Would you like to know the secret of effective music education? One that makes sense for children? Something that gives them—and anyone—power to continue making music on their own? Something in short one-syllable words that doesn’t require 25 steps to memorize? I’m quite happy to share my secret with you:

Play What You Sing, Sing What You Play

Those simple eight words can transform your teaching. Of course, simple to say but it takes a lot of thought and practice to implement. Here are some ideas as to how.

The first step begins with rhythm: Carl Orff was not the first to suggest that rhythm be taught through speech and sounded vocables— India has long had a highly developed drum language, West Africa uses proverbs, virtually every culture has some kind of scat-sounded way to vocalize a rhythm before, during or after playing it. All these are tools to learn rhythms, to remember rhythms, to understand rhythms— with centuries of proven efficacy.

Orff suggests beginning with speech: children’s names, lists of plants or fruit or flowers, short proverbs and the whole rich world of nursery rhymes. Though he himself never developed or used a system of rhythmic vocables, many Orff teachers today either borrow from the Kodaly rhythmic syllables, or the French time-name system (see my book Play, Sing, and Dance for a look at this), or the system called Ta-ke-ti-na, or a mixture of approaches that clarify duration, accent and meter.

Melody begins simply by singing. Children who sing every day, ideally in school as well as at home or in church, develop a storehouse of models as to how melodies work. Each melody learned makes the next one easier to learn and remember. At my school, the elementary children have a 20-minute Singing Time every day. By the end of the year, they have sung some hundred-plus songs of all types and this becomes a considerable part of their developing musicality. (This has been going on the entire 40 years of our program, yet I’ve recently been surprised to discover that very few schools have something similar.)

Another step is to use solfege as a tool to identify specific notes and their relation to each other, either with hand signs or a general gesture to show the shape of the melody. Below is a sequence that can help your kids learn how to sing what they hear and play what they sing on the Orff instruments (or on recorder, or any instrument).

  1. Echo solfege: Using Curwen hand signs and solfege, sing short phrases that the group echoes. (Do-do-do/ do-re-do/ do-re-mi/ mi-re-do/ Sol-sol mi/ etc.) Use the pentatonic scale only for starters.
  2. Repeat above just showing hand signs without singing (use same sequence of phrases).
  3. Repeat same phrases again with children at xylophones set up in C pentatonic. You sing a phrase and they play it back. (Do= C)
  4. As above, singing on the vocable “Loo.” (a bit more difficult)
  5. Each of the children sing a short phrase using solfege and play back what they sang. (They can do this all at the same time.)
  6. As above, but all play first and then sing what they play.
  7. All sing and play simultaneously using solfege. Using vocable “loo.”

Note that this is an excellent exercise to help draw out coherent improvisation. When children simply play randomly over the pentatonic scale, the results are not always musical. This exercise insures that their melodic choices are singable—no ungainly leaps or random groupings.

Once children gain facility in this exercise—and I think you may be surprised how well even first graders can do with this if you take it step by step— they will now have the power to sing a song away from the instrument and then “find” it on the instrument. From 1st to 8th grade, I teach virtually every new piece away from the instruments. A few tips for those new to this idea:

  • All students sing the melody or other parts while you play it on a xylophone facing them.
  • While they sing, they play in the air with “imaginary mallets” to connect the hand with the voice with the ear.
  • Observe who seems ready and invite them to go to the instruments to find what they have sung. (If a child is not singing, don’t invite them!)
  • Give them time to figure it out without interfering too soon. If they need help, give them the first note or two and encourage them to “cheat” by looking at their neighbor.
  • If the child is struggling and too frustrated, allow them to play just a fragment of the whole melody until they’re ready for more.
  • Have the melody or parts written on the board (but turned around or covered up). After they have used their ears to figure out as much as they can, then reveal the written notation. (Some will not need it or be more confused by the notation, some will breathe a sigh of relief. In either case, a good way to connect the eye to the ear—but make sure the ear comes first.)

Beyond learning parts on xylophones, singing keeps everything connected and honest. When teaching folk dance, don’t just teach the steps alone or put on a recording. Sing the phrase while they dance. When teaching a bass part in a jazz (or any) piece, don’t just show the abstract pattern—sing the melody while you play so that the relationship will be clear. Likewise with learning percussion parts. In addition to playing what you sing and singing what you play, play while you sing and sing while you play.

I believe that these habitual practices solve so many musical problems—kids rushing while they play, kids in a tunnel with their part and not listening to the whole, kids who can’t remember their parts and more.

Try it and hear for yourself!