What can I do if my students won’t sing?

Do you wonder what on earth you can do if your students won’t sing?

It’s a frequently asked question inside Doremi Membership, for class teachers and instrumental teachers.

It’s especially concerning for those of us who use a singing based approach to music education. I mean, what can we do if they won’t sing?

In this episode I’m going to share my experiences and advice on how to deal with this in classroom music lessons, one-to-one piano lessons and also unbelievably in private singing lessons too!

Key points:
* Younger students might not even realise they aren’t singing
* They can learn a lot just by listening and participating
* Choose a game involving part-work where the child who is “it” has to sing
* Even high schoolers who have opted for singing lessons can refuse to sing
* Anxiety plays a large part. They need to feel safe
* Don’t pressurise them. Be patient and they will sing in the end

Episode Transcript

Today I’m going to be deep diving into this frequently asked question. I’ll be sharing some of my experiences and hopefully giving you a few strategies that you can use to help with your students in your classes!

So let me tell you about Max. Max was in Early Years and he didn’t like to sing. Who knows why? For whatever reason he wasn’t singing and he would sit in his lessons happily but quietly.

When we sang, he kept his mouth shut. He was looking at me attentively, but no sound came out of his mouth for the whole class.

He learnt all the songs for the nativity and in the performance he sat there on the stage, in his costume, holding his little toy sheep, with his mouth shut. He didn’t sing at all. But at the end, he came up to me and was horrified as he said “Did you know some of the children weren’t singing!”. And I’m stood there thinking, well no you weren’t singing. Of course I didn’t say that but it occurred to me that he didn’t realise he wasn’t singing.

He then joined the Key Stage One choir, which is ages five to seven for those of you who aren’t in England, and he went on to join the Young Voices choir. Never sang a bit! But he spent every rehearsal totally engaged, watching and listening. He wasn’t messing about, he wasn’t being stroppy or getting bored or anything like that. He thought he was singing, and actually, I think he was singing in his inner hearing. That’s why he was engaged, because he was learning the words, he was learning the actions, he was learning the melody, he just wasn’t actually using his voice.

So what do you do? 

Well, stay patient I think, because years later, I heard him singing to himself. From complete silence to beautiful singing. He was singing something that wasn’t easy, and he was singing in tune, mindlessly to himself. He didn’t know anybody was listening and I had to contain myself. I wanted to rush over and go “Oh Max you’re singing,  you’re singing!” but I couldn’t, because he didn’t know he wasn’t singing before.

So this really inspired me to be patient. It did take years for Max to start singing, but now I can tell you he’s a beautiful singer.

Classroom Teaching

As long as they’re not messing around, just like Max they could be audiating, singing in their inner hearing. So they could still be learning the songs and still be improving their music skills. They’re just not stretching the muscles around their vocal folds. We can do that later, so be patient.

They all take their own sweet time with everything, especially if they’re very little. In Early Years particularly we know that they take different times to develop different skills.

One to One Teaching

You probably know that I teach piano using the Kodály approach, so we’re going to be singing a lot. I have had children from tiny tots all the way up to teenagers refusing to sing.

It really baffled me to start with that a teenager should sign up for one-to-one singing lessons, turn up to the lesson, and then absolutely refuse to sing. Now I know it’s down to anxiety. They don’t feel safe yet, they don’t know me and they need time to know that they’re not going to be criticised.

Who knows what people have said about their singing voices before, or maybe they’ve watched X Factor and they’ve seen people be being overly critical, all for entertainment. It’s no wonder they suddenly get to their lesson and panic. Maybe they think I’m going to ask them to do something that’s too hard for them, and it will be embarrassing. Or even worse, maybe they think I’m going to ask them to do something that’s really easy, and they still won’t be able to do it.

Warming Up

So whatever the age and whatever the instrument, whether it be piano or singing, they need to warm up to you, just like they need to warm up their voices.

So we’re going to start with just silly sounds and vocalizations with the teenagers. We can talk about breathing, accent method for warming up the voice, shh shh shh, zhh zhh zhh. They usually seem to be okay with that. Work from there to making more sounds.

With little ones it’s all about silly sounds as well like making lots of pitch slides. What I never do is actually ask them to sing, I just make those silly sounds to warm up and then just start singing and 99% of the time they’ll just join in. They are excited.

Using props and puppets

I’ve got some puppets so when we’re singing a song and we’re waving little birds around or other crazy things, they just get caught up with the playfulness of it.

Sometimes there’ll be one that won’t sing, and if they’re not singing, I’ll sing and they just won’t join in. I won’t make any comment. If they actively say I don’t want to sing, I say “That’s fine, I’ll sing” and I do all the singing and they do all the actions. They might hold the puppet, or maybe the puppet might sing but they always join in eventually, usually in the first lesson.

Hook them with a game

A guaranteed way to get them singing is to use a game, and this is the same whether you’re in a class setting, or if you’re in a one-to-one setting. A game that has different parts, so if they want to be it, they’re going to have to sing.

So with a game like a witch witch fell in a ditch, everybody sings “Witch witch fell in a ditch, picked up a penny and thought she was rich” and then the person who is the witch sings “Are you my children?” and everyone sings “Yes! We’re your children” “Are you my children?” “Yes! We’re your children” “Are you my children?” and then the last time they go “No we’re not!” and pull faces. It’s a great game. To be the witch you have to sing “Are you my children?” and they usually want to be the witch so they volunteer and suddenly they’re singing. They forget that in order to play the game, they have to sing of course.

Occasionally you’ll get one that suddenly freezes when it’s their turn to sing, and then you can ask them if they want to choose a friend to be the witch with them, and they can sing together, or you can sing or something like that. But never make them feel bad about not wanting to sing. They will sing eventually, I promise you. Just be patient and if they still don’t, then maybe they’re singing in their inner hearing like Max was.

Sometimes they just can’t help it!

I need to tell you about my least successful singing student who absolutely refused to sing, and that was Maisie. She was eight, and every time I started to sing, she’d remind me that she wasn’t going to sing, and I’d say “Yeah yeah I know I know” but the funny thing is, she kept singing by accident. She kept joining in, and then she got really cross with herself. I tried to be patient, I tried to never ask her to sing, but she did sing eventually but she was so cross when she did. So cute right!

What do you think?

So what I want to know from you, is what are your experiences? Do you have students who won’t sing and what do you do about it? Or maybe you find some of my suggestions useful! I’d love to hear from you.

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