Session Two: A discussion around strategies to make instructors and learners more comfortable around singing.

There was a general consensus among participants that children perceive singing as a fun activity, but that they become more self-conscious about singing as they grow. Several instructors emphasized that everyone can sing and that Gaelic singing is a participatory activity suited to informal settings rather than a performance. Many participants felt that supportive, informal group gatherings, such as céilidhs in the home, or being asked to sing at milling frolics, were conducive to getting participants to sing publicly. There was a discussion on how these conditions could be replicated in the classroom and on how songs have been successfully integrated into classes. A few of the strategies mentioned included:

  • The use of fun/humorous songs
  • Encouragement, repetition, with an acceptance of mistakes
  • Normalize singing as something that can accompany other activities
  • Know your students and make space for introverts
  • Lead by example and consider making deliberate mistakes if you’re always perfect
  • Physically altering the room to change seating arrangement
  • Make students realize that by singing they are participating in community
  • Pick songs with easy choruses or with repetition, like woven songs
  • Teach songs that students will hear at céilidhs and other events and then be able to participate
  • Sing together so that no one is singled out
  • Gives examples of when Gaels sing, include images and videos of informal singing sessions
  • Encourage/provide opportunities for students to socialize outside of class so that they might become more comfortable with one another
  • If singing is a challenge, start with humming
  • Break the song down into smaller elements to make learning them easier
  • Start with the chorus when introducing a song
  • Emphasize why song is important for those who are learning/using Gaelic
  • Ensure that the message and feelings of the song are understood by students so that it’s not just words
  • Gently and kindly not taking “no” for an answer from students in regards to participation in singing
  • Strongly encouraging song when doing the orientation of a new class/group
  • Discussion differences between the English and Gaelic song aesthetics
  • Be prepared in order to inspire confidence
  • Translation of pop culture songs to Gaelic
  • Referring to students of Gaelic as Gaelic speakers, which gives them the sense that they have become part of a community whether they continue with their language journey or not
  • Sense that just as anyone can have a conversation, anyone can sing, it’s like continuing a conversation
  • Share information from first language speakers and tradition bearers
  • Draw pictures of the song verses so that students can remember what the song is about
  • Use songs as a way to connect to place
  • Discuss any connections that may be drawn from the song and encourage student research
  • Use songs to reinforce a language lesson
  • Teach the background story surrounding the song, the singers, the community, listen to an old recording
  • Introduce students to a recording of the song before the class so that they may become more familiar with the melody, prepare questions, etc
  • Treat songs like stories and discuss each verse or draw it out to help the lyrics sink in
  • If a student has experience with Highland step dancing, other students can sing as they dance

Further Resources

Although we didn’t discuss this book in our session, you may find the open access (free) music textbook, Resonances, of interest. The first chapter, “Music in Human Life,” is particularly relevant. It explains how music is processed in the brain and compares it with language. Here are some noteworthy points:

  • music and language are the two things that distinguish humans from all other living creatures (p13)
  • “While language processing is complex, music cognition is even more complex, involving more brain regions and involving activity in both hemispheres, all lobes, the cerebrum, and the brainstem.” (p13)
    • music’s ability to activate so many areas of the brain simultaneously makes it a unique activity in human experience
  • music has a unique and very strong connection to memory and so has profound educational implications: “information can be entrained quickly and permanently when connected to music” (p13)
  • “[music] can also be used to create new brain growth and increase processing efficiency in all students. This is why there is a strong correlation (relationship) between studying music and higher grades in other subject areas” (p16)
  • music and language skills are intimately linked in humans — our brains are hardwired for success in both language and music (p17)
  • there are two key elements that contribute to musical ability (p18-19)
    • aptitude (ease and speed with which the brain processes particular kinds of information)
    • achievement (what someone does with their aptitude)
  • there is no such thing as someone with no musical aptitude (p20)

I’ve frequently heard people say: “Oh, I can’t sing.” My usual response is: “Yes, you can. Everyone can.” Usually when people make statements like that, what they actually mean is: “I don’t sing well.” But our society has robbed so many people of their birthright by fooling us into thinking that music is something only the most talented and skilled should do while everyone else watches, and, as a result, these people believe their aptitude is so low that they just shouldn’t do it. Knowing what we do about music and the brain, and about the benefits of engaging in music over the course of a lifetime, this is a pretty tragic thing! If I told you that simply singing, reading music, playing an instrument, or writing music over the course of a lifetime could decrease the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s when you are older, would you change your mind about whether or not you should pursue it? (I hope so!) All humans have aptitude for music and for language. This aptitude is generally distributed along a bell curve. There are people with higher aptitude and people with lower aptitude. But none of us have no aptitude, because it is a matter of our brain structure.

What I am telling you is this: Of course you can sing and learn to play an instrument, and learn to read or write music. Do you know how I know? Because you can listen to and enjoy music. Your brain is organizing the sound, which means you have the fundamental capacity to engage with it.

In short, this chapter teaches us:

  1. Everyone has an innate, biological ability to sing.
  2. Music offers a powerful tool for education — its activation of multiple areas of the brain means that lessons embedded in music will be remembered more easily and for longer than lessons learned any other way.
  3. Music and language are deeply connected and are processed in the brain in similar ways and so music offers a particularly strong and relevant means of teaching language.

P.S. The textbook includes a whole section around music and storytelling that you may wish to explore (since we know that some Gaelic teachers have been exploring storytelling in language learning).