Creating a Safe Environment for Singing

by Kenneth H. Phillips, Ph. D.

A qualitative study1 on the student teaching process in music reports a classroom incident where the student teacher was having difficulty motivating the children to sing. One boy was observed to have a particularly nice voice, but he participated reluctantly. When the student teacher asked the boy why he didn't participate more the boy responded, "I don't want to sound like a girl."

For many people the act of singing can be a daunting experience. Called upon to perform before others, they feel vulnerable and intimidated by expectations that, scare them. Boys, especially, seem to fear "sounding like a girl" when they sing, and participate less willingly as they grow older.2 Music teachers and choral directors need to recognize this phenomenon and work to provide a safe environment where students can sing spontaneously without being laughed at and judged negatively.

Singing is a deeply personal act. When a person sings they share their inner self, which makes them vulnerable to criticism. Any type of laughter or ridicule is bound to make a person retreat from willing participation. Unfortunately, singing in American society is viewed by many as a feminine behavior. It's Okay for girls to be "tomboys," but a boy who is sensitive and artistic becomes suspect. Such boys may withdraw from singing rather than be made fun of and suffer from embarrassment. This should not be permitted to occur and music teachers need a plan by which to counter such negativity. The a following are some specific guidelines recommended to help create a safe environment for singing among young people.

Discuss the Voice Change Early

It is too late to discuss the voice-change process once students have become adolescents. The psychological and physiological problems encountered in puberty can be daunting to some children and the voice change can add significantly to stress levels. Boys and girls need to be advised early on about what is going to happen to their voices during the adolescent period. The voice change should be something to be anticipated as part of the transition to adulthood. When it is viewed positively it can become a motivational force to remain a singer. Boys who sing treble should know that eventually the voice will lower, and continued singing as a treble will help to create a stronger changed voice. Fourth and fifth grades are not too early for music teachers to discuss the voice change process with children.

Showing students a model of the human larynx will help their understanding of how pitch is produced, and why it is necessary to protect the voice from abuse. Students regularly see models of the human eye, brain, skeleton, and so forth. Why should not the larynx be a topic of the music class? Excellent models are available to teachers, as are videotapes of the vocal cords moving and producing sound. Music teachers can affirm the science curriculum while using science to teach music.

Permit No Laughter or Ridicule

No one wants to be made fun of or ridiculed, certainly not when participating in singing. Nevertheless, it is a common occurrence for children to poke fun at inaccurate singers. Negative remarks can create deep hurts and wounds that never heal. How often has it been heard that negative remarks have come from the teachers! Students have been told that they "just don't have it," or should mouth the words and not sing. Such comments are reprehensible. Any laughter or negative comments should be forbidden in the singing group; this should be a standard code of conduct for a music class. Students who stop singing early in their school careers will rarely take the chance again. The pain is too deep. Be stern if laughter surfaces and let it be known that your class is a safe environment for self expression.

Sing Individually

Research suggests that children tend to sing more accurately when singing alone than in a group. Most elementary singing experiences, however, are group ones. It is hard for the vocal music teacher or choir director to assess individual voices in a group setting. Solo singing not only enables the teacher to hear and assess each voice, but also builds an environment where it is safe to share your voice without fear of ridicule.

Creating a safe environment for students to explore their voices has to be a fundamental goal for all vocal/choral music teachers. This process needs to start early in the child's education, when they are asked to sing by themselves in call-and-response activities. The echoing of tonal patterns and brief song snatches allows the child to hear his or her own voice while gaining confidence in their ability to sing. Any laughter from classmates must be squelched immediately. Children need to learn that sharing their voices is a common, everyday experience - one that is free from laughter and intimidation.

As children grow older the teacher can begin to ask "who wants to sing in an octet," "a quartet" or a "duet"? Hands go up and children come forward and sing for their classmates with ever emerging pride. Finally, the day comes when the teacher can ask, "who wants to sing a solo on this stanza?" As hands go up everywhere, a feeling of safety becomes evident. Each child knows that they are free, to express themselves without being judged negatively. Freedom of expression - that has a familiar ring.

Teach Children to Sing in the Treble Voice

Learning to sing in the upper voice for a child is often a difficult task. The "pop" vocal music they hear is basically a chest or speaking voice production. Boys are reluctant to sing in their upper voices because the voice has a female vocal quality. However, early discovery of the upper voice through sound imitations (e.g., the cuckoo-cuckoo bird, roller coaster rides, the wind, and so forth) makes singing in this vocal register full and non-threatening. The goal is to begin this process early when young children are still unaware of gender characteristics.

What do you tell a boy who does not want to "sound like a girl" when singing? Tell him that every person has a distinct quality to their voice and that as he grows older his voice will deepen making his voice very different from that of a girl. Until that happens, he needs to keep exercising his voice to keep it strong and ready for the voice change.

Children who are comfortable singing treble find the use of the "whole" voice, and generally sing in a healthier manner than chose who sing only in the chest register. Teach children to sing in the treble voice and you increase their capacity to sing with a rich, beautiful tone.

