The Impact of Kodaly Hand Sign Use in a Multi-Lingual Middle School Classroom

The young middle school singers who arrive in my choral classroom each August are incredibly diverse.  In my room, I have children whose native languages are Dari (the Persian language of Afghanistan), Mandarin, Hindi, German, Spanish, Swahili and many more.  I've taught singing to children in my classroom who, believe it or not, are almost completely deaf, some who have trouble matching pitch, some who can barely articulate due to cerebral palsy, children with severe intellectual limitations, extreme cases of Autism, and children who are legally blind.

...And almost all of them come to me utterly unable to read music.

My room is a true public school classroom in America, and I absolutely love that fact.  There are many resources in marketplace for helping break through language barriers.  Smartling, for example, is a translation software company that helps us break through language barriers by translating mobile apps and websites for companies.   

My feeling is that if children want to sing, they should sing, and it's up to me to find ways to communicate in a way everyone can understand so they can learn.   I don't test their voices. Middle school children are so afraid to be put on the spot and forced to sing alone, so I stopped testing their voices years ago.  I can hear what I need to hear in the group setting, discretely work on the issues that need addressing, and avoid causing them the extra stress.

To be in my chorus class, the only requirement I have of them is that they have a true desire to learn to sing.  Each year, there are over 300 children who walk through my doors each day electing to take choir, and I am honored they make that choice.

To help them become musically literate, I had to learn to teach using all three learning modalities each day:  Kinesthetic, Visual and Aural.

When I began developing my Sight Singing Program, S-Cubed, the main goal I had was to help my beginning students, regardless of whether they speak English or whatever their individual challenges may be, truly learn how to take the dots, curves, stems and lines off of the page and successfully and accurately turn them into sound.  I wanted to help them understand the language of reading music better, and I wanted them to have fun in the process of learning it.

To reach them, I knew that I had to incorporate every possible learning modality.

One of the most important parts of my sight singing method is the use of the Kodaly Hand Signs.

The hand signs help to connect pitch to the physical movements of the hands.  The use of the vowel sounds in the words of the Kodaly scale helps intonation and blend tremendously because teachers can teach students how to use tall vowels when they sing.

In the Sight Singing approach I developed, I took the Kodaly Hand Sign movements and added more layers to help my beginners experience more success.  When you see my students tackling a new piece of music for the first time, you see them pulsing their hands to keep the steady beat, and you see them lifting and lowering their hands to match the changing pitch.    
I carefully and deliberately teach those skill sets to my students and slowly build the coordinations required to successfully execute them one step at a time.  It is all outlined in the descriptions of the individual lessons in my program.  

...But the single most important element of my program is "fun".  To begin building the skills I've described above, I play a game with the children called Forbidden Pattern.  Click here to see a description of the game.  Click here to see me playing the game with my students.  This is really the "hook" of the program I've developed and it works with all of the children I've described in the first paragraph of this post. 

Regardless of what language they speak or what other challenges they face, when we turn the learning process into a game, our middle school children listen, laugh, thrive, and best of all, in the end, we all learn to speak the common language of music.

"Why Won't my Middle School Choir Sing?" Reason #5

This is the 5th and final posting in the five-part series called "Why Won't My Middle School Choir Sing?"

Reason #5:

We don’t know how to introduce music.

It is possible to turn this age group against a new piece of music in the first minute of introducing it to them for the first time.  

I struggled for years with finding good ways to introduce a new piece in a way that would peak their interest and excite them to want to dig into the song and make it great.

During my first years in the classroom, I kept hearing the voices of my college professors in my head:  “Don’t teach by rote!  Make them literate!” 

I couldn’t figure out the balance of teaching “by rote” and teaching literacy when I was introducing a new song.

Ultimately, the guiding force for me became the energy in the room.  

Like comedians in a comedy club, we can tell when we are bombing.   Kids this age are transparent, and it is not easy for them to hide how they feel when we are failing while we teach. 

If you feel boredom and frustration from your students when you teach a new song, it’s probably time to try a new approach to the introduction of your new music.

In the early days of my career, my teaching process when I introduced a new piece was way too slow.  I constantly demanded that they figure things out on their own yet I systematically taught them the tools they needed to do it.  I failed to see that there were ways to teach new music that were much quicker and more fun and included developing their ears using techniques that some might call “teaching by rote”.  

I also didn’t realize how long it takes for their sight singing abilities to catch up to their ability to sing a song that may be quite difficult.

