When Parents Stop Singing to Their Kids

I have been watching, in amazement, the cartoon Wonder Pets on the children’s television channel, Nickelodeon. Demonstrating the benefits of teamwork, Linny the guinea pig, Tuck the turtle and Ming-Ming the duckling (Ming-Ming is everyone’s favourite, and mine too) save a pet in trouble in every episode; sometimes a dolphin, sometimes a monkey, sometimes a bee, and always requiring feats of great collaboration.

But it’s not just the photo-puppetry animation, the message of teamwork or the humour of the cartoon that’s engaging, it’s the fact that they are always singing. It’s practically an opera for toddlers, but with a lot more recitative and not too many grand arias. As the three sing, answer distress calls by phone and travel far away and sometimes through time, an accompaniment is performed throughout by a ten-piece orchestra. The score is written by Tony-winning composers such as Larry Hochman and directed by Jeffrey Lesser, climaxing every now and then in theWonder Pets refrain, ‘What’s going to work? Teamwork! What’s going to work? Teamwork!’ It’s an awesome achievement to set an entire cartoon series to music, and employ the voices of three young children. Deservedly Wonder Pets won an Emmy award for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction and Composition in 2008.

What’s interesting from a musical perspective is that, even in our wildest dreams as parents, we can’t imagine that Wonder Pets is going to grow an appreciation of singing in children, never mind opera. It’s just another passive experience that they sit through. Parents realise this, but they don’t need to worry about it in the toddler years because there is no lack of singing and play in their children’s lives at that stage.

Singing is one of first things that parents do with their babies when they are born, and in the toddler years, parents are constantly singing to their children: wordless ditties, choruses and refrains, made-up rhyming songs, anything to distract babies from putting their fingers in their own excrement, to comfort them or engage with them. Parents sing, sing, sing in the early years of their children’s lives… but then it stops.

What happens? Once children are at school-going age parents begin to consider their musical ability, they look into the future, ambition sets in, music lessons enter stage left, and suddenly, without anyone noticing it, singing has been dealt a critical blow. It is instrumental lessons that children are sent to. Piano, clarinet, fiddle, accordion, whatever. From a toddler-hood of joy in singing, parents suddenly emphasise playing an instrument, as if singing just wasn’t substantial enough. Instruments are purchased, music stands are put up, practice is emphasised and slowly that natural instinct to sing out at the drop of a hat is left behind.

Will singing reappear in the family? Will the songs they learn at school be sung at home? Will their urge to sing, if it is strong enough, find an outlet in a band or a choir when they are a teenager? We don’t know, but by demoting singing at such an early age we have suggested a trend for life. It is symbolic that the rise of the garage band has occurred as the practice of singing at home has waned. What does it say when the urge to sing or play music means you end up in the coldest room in the house?

There is a long and valuable tradition of sending children to music lessons, but it does seem that we often overlook one of the simplest musical pleasures: having a song that you can sing. Perhaps singing has been taken for granted. It doesn’t require money, and unlike instrumental ability, which we generally consider can be learned through practice, we often presume that you either have a voice, or you don’t. Our language is full of phrases to inhibit us singing – ‘she’s tone deaf’, ‘he doesn’t haven’t a note in his head’, ‘I never had a voice’. Very few people are actually tone deaf. Not being able to sing in tune is little more than a matter of practice. Society has taken singing for granted, but with so many technological competitors for our children’s attention, we can’t accept that if we want it to be part of our lives.

The lack of emphasise on singing in society means, well, there is none. Nobody knows the lyrics to anything. Sing-songs often require a laptop to Google the lyrics of every song that someone thinks of singing. The merry singing after the pub is an endless line of half-choruses repeated and then abandoned. At the same time, sing-songs have become such a rarity that those who have songs, who have learned them, are rarely asked to sing. Society – the bulk of it – has become shy about singing. The spontaneous song becomes the lesser-spotted vocal. Family occasions that cry out for a song – not just weddings and funerals, but lunches and dinners – are bereft of the practice of calling for hush, and asking the one or two in the family who are known to have a voice to release it. Do we know today if any of our nearest or dearest even have a voice?

There is no easy solution to this. Music clearly needs a champion in the home. The sheer variety of aural and visual entertainment available to us presents a formidable challenge. We spend a lot of our time singing and humming along to songs from a digital source. We need to show children that a song is not merely something you consume, but something that you can produce.

August 2009

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