Teach Singing as a Learned Behavior

Singing is a psychomotor skill, and most children can learn to sing.3 The exceptions are those who have some type of mental or physical disability, such as thickened vocal cords. The psychological part of instruction includes learning inner hearing wherein children hear "on the inside" and recognize/label what they hear. The motor part requires learning good posture, breathing, and phonatory coordination. The last National Assessment of Educational Progress4 reported that many children do not learn to sing even a simple melody with accuracy.

Otolaryngologists have discovered much vocal abuse among children, especially among boys who push their voices down to sound manly. Speaking down on the cords is a sure way to produce vocal nodules and an unhealthy voice. Boys and girls need to be cautioned about loud, excessive yelling, and the damage it can do to the vocal cords. Music teachers must be voice teachers for singing and speaking.

Increase the Value of Singing by the Public

Popular music places much emphasis on singing. Unfortunately, the singing is done by the select few, and the listening by the masses. ACDA encourages that music programs include sing-a-longs and audience participation. One graduate student of mine recalls having the boys in his choir dress in clothes worn by their fathers "on the job." This segment of the annual spring concert was a tremendous success and fathers attended looking with pride as their sons participated in choir. The same activity would be entirely appropriate for girls in choir as so many mothers work outside the home today. Also, dressing as a homemaker could be a riot!

We, as vocal/choral teachers, must make a greater effort for society to value singing as a vital means of expressive communication. What better way to express patriotism than through audience participation in singing a patriotic song. And what an excellent way to learn of the diversity of a multicultural nation than through its varied folk literature. It is time for Americans to place greater value on the act of corporate singing.

The children's choral movement has exploded in the last decade; almost every community now has an extant children's choir. Some of this growth is due to the public's dissatisfaction with the way singing is being taught in the schools of this nation. Parents are looking for an outlet where their children can develop real vocal skills. There are, however, many fine children's choirs in public and private schools. These teachers have learned that singing is a learned behavior and know how to go about proper vocal instruction. For those teachers lacking in this knowledge, there are books, CDs, classes, workshops, and so forth available to gain this knowledge. A vocal music teacher who cannot teach singing is an embarrassment to the profession.

Help Students to Feel Safe

Last year I joined a physical fitness center. I was feeling tired and my energy level was low. Thinking of going, however, was slightly intimidating as I thought of all those young "jocks" strutting around. Then a good thing happened - a friend gave me a pass for a free trial session at the center. Not being one to pass up anything free, I went. A young man, a senior in college, was appointed as my personal trainer, and he showed me the fitness center and how to get started. Todd was a nice fellow, and a real gentleman. He taught me how to use the equipment, chart my progress, and warned me about over-doing it. By my second time I was hooked, and I owe it to Todd for making me feel safe in an environment that I had thought of previously as hostile. I've become committed to physical fitness because my original exposure was positive, made the more so because of the safe environment created by my trainer. I'm not going to run any marathons, and I still cannot shed that five pounds from Christmas, but I do feel better and stronger!

Like the fitness center for me, I believe that singing for many people can be viewed as an intimidating experience. Called upon to perform, many persons withdraw and participate minimally for fear of being ridiculed. By the intermediate years some teachers give up on singing activities, and by the middle school years singing in general music classes all but disappears from the curriculum.

Is your classroom or choir a place that is safe for students to sing and express themselves musically? Are individuals drawn out and commended for their participation or are they permitted to hide behind the group? Do students eagerly participate knowing they are safe to make mistakes, not match pitch, sing the wrong words, and so forth? Are you aware of those individuals who look tough but don't participate because of their fear of ridicule?

It will be a fine day when all students learn to sing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.5 This will happen when they feel safe while singing in a protected and nurturing environment. Such an environment cannot be taken for granted. It must be cultivated through a conscious effort on the part of the vocal/ choral director. A safe environment in which students can sing is fundamental for successful vocal/choral participation.


[1] Sandra Frey Stegman. Student Teaching in the Choral Classroom. Lewistown, NY: Mellen Studies in Education, No. 47, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.

[2] Kenneth H. Phillips and Randall Aitchison. "The Effects of Psychomotor Instruction on Attitude Towards Singing and Gen­eral Music among Students in Grades 4-6." Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 137,32-42, 1998.

[3] Kenneth H. Phillips. Teaching Kids to Sing. NY: Schirmer Books, 1992.

[4] National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics, 1997.

[5] The School Music Program: A New Vision. Reston, VA: MENC, 1994.

Kenneth H. Phillips is professor of music and director of graduate studies in music education at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. He is also professor emeritus of the University of Iowa and a life member of the American Choral Directors Association.  

Note: My thanks to Dr. Phillips for giving permission to reprint his article.

Kenneth H. Phillips, "Creating a Safe Environment for Singing," Choral Journal 43 (May 2003): 41-43 © 2003 by the American Choral Directors Association, P.O. Box 6310, Lawton, Oklahoma 73506-0310. U.S.A. Used by permission.


Copyright © 2003
This page was last modified on 13 April 2007