My students just wanted to sing, and all I was doing was stopping to talk, or complain about how they missed something in the music or explain things they simply were not ready or interested in learning yet.  I tried to teach everything about sight singing all the time, and as a result, they were learning nothing about sight singing.

..and I talked too much.

I finally asked myself, “What exactly is ‘teaching by rote’?  And who defines it?  And how can I actually USE “rote teaching” to give me opportunities to vary my teaching techniques while helping them become better musicians?

I had to let go of some of those voices in my head from my college professors.  I had to focus on finding ways to help my beginning students enjoy the process of learning a new song.

Most of my students had never taken a private piano lesson, so I had to work to find ways to keep them engaged during the learning of a new piece while instilling, unveiling and building the important skill sets they needed for sight singing.  Literacy is key to their continued growth and involvement as choral music singers, but finding the proper balance wasn’t easy.

Now, I take about 10-15 minutes per day to focus specifically on theory and sight singing, and I use the rest of the time while I am teaching repertoire using rote techniques mixed with literacy teaching.  If there is an opportunity to connect some dots from the sight singing lesson of that day, I do it.

I started allowing my beginners to listen to recordings on the first day of learning a new piece, and I turned it into a fun form exercise to help them develop their ears.  When working on form with our beginners, however, we cannot turn it into a sophomore college theory class exercise that uses terms like “ABA” form etc.  Instead, we must find ways to teach form that are engaging for them at THIS age.  

Here is a form exercise I often do with my beginners:

While they are listening to a piece of music for the first time, I ask them to draw pictures to represent new musical ideas when they hear them.  I encourage them to be as crazy and creative with their pictures as they want as long as they indicate the shape and form of the song.  If the chorus happens twice, but the second chorus has a different ending than the first, for example, their pictures should indicate the difference.  If they drew a smiley face for the first chorus, then they might draw a smiley face and add hair to the drawing when they hear the chorus that has a slightly different ending.  

It is hilarious to see some of the drawings that they create.  When I call them up to share their drawings on the Smart Board in front of the class, there is lots of laughter!   The best part is that they get to listen to the song multiple times while they are creating the pictures.   We can teach many good listening skills during an exercise like this one when we teach them to listen to the smallest differences in various phrases and to indicate those differences in their pictures.

Creating excitement over a new piece of music is critical.  If the students “check out” on a piece because we’ve introduced it poorly, it’s really difficult to get them to give the song a chance.  The last thing we can be with our middle school students is boring.  It’s a nail in the coffin of our programs.   We must be open to varied teaching techniques, and we must constantly work to find ways to help them stay engaged and excited as we ease them into the learning of a new song.

To learn more about my middle school sight singing program for beginners, click here!
Check out my blog!

You CAN teach your Middle School Choir Beginners to Sight Sing!

Why can’t I teach my Middle School Choir to Sight Sing?

Armed with a Masters degree in Music, a wonderful student teaching experience, and lots of excitement about beginning my teaching career, I’ll never forget the incredible dark cloud that seemed to descend over my classroom during my first year of teaching when I would ask my students to pull out their sight singing books.  I can still hear the moans and sighs like it was yesterday. 

Sight Singing was a chore.  …A necessary evil of sorts.

What was the problem?  I had purchased the best Sight Singing books! Shouldn’t that do the trick?  Apparently not!  I was completely unable to get my 300 inexperienced middle school students to be successful at sight singing and, most importantly, to enjoy the process of learning it.

Over time, I determined many reasons for my lack of success at teaching this important skill and none of those reasons had anything to do with their intellectual abilities or the types of students I was teaching.  It had to do with me.  I simply didn’t know how to instill the skill sets required for them to successfully sight sing, and I didn’t respect how incredibly difficult this skill is for this special young age group.

After six years of being immersed in academia surrounded by highly trained musicians, most of whom had never taught middle school, I had lost touch with some really important ideas:

A)  Reading music is very similar to learning a foreign language.
B)  95% or more of my students had no private instrument or voice lessons in their background. So, whatever they learned about sight singing was going to have to come from me.  I couldn’t rely on having Peggy Piano on the back row who had taken piano lessons for 9 of her 11 years to lead everyone into the promised land.
C)  Success AND fun are the magic potion for this age group.
I had to figure out how to instill the skills into my students in a FUN way. 

So, over time, I developed a 4-part Philosophy of teaching students to sight sing.

My New Philosophy:  Part 1


Enter:  “Forbidden Pattern”

I felt sure that the Kodaly Hand Signs would help my students improve, but they didn’t seem to like using the signs.  I soon realized that this age group loves to compete against the teacher!  So, I made up a game that I called “Forbidden Pattern” where the students played against me.

Here are some basic procedures of the game:
*Everyone must use the Kodaly Hand Signs while they sing.
*I sing and sign a three-note “Forbidden Pattern” followed by a rest, and they immediately have to sing and sign it back to me.  I announce that this is the Forbidden Pattern of the day.  I tell them they aren’t allowed to sing it anymore during the game, but that they have to sing and sign everything else that I sing and sign. 
*The game begins.  I sing a different three-note pattern and they echo it back to me.  This goes on until I randomly sing the “Forbidden Pattern” of that day. 
*Each day, there is a different “Forbidden Pattern” that the students aren’t allowed to sing. 
*If one (or more!) student sings the forbidden pattern, I get a point.  If no one sings the pattern, they get a point.  Students get so absorbed in the game that they forget NOT to sing the pattern.  It is an awesome focus exercise with which you can have lots of fun!
*Whoever scores 3 points first wins the game.   I keep score daily.  I make the score public to all of my classes so they will begin a friendly competition with the other classes in addition to competing with me.

Classroom Management Guidelines for the game:

They are likely to get very excited during the game, and that is a good thing.  However, you need some rules in place to keep the game fun AND manageable!
* They aren’t allowed to warn each other that the forbidden pattern has been sung by the teacher.  You should only award the students a point if they’ve been absolutely silent and still when you sing the forbidden pattern.
*Have fun with the game!  Use what I call the distraction technique.  In the middle of the game, talk about your cat or what you did over the weekend.  Then, sing and sign the forbidden pattern.  Soon, they will realize what you are up to!  It helps them focus even more because they think you are being sneaky (and you are!) because you want to win!  The possibilities are endless, and the relationship you will build with them when you let loose with playful competitiveness in this way will help you bond with your students as you teach them!

My New Philosophy:  Part 2


If we were teaching our students how to build a house, we wouldn’t simply take them into a room full of tools and say “GO!”.  We must teach our students how to use the “tools in their toolbox” by introducing one tool at a time and allowing them to perfect the use of that tool before moving to the next tool.

Here are a couple of tools that I use that have helped my students:

a)  “Chaos”.  This is the word I use to describe a one to two-minute independent practice period that occurs after I’ve established tonality by singing the scale and arpeggio of the key of the sight singing exercise for the day. When I teach this concept, I compare it to how an orchestra warms up before a concert.  During “Chaos”, each child must place himself into a bubble world and block out the other singers.  He must sing and sign the  example out loud.   He must do so for the entire one to two minute period.  Once you stop the “Chaos” session, re-establish tonality and then have them sing the example as a choir.  Emphasize the importance of holding onto “DO” during “Chaos”.  If you hear them wander from “DO” when they are first using “Chaos” as a tool, stop and ask them to sing “DO”.  This will give you a chance to drive home the importance of never losing “DO”.  I always tell them that it is like knowing where you live!  You should always be able to recite your home address.  It is critical that students sing out loud during “Chaos”, and that they are encouraged to work at their own pace.  

b)   Accenting.  I teach rhythm separately from pitch at first.  We must help them to feel and experience the importance of beat one or the downbeat.  Helping them to physically feel it by doing body percussion exercises is a great tool.  Also, using the Kodaly “TA” system works well.  I have my students over-emphasize beat “1” with their voices when they “TA”, and “rev” their voices like a car engine while singing half notes, dotted half notes and whole notes to keep the beat steady as they perform rhythm exercises.   Instilling strong accenting skills helps greatly as they learn to cope with different time signatures.

c)  Hand-Pulsing.  Once we combine pitch and rhythm in a real sight singing exercise, we should only use quarter notes, and we should teach them to pulse their hands to the steady rhythm in addition to using the Kodaly hand signs.  If we do this successfully, it will be much easier for our students when they encounter their first half note or dotted half note in the middle of a sight singing exercise.  Dealing with varied note values in the middle of an exercise is a challenging feat of incredible coordination for beginners and must be taught deliberately and carefully and practiced daily.  In the early days of teaching sight singing, I failed to recognize how hard it is for them to combine singing accurate PITCH and RHYTHM at the same time.

My New Philosophy:  Part 3


Sight Singing is not easy.  It requires so many skill sets that trained musicians often take for granted.  The dots on the page with stems that go different directions are filled with information that their brains have no idea how to interpret until we carefully show them.  10 minutes per day every day will go a long way.  It will give us the time to teach our students what the tools in their toolbox are and how to use them.  Successfully identifying the symbols on a matching quiz isn’t enough.  They have to USE the symbols and INTERPRET them each and every day with simple, progressive sight singing examples that are appropriate for their age.  Like a new language, they must speak it often in order to improve their skills.

