Monday, August 4, 2014

Save Your Voice!: Tips for Maintaining Vocal Health in the Elementary Music Classroom

Every teacher knows that the most essential tool in our teaching is our voice. Our voices are overused and often tired. We strain them on a regular basis. And if we are hit with an unfortunate case of laryngitis, it can take weeks if not months for our voice to be back at 100%. It is in times like these that managing the classroom becomes more of a challenge. 

As music teachers, our voices also have an additional strain: singing…all day, every day. After my first bout of laryngitis (which happened three weeks into my first year of teaching), I made a promise to myself: I would never again speak over children talking or playing instruments in order to gain their attention. I needed nonverbal cues to communicate with the students, not only for classroom management, but also for my vocal health.I introduced a rhythm to the students (ta ta ti ti ta) and had them echo clap it to me. I told them that anytime they heard me clap that rhythm, they should echo me followed by all of their eyes and ears on me. I immediately practiced this with the students until it became a solid routine in each of my classes. I must admit that it has really been nice to not have to work all that hard to get my students’ attention over the years. And it is especially rewarding to be able to quiet an entire gymnasium full of children. However, I must stress the importance that if students have never before echo clapped a rhythm that was used to get their attention, the step of teaching and practicing the procedure is imperative. In order to be effective, a solid routine must be established. 

Here is something that I know: trying to speak over a class of children playing Orff instruments will damage a music teacher's voice. When the children are at the instruments they have mallets in their hands, making it difficult for them to echo clap (and who wants a mallet flying across the room just so a clap can be echoed?). When the students are at the barred instruments I use a different technique to get their attention. When teaching at the barred instruments, I always have mallets in my hands as well. Whenever I need the children’s attention I put my mallets on my head, kind of like antenna. The kids LOVE this way of getting their attention and quickly mimic me and are quiet. They have also stopped playing their instruments! This routine has become second nature to my students while at the barred instruments (and, depending on the lesson, I can also be seen with a recorder or rhythm sticks on my head!).

Finally, desperate times call for desperate measures. The worst-case scenario for a music teacher is losing his or her voice over the course of the school day. On such a dreadful day I not only rely on my echo clapping technique, but I also draw a quarter rest on the board with Shh! written under it and I point to it as needed. The kids always get the message and quickly and easily refocus. I also have the added benefit of not having to overuse echo clapping, risking the possibility of making it a benign strategy. Over the years I have found it best for my vocal health to show a video on these few and far between days. I learned the hard way that by having the students do written work makes me have to work harder to get their attention when I need it. I would always resort to using my voice (or lack thereof, that is). With an educational video and my quarter rest on the board, I can lead the students to their places, to the video, and back to line in near silence…from both them and me.

As music teachers we must know our voice and its limits. Practice nonverbal cues with your students to be proactive in your vocal health and feel free to give your voice a break when it needs one. A little vocal rest can go a long way!


Donna Dirksing Doran is an elementary music specialist in Cincinnati, Ohio. She holds a B.A. in Music Education from Transylvania University and a M.M. in Music Education with a specialization in Orff-Schulwerk from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Holding all three levels of Orff certification, Donna has previously written ancillary materials for the McGowan-Hill Music textbook series and is a frequent presenter of workshops and clinics at the local, state, and national levels. Donna is also the Education Director and host for the Linton Chamber Music Series Peanut Butter and Jam Sessions, which present chamber music concerts geared at children age birth to six years old and their families. Donna is also on the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's Advisory Committee for Education.

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