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Making space for singing in the 21st century classroom – A focus group interview study with primary school music teachers in Sweden

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 December 2023

Eva Bojner Horwitz
Affiliation:
Music and Health, Royal College of Music, Stockholm, Sweden Karