How to teach children (and adults) spontaneous song
If you’ve ever been in a setting where people are being trained to create spontaneous song, the first word that might come to mind is awkward. Everyone is constantly clearing their throat, passing their turn, or giggling because they squawked when trying to hit a high note. This is especially true of people who have never done it before, but even the most confident singers can quickly become just as self-conscious and throw off the same insecure and fearful vibes as the new folks. Of course it goes without saying that a spirit of fear and insecurity isn’t really conducive to releasing the song of the Lord, let alone the song of your own heart, so it’s key when approaching training worshipers to sing a new song, that you guide them gently through the process.
Looking back on my history with spontaneous song I’m ashamed to say that I used to sit in a circle with friends and say, “Just sing. It’s not that hard. Open your mouth and sing.” Of course I had enough compassion to know that they were nervous and I did allow them as much time as they needed to be comfortable with doing something so far outside of their comfort zone, but that wasn’t enough.
Take for example the Holy Spirit. God laid the command on all believers to be holy as He is holy. Now when God says something, He expects us to do it, right? How difficult would it be if He gave that command and then said “Just be holy. It’s not that hard. Stop sinning and be holy.” Without the gentle guidance of the Holy Spirit, whom John 14:26 tells us is our teacher/counselor, we would be absolutely and utterly lost. He is the voice whispering behind us, “This is the way, walk in it,” He is the one that brings correction when we do wrong things, and He is the one who will faithfully walk beside us until the work Christ began in us is completed. Before I give any practicals on teaching, I must stress that this concept is key. We must be gentle and compassionate leaders if we want to see any growth.
That being said, let me share some tips from the classroom that I have found to be quite helpful in getting kids to open their mouths and let a new song come forth:
Pre-exercise pep talk: give some perspective
Before we even approach the exercises, I encourage the students through Scripture not to be afraid. For the current vocal class I used the illustration of Joshua and the amount of times he was told “Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged.” We discussed why the angel of the Lord kept repeating this phrase to him and how Joshua ultimately won the battle. Well, God fought the battle for him; all he and the Israelites had to do was lift their voice and shout. I then encouraged them that as they open their mouth to sing, God will give them new melody and will fill their mouth with songs, so there’s no need to be afraid.
It also helps to let them know that there will be times when wrong notes will come out of their mouth or lyrics will get mixed up, but it’s okay. It happens to everyone and it’s part of the process of figuring out what notes work with a particular chord progression (it may be weird for adults, but I like to give an example of what bad singing sounds like and tell the kids at least they’ll never sound that bad. It tends to make them laugh and releases some tension).
Listen and Learn
Before we get into exercises, I play a sample of what the students should be able to accomplish by the end of the lesson and I have them analyze the samples. For example, when we focused on singing Scripture, they listened to “On and On” by Jaye Thomas and I printed out all of the Scriptures he sang so they could mark off the portions of Scripture he used as they heard him sing them (this was also a great example to really push them to store up the Word in their heart – it will flow from their mouths in song when they least expect it). You don’t want to make spontaneous singing formulaic, so be careful of trying to make them imitate what they hear, just simply help them understand what that particular singer is doing and give them the freedom to try it themselves or to build off of it.
Simplify the music
For beginners it’s best to just use a two chord progression and only bump it up to four when you feel they’re ready. Aside from that, you can save them a whole lot of embarrassment by teaching them how to hear their start note in the chord. If I’m playing in the key of G, I begin the exercise by picking each note of the G chord and telling the students to listen closely to each note so they can choose one to begin their song. We then all hum whichever note we picked, essentially humming the chord. It’s hard for some kids to know what melody is appropriate for what key, so you should take time to show them how to pick proper notes before you have them create.
Start with a simple 4 count
To begin our trek into spontaneous song I taught the kids a chorus to a simple worship song, “You Alone Are Worthy”. We sang those four words together over and over again until everyone got it. Then we talked about the empty space between each chorus that lasts four counts. I challenged them to fill it with their voice and either repeat the same lyrics or create their own (surprisingly most of the kids wanted to create their own lyrics). So we would all sing the chorus together, and then one by one, each student would stand and sing a melody for the four counts before everyone joined back in. This is a quick, easy way to get them used to filling space with their voice by themselves.
Give them Word to speak
The week we focused on singing Scripture, I told the kids we were going to create a spontaneous song about God’s love. Prior to class I printed off Scriptures related to that topic, which I handed out before the exercise. As I played a simple chord progression, the students went around the circle and created melody from their Scripture. We did it again, but this time I had them switch papers with someone. The third time I challenged them to come up with a new topic (they chose grace) and to sing whatever Scripture they knew about grace, but to make it their own. By the third time we did the exercise, they were excited to take on the challenge, and the majority of the class sang out with boldness.
I hope that what I’ve shared here is encouraging to you whether you’re working with kids or adults or just want to grow as a spontaneous singer yourself. Sure some people may just jump into it and be good at it, but most humans have some hurdles to get over before they can allow anything but a whisper to escape their lips. It takes time, patience, and total reliance on the Holy Spirit.
We’re still working through spontaneous song in our class and we haven’t even touched half of it! God is continually giving me new insight and exercises to try with the students, so if you’re reading this and you’d like me to keep sharing, please let me know and I’ll be sure to do it. In the meantime, you can check out our videos of their progress below.
Much love and happy singing.