Generally, your correction will be much more effective if you dismiss all the students early for some extra recess and keep the trouble makers back to address the issues.
One of the difficult parts of teaching choir is picking songs. Every community has its own music culture. You will need to start with music that your school community appreciates. If you are teaching in a community that likes the Heartland Hymns, you will be frustrated if you head into the school year with lots of hard choral pieces and no easy music. Start easy and introduce hard pieces as the year progresses. If you master some easy music and your students enjoy singing it, you can use that momentum to work on harder music. Pick a variety of music. Include some simpler “gospel” style songs, some hymns, and some more difficult choral music. Encourage students to submit songs that they would like to sing. They are usually happy to supply a few that they would like you to consider. Be sure to teach your students some new pieces of music. If you find yourself running out of time to teach a new song during your choir classes, try choosing one song and singing it after you return from recess each day for a while. This will help you master a song and break up the routine of school life. Always make sure that the songs you choose have biblically sound text and music that is well written. Avoid songs and singing that follow current secular music trends.
One of the keys for inspiring our students to sing well is having a goal in mind. Probably the most effective goal is giving an opportunity for the students to present their song to an audience. School programs are an excellent opportunity for this. The pressure of having an audience listening to them present a song gives real incentive to buckle down and do their best. Singing for the classroom down the hall or the elderly neighbor across the field can also provide excellent incentives to practice and sing well. Generally, students want to sing well when they know someone is listening.
How well should our students sing? Is there a risk of placing too much emphasis on good singing? Our singing should be considered a sacrifice of praise to God. Throughout scripture, God has always called his people to give their best. Not necessarily “the” best, but “their” best. We should give our best when we sing. Let’s examine two examples from scripture that will help us have a balanced approach to this question.
First, consider the account of the temple dedication in 2 Chronicles 5. Verses 11-14 specifically mentions the singers that were there. We don’t know how many singers were there besides the 120 priests that blew the trumpets. Bible scholars have suggested that there could have been as many as 4,000 instrument players and 200,000 robed singers. Verse 13 states that the “trumpeters and singers were as one.” Clearly, this was carefully rehearsed praise, and it must have been something to hear. Verse 14 says that the glory of the Lord filled the temple so much that the priests could not do their work. The heart of God is moved when we give our very best through singing praise to Him.
The setting for another song service, found in Acts 16, is very different. Paul and Silas are in prison for preaching the gospel. They are being held in the inner prison with their feet in stocks. Before being thrown into prison, they were severely beaten. The simple statement in verse 25 thrills me every time I read it. It says at midnight Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises to God and the prisoners heard them. I am sure no one had a pitch pipe. I doubt they spent time practicing. They sang from the heart with an unshakable commitment to and faith in God. Again, the heart of God was moved, and the jailor and his family were led to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Can we always be people that the world around us hears singing in life’s most difficult moments? Does God receive our praise in the darkest of nights? What a challenge. What an inspiration! Let’s take these two accounts into perspective when deciding how well to sing.
Finally, inspiration is contagious. You will inspire your students to sing if you personally are inspired about singing. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a co-teacher if music is difficult for you. Swap some classes or sing together with other rooms if that is an option. Look for opportunities to expand your knowledge of music at teacher’s institutes or through summer piano classes. Be yourself, and don’t be afraid to try. That is what you want from your students. Sing well, sing often, and always keep God the center of your praise. If we do well, another generation will join together in praising God through song, which will bless and inspire them and the people around them that listen.