Many of you are aware that I am a children's choir director in my spare time (as well as being a former music major and piano teacher). So as you read this, know that I am briefly putting on my 'music professional' hat. Over the past 13 years that I have observed a disturbing trend among the children with whom I work, that is, a lack of singing ability/awareness. I believe it is nearly entirely a result of having minimal chances to sing.
A child's natural singing voice is their head voice. That is the light, higher sound... what you think of when you think of boys' choirs. The other singing voice is the chest voice. It is the louder, lower voice... think rowdy camp song singing. Most people can move between the two voices and really trained opera singers move between the two voices with virtually no audible distinction. When I first started working as a choir director, I would every now and then have a child who could not find, much less sing, in his (most often it is a boy) head voice. It is like trying to teach a bear cub to sing like a choir boy. If the child is willing, I can often get them to find their head voice, but in front of a group of other children is not the most auspicious time. In the past couple of years, I have had more and more children have this difficulty. They don't even realize they are not singing like the other children.
Children are great imitators. If they were to hear other people singing in the home, there is a greater likelihood that they would learn to actually sing. Singing is also just good exercise, something I am always reminded of after having sung for over an hour with my children's choir. Plus, making music is good for the brain. For instance, children who have developed good rhythm often find it easier to learn to read.
The other piece of this is that if parents don't sing with their children, there is a vast cultural tradition of folk songs and hymns that will not be passed on. This is not the school's job. This is the parent's responsibility to pass on this piece of our cultural heritage. During December, I always make it a point to sing Christmas carols with the children (and all the verses to them as well, I might add). I am dismayed at the number of children who have obviously never heard these songs. Oh, they know Rudolph and Frosty all right, but show complete ignorance of Joy to the World or Away in a Manger. I am used to children not knowing titles, but often once they hear the melody, I will see a wave a recognition cross their face with the pleased exclamation of, "Oh, I know this!" Not this year. Out of all the kindergarten and first graders, there were perhaps 2 or 3 who showed any familiarity with the classic Christmas hymns of our faith.
We cheat our children if we do not encourage them to sing. And the best way to encourage a child to sing is to sing yourself. It really doesn't matter if you don't think you have a good voice or you never learned yourself. No one is grading you on tone and vocal production. If you never learned the songs and hymns of our country and faith, take this opportunity to learn them. There are dozens of books of folk tunes and hymns out there. Some will even tell you the story of how they came to be. Others will include a recording in case you never learned to read music. Advent it is a wonderful time to start doing this. When you light your Advent candle this Sunday, take a moment afterward to sing a hymn or two together. Start there and venture out. Some of my fondest memories are of my children and J. and I gathered around the piano singing Christmas carols together. My children treasure it as well and make sure that we don't leave that part of our Advent celebrations out.
Turn off the TV and sing!