Let's sing! Part 1
It is well documented that singing is great for children’s self-esteem and learning in general, and is a good way to foster a spirit of togetherness and unity in school. It can also be a lot of fun! At the LPO we spend every summer at Glyndebourne, playing in operas almost every day, so we have a special connection with singing.
Whether you are preparing children for a school production or assembly, or just looking for ideas for ways into singing, this resource by vocal specialist Lucy Griffiths provides an array of warm-ups, games, dances, rounds and creative ideas to get everyone singing.
This is Part 1 of a 2-part resource bank. In Part 1 we focus on warm-ups. In Part 2 we look at singing games and fun songs to get children having fun and getting creative. You can jump directly to Part 2 here.
Please feel free to adapt the ideas below to suit the resources you have and the needs of your children.
This resource is © copyright Lucy Griffiths, London 2018 (see About the Author section at the bottom of the article for more information).
- You don’t need any specific resources for most of these activities
Warm-ups are really important for lots of reasons. Not only are they important for vocal health, you can also use them to teach technique and theory, gather focus, generate a sense of unity within the group, release tension, invigorate mood and give you activities to come back to, should you need to refocus the group. They can also be a really fun activity in themselves, and an opportunity to get creative. Why not try using them in non-music time to energise, calm or gather focus?
At the start of a singing session, I always do at least one physical warm up, one breathing warm up, one vocalising warm up plus a game or some brain gym and a fun song. Once they’ve learnt some warm ups from you, children will often love taking the lead and playing at being the teacher/conductor. In this section, I’ll give some examples of warm-ups that are fun and healthy, and encourage you to make up your own versions with the children. Whatever you’re doing, make sure it’s done with good posture; this will make for the best sound from your group.
1. Gathering focus
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
The title of this game says it all! Give an instruction to the group whilst doing something different yourself e.g. say ‘hands on your head’ while you put your hands on your shoulders, or say ‘hands on your knees’ while putting your hands on your head. The children should do the verbal instruction rather than trying to copy your movements. No cheating by closing eyes or looking away!
Try changing the rules. For example, you could ask them to do as you did, not as you do i.e. without any verbal instructions, tap your head twice, then your shoulders twice, then your knees twice etc in rhythm. The children should copy you, but 2 beats behind, so that they’re always doing what you just did.
Don’t clap this one back
This is a call and response clapping game. You clap a 4 beat rhythm and the children clap it back. The only twist is that if you clap the following rhythm, they don’t clap it back:
Make up new rules, for example use the words ‘hands in the air’ to make the following rhythm:
Now as well as not clapping when you do the ‘don’t clap this one back’ rhythm, they should put their hands in the air instead of clapping back the ‘hands in the
air’ rhythm. Add as many new rhythms/rules as you dare! You can also make this trickier by extending the pattern to 8 beats.
This is a great exercise to get people thinking about good ensemble. Very simply, you clap and ask everyone in the group to clap at exactly the same time. It might take a while to get it right, but do keep trying until everyone
is clapping exactly together.
You can try and trick people by clapping several times in rhythm and then suddenly stopping! You can also try doing slow claps.
Why not try it with other movements or body percussion too?
Put your right hand in the air and shake it 8 times, counting the numbers out loud as you do. Now do the same in the left hand, then the right foot and the left foot. Repeat this pattern but now with 4 shakes in each hand and foot, then 2 in each, then 1 in each. To finish, jump up in the air and all shout HEY!
- • Use this pattern of doing something 8/4/2/1 times but come up with different movements instead of shaking your hands and feet.
• Still using the same pattern, try using sounds instead of movements. These could be sounds you make using your voice or your body.
• Even better, put sound and movement together.
• You could change the numbers, and/or try doing it in reverse so you start with 1, then do 2 shakes, then 4, then 8.
• Add instructions to the numbers so that, for example, 8 in loud and 1 is quiet – try not to lose energy as you get quieter!
Name with pencils
Ask everyone to write their name in the air imagining they have a pencil on the end of their finger – then in the other hand, each elbow, each shoulder, each knee, each toe, then with the nose and the tongue. Finish with a flourish and underline it at the end!
Pumpkin raisin face
Ask the group to make their faces as big as possible with nice wide open mouths – this is the pumpkin face! Now the opposite – screw up your face as small and tightly as you can. Then alternate between pumpkin and raisin faces!
Ask the children to get an (imaginary) piece of bubblegum out of their pocket, unwrap it and pop it in their mouths. Now tell them it’s really, really sticky and ask them to have a good chew. They might need to use their tongues to get it off their teeth! Next tell them you’re going to have a bubble blowing competition. On the count of 3, everyone blows an imaginary bubble, using their arms to show how it is slowly expanding, until you shout ‘POP!’ and the bubbles all burst. You’ll now need to roll it into a ball and start again.
This warm up works because it’s working the muscles in the face (chewing), the tongue (getting the gum off your teeth) and the breathing support (blowing the bubbles). Can you or the children think of any stories you can tell to get these things happening?
Other useful things to incorporate are:
- Panting (e.g. you’re out of breath or your food is too hot)
- Short blows, as if you’re blowing out candles from a distance
- Hissing ssshhh/ssss
Use the following sounds to make call and response patterns:
Sss /shh /fff/t/k
The sounds should be made with loads of energy so that it feels like hard work!
Try adding different gestures to each sound. Once this is well established, you could stop doing it as a call and response exercise and just use the gestures to guide the group on which sounds to make.
4. Making sound and ways into singing
This is another call and response exercise. Take a simple word or sound for example, ‘aha’ or ‘hello’ and ask the children to copy the way you say it. You might imagine a scenario, for example, in which you get angry then despondent then happy then excited – but the whole story is told with this single sound. Make sure you use different parts of the voice from high to low, and don’t be afraid of swooping and sliding to get a really good warm up.
- Try using different sounds or mixing them up a bit.
- Ask the children to get into pairs and have a conversation with single sounds. For example, person A might only say ‘ba’ while person B says nothing but ‘doo’. The more dramatic their conversations, the better!
Call and response songs
Call and response songs are a really good way into singing. Choose a song you know, or make up your own! Be sure to vary tempo, dynamics and mood to make it more interesting. To make up your own call and response song, you can simply choose 3/4 sounds or mini phrases and vary them. You can also add movement.
Ask the children to make up own call and response songs using up to 4 sounds.
5. Brain gym
This exercise uses the tune of the song ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’
Sing the tune to the numbers 1 to 5. The numbers bear no relation to the pitch. You simply keep going in order and repeat the tune (you can use your fingers to help with this) until, eventually, you end up with ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5’ at the end. Big cheers!
Pick a phrase of 5 words with single syllables and try singing the song in the same way but with words instead of numbers. For example ‘I want more ice cream.’
Teach and practise the following warm up song:
Ask someone to pick a number between 1 and 8 and an action or sound or both (or pick it yourself if you want to practice in advance - this is probably a good idea until you’re really used to it). When you sing the song again, you do the action/sound instead of saying the number. So, for example, you might clap on the number 5. Then you can pick another number and action and add it, so the next time you might to a clap on 5 and a stamp of 7. You can add as many actions/sounds as you like.
Warning - this gets very tricky!
- Once you’ve mastered the song, you can try singing it backwards starting from the highest note (8) and moving down and up, rather than up and down in the original version, i.e. 8, 878, 87678, 8765678 etc.
- You could even split the group in half and have one group starting on 1 and the other starting on 8.
- This also works if you sing it in canon. The second group starts singing on the second ‘1’.
The above activities and their variations will do a great job of warming up the body and the voice but, even better, why not come up with a warm-up that incorporates all those different elements and gets the job done in one go? For example:
1. Cumulative sound and movement
The group stands in a circle. Give children a quick example of a short sound and movement (e.g. tap tummy and say “ha!”), then give them 5 seconds to think of their own movement and sound. Then, go round the circle and ask each person to make a sound and movement. The rest of the group copies it back. Try to keep in a rhythm - it might take a bit of thinking time and practice to eliminate the ‘um’s! When you’ve done that a couple of times, see if you can all do it together at the same time i.e. not call and response. This is a good memory test too.
Variation: Passing a sound and movement around the circle:
Standing in a circle, do a movement and a sound in rhythm and pass it round the circle - everyone copies the person before them. When you’ve practised this, don’t wait for the sound/movement to come back to you, but send them round with increasing regularity, so there are several sounds/movements going on at any given moment. You can also ask other people in the circle to set them off.
2. Stories with sound and action
Set a scene and tell a story, using a sound and/or movement for every event that happens. Make sure there are lots of actions and sounds! For example, you drive to the supermarket (any number of dramatic events might happen on the way!) (add driving sounds/movements), you arrive at the supermarket and the doors open (add sound/movement), you see someone you know and say hello (add sound/movement etc.), they don’t hear you so you have to shout louder, you have a trolley race, something falls off the shelf, you go to the checkout and bleep all the items, one of your bag breaks and everything crashes onto the floor etc!
You can make this as long or short and as dramatic as you like!
Other good settings might be a trip to the zoo, a walk in the rainforest, under the sea, a trip to the moon, the world cup. Even better, ask the children to describe a setting, and even tell the story.
3. Magic Muffin
Stand in a circle. You’re going to bake a magic muffin.
- Turn to your right with your finger on your lips. Say ‘sh, sh, sh, sh’.
- Turn to your left with your finger on your lips. Say ‘ss, ss, ss, ss’.
- Face into the centre and open your right hand out towards the floor as if you’re casting a spell and make a k-ch sound, then your left hand, kch, right again, k-ch and left again k-ch
- Repeat the above 3 steps.
- Step back in amazement and bring your hands up in surprise and gasp!
- Bend down to pick up the magic muffin
- Stand up and rub your tummy and make an up and down
- Mmmmmmmm sound
- Pretend to gobble the muffin up and swallow it
- Point to the ceiling with both hands and make a high sound then gradually bring your hands down making the sound lower
- Reverse the process making the sound low at first getting higher and then spread your hands out either side of your face, lean forward as if you’re feeling sick and go BLEURGH!
You don’t have to do ALL of those warm ups, unless you have all day! Just pick a few, and then you’re ready for some serious vocal activity.
You can read more about singing games, songs and rounds in Part 2 of our Let's Sing resources.
About the AuthorLucy Griffiths is one of the most respected conductor-animateurs of her generation. Having studied and won several prestigious prizes in the UK and Canada, her leadership experience ranges across vocal and instrumental music-making with professional, amateur, youth and adult ensembles at the very highest level of each. It has seen her appear on TV and radio, premiering new works, adjudicating competitions, touring extensively throughout the UK and internationally, and working alongside some of the world's finest musicians and directors.
Lucy is Assistant Director of Music at the University of Warwick and Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra's Junior Choir. She is a leading expert in the field of music education and engagement, specialising in vocal outreach.