Clare Seymour

November 23, 2020

Early Years’ Educators: ‘To Sing or not to sing?’ 5 observations on this dilemma…

Screenshot 2020-09-21 at 12.25.59

Wherever in the world your Early Years’ setting may be, it is possible that you have come across conflicting guidance regarding singing with your little ones during these coronavirus disease (COVID-19) times. Certainly here in the UK, the advice can be difficult to navigate, particularly given that it differs depending on which part of the UK you happen to be situated.

There is a lot of confusion amongst practitioners, whether they are Early Years’ educators or musicians, about what the correct course of action actually is, in relation to singing together. From all the conversations I have had recently with EY colleagues it is clear this issue is the cause of a great amount of anxiety and consternation. We are all committed to wanting to ‘do the right thing’, but truly, not many of us know what this ‘right thing’ actually is, and/or how it applies to our particular set of circumstances.

This is not through a lack of effort on our part. And it is particularly so for visiting musicians whose practice routinely includes visiting a number of EYs settings each week during term-time (for example, community-halls, school-nursery classes, small group gatherings in private premises). There are a number of Government documents offering guidance (see below), but it doesn’t refer specifically to professionals carrying out our specialist type of work.

Even when we professionals think we have charted a safe course for ourselves and our participants (despite the ever-shifting regulations that are imposed), our planning can be confounded not only by insurance companies (who appear to offer varying degrees of approval/rejection to our plans) and health and safety issues, but also (understandably) by the individual settings who need to impose their own interpretations of the guidelines.

I’ve tried to categorise the issues in five main areas. Unfortunately, there are no cut-and-dried solutions or easy fixes. The conclusion I have come to is that we each have to navigate our own course through these difficult times sensitively, professionally and responsively. And we need to continue to discuss, support, advise and encourage each other (which we do so well!) through all the social channels.

1. Where are you on the ‘singing-spectrum’?

Are you singing at all with your little ones? Only chanting? Maybe just outside? Inside quietly? Inside in small groups with plenty of ventilation? Outside come rain or shine?

What about the types of songs? Lots of energetic movement and volume? Just the gentle songs? A mixture that feels right to you given your particular circumstances?

A US research paper, published in July 2020 (listed below as a link), cautiously outlined some issues to consider:

As we already know, the virus is carried in respiratory particles (droplets and aerosols) found in breath.

The paper doesn’t attempt to draw any conclusive judgements regarding singing, but it notes;

  • speaking causes more particles to be exhaled than normal exhalation.
  • speaking quietly is better than speaking at normal volume levels
  • speaking at all levels of loudness is better than whispering or using a ‘breathy’ voice.

It also warns that some individuals are ‘super-emitters’, meaning that the force of their pronunciation causes the breath to carry further.

So whispered singing is clearly not the safest option to use. And also, we perhaps need to be aware that exaggerated consonant-songs (such as alphabet songs) may not be the best choice of song at the moment. As young children are just learning to control their voices, lips and tongues, they might be more likely to propel some of their breath-particles further, as in the case of ‘super emitters’. This also leads on to thinking about articulation during singing; legato phrasing at a quiet dynamic is going to be preferable to staccato or accentuated singing at the same dynamic.

2. What can you do to reduce the risk whilst singing?

• Hand washing/sanitising before and after the session
• Having tissues, and a means of safe and immediate disposal close by
• Only gather to sing outside, keeping socially distanced
• If inside, use the biggest indoor space available and open the doors/windows if possible
• Reducing the length of time spent singing during sessions
• Distancing between the leader and the group
• Sitting in a circle which is as large as possible (concern has been expressed that a circle formation
allows the air particles to gather in the centre)
• Sitting in a semi-circle, with the leader positioning themselves at a 2m distance on the centre-line
• Sitting in a semi-circle but positioning the children so that they are all facing forwards (rather than
towards each other)
• Sitting facing forwards in a socially-distanced line
• Sitting facing forwards in a zig-zag socially-distanced line

There is a Government update to what constitutes safer singing here

3. The inevitable confusion around planning and delivering sessions

We are all experienced at having to go ‘off task’ when teaching these age groups. It is part of the nature of teaching and learning; safely going with what works well, and improvising, exploring and responding to the group dynamics of each session ‘in the moment’.

However, these current circumstances take all this understanding to a whole new level.

Scenarios are changing so fast across the country, that no sooner have you planned a session, than you find it is possibly not going to work for a variety of COVID-19-related reasons. As the virus ebbs and flows within regions, so the distancing rules heighten and/or relax. This affects the resources we can use, and whether or not we are still able to continue the sessions at all. Often at very short notice.

It is therefore important to be kind to ourselves. We need to ensure we adopt a pragmatic approach (dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations) and not become paralysed under the weight of all the decisions facing us. Planning something is better than planning nothing – at least it gives us a template to start from!

Being psychologically ‘uncomfortable’ challenges us to rise to the occasion, whatever that occasion may be. And during these trying times, there is every evidence to suggest that this is exactly what is happening in the EYs music community!

Who knows? We might discover new and novel ways of sharing musical experiences effectively as we are pushed beyond our comfort-teaching-zones!!

Suggestions for how we can adapt and yet still deliver excellent singing

4. Suggestions for how we can adapt and yet still deliver excellent singing experiences

• Use humming, chanting, signing, actions as substitutes for singing
• Use turn-taking rather than whole-group singing
• Use narrative or cumulative songs where the children only need to add specific words in the melodyline at specific points, rather than sing the entire song
• Record songs in advance of the session
• Ask families/children to record songs that you can use in the session
• Using the ‘thinking voice’ to sing (so they are singing in their heads) rather than out loud
• Body percussion songs
musicbuds Page 4 of 5 September 2020
• Using natural and seasonal (disinfected as necessary) resources (such as conkers, sticks, leaves etc)
as props that can be quarantined and then discarded/recycled after the session
• Use a head- or lapel-mic in order to amplify your singing; this has four major advantages – you guard
against vocal strain, can sing quietly, keep socially distanced, and yet still deliver the songs
• Deliver sessions digitally, either live or pre-recorded, to children in their settings so that they remain
within their own ‘bubbles’ but don’t lose out on sharing some musical moments with you

5. Keep up to date with the latest research and guidance

Information about safety precautions is changing swiftly at the moment. The best way to keep up to date is through checking on social media and reading relevant articles and documents as they are published.

Communication with all the venues and participants is also crucial. We need to consult to find mutually agreeable ways of proceeding that are both safe and workable. Not easy to do at the moment!

None of us know how our EYs’ singing practice is going to need to change and adapt in the next few weeks. The only thing we can be sure of is
the ongoing uncertainty in our lives. As EYs educators, we need to be kind to ourselves and know that whilst our creative solutions may not lead to
perfect sessions every time, we are still turning up to provide invaluable musical experiences to our communities. Let’s keep moving forwards and sharing our experiences together, note by note!

Here are some links that you might find useful:

Safer Singing during the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic: What we know and what we don’t (NCBI)

Working safely during COVID 19 (gov.uk)

Children and School singing during COVID 19 (Music Mark)

Guidance for schools and music providers (Music Mark)