My New Philosophy:  Part 4


We all know how important it is to praise our students when they get it right.  With Sight Singing, it is even more important to acknowledge every single small success…especially with this age group.  For example, when I see a student “Pulsing” correctly, I call his name out and tell him “Great job on the pulsing”!  Immediately, the students around him make sure they are also pulsing. 

I often compare Sight-Singing to life.  It will not always be perfect.  Sometimes, you will sail right through.  Other times, you are going to hit a huge obstacle and get knocked down.  Do you just lie there?  Or do you get up, dust yourself off and keep on going?

As their teacher, it is incredibly rewarding to help them on this important journey.  It is our job to guide them toward music literacy.  And when we take the time to teach them how to use the tools in their toolbox and share a little fun, laughter and celebration along the way, we will have had a great time instilling a skill in our students that will last them a lifetime!

For more information and for lots of Sight Singing examples and free tips, follow me on my blog:

Dale Duncan
Music in the Middle with Mr D

Why won't my middle school choir sing? Part 4

This is part 4 of the series "Why Won't My Middle School Choir Sing?"  

Reason #4:

We focus too much on technique and not enough on developing their true artistry.

In my 23 years of teaching this age group, I’ve seen lots of middle school choirs who sing proficiently.  By that, I mean, it is evident the teacher taught diction, phrasing, dynamics, etc.

…the basics.

Most of us spend a lot of time on the technical side of music because our students NEED it! 

However, we can suck the oxygen out of our singers if we relentlessly seek technical perfection. 

Working toward it nonstop is boring to them. 

So, let's get started...

Why do people love watching Cirque de Soleil
It’s not just the incredible athleticism that is displayed which took countless hours of training and technical work to develop.  It’s the unforgettable way our spirits are moved when the athleticism is combined so beautifully with music and lighting and costuming. 

If we want athleticism alone, we can simply watch gymnastics.

In our middle school classrooms, we have to inject more “Cirque de Soleil”.

When I watch the choirs whose teachers have focused entirely on technique, it feels like eating cake that has no butter and sugar.

To quote the famous movie “Sixth Sense”… When I see and hear a technically proficient performance in which it is clear the students are well trained but have no idea about what they are singing, I see dead people. I feel nothing.  The performance is utterly unmoving.

That is not what music is.

Teachers often ask, “How do I get them to who facial expression?  Raise their eyebrows?  Smile?”

My answer:  From the inside out.

Here is how you DON’T do it.

Don’t say “Raise your eyebrows!  Smile!  Sing with facial expression”.  With this age group, it doesn’t work. 

Regardless of the obscurity of the meaning of the song and how it seems to have absolutely no meaning to them in their young lives, we must find a way to help them emotionally connect to a song. Just talking about the meaning of the song or giving historical context will NOT do it.  

We have to be willing to make them think.  We have to help them connect the dots to their own lives in some way.

As part of our teaching priorities, we have to indicate to our singers the importance of singing honestly and serving the music.

I tell my own students that, as choir singers, they are also actors.  Actors must put their personal stuff aside and act the part. 

Then, we, the teachers, must guide them through the treasure trove of their life experiences to find a meaning that they can sing for that particular song.   Believe it or not, they notice the fact that WE value their own life experiences enough to ask them to inject them and use them as they sing because, so often in their young lives, their pain and their life experiences are dismissed.

When I’m teaching “Sleigh Bells”, and they are singing with absolutely no energy at all because it is a Wednesday and not a Friday and they are hating school and their boyfriends just broke up with them and they have two projects due….blah, blah, blah…I stop the music, and I say:  “Do you like snow days?”  They usually scream “YES!”   Then, I say, “Pretend that you just found out tomorrow is a snow day and then sing it!” 

It changes everything.

When I am able to successfully take them to some sort of internal emotional moment to which they can relate for a particular song, everything changes.  Many of the technical issues we’ve labored over correct themselves.  They breathe bigger.   They sing with truth.  Their faces come to life.  Their tone has energy.

The results must come from inside their hearts. When you are able to help them find it and deliver it in a performance, the energy of the audience is palpable as they receive this truly artistic moment.

…you will get goose bumps…

…and so will your students.

Sharing a “goose bump moment” has major positive impacts on your program.  It’s worth the work to help them get to that emotional place in rehearsal and then to deliver it in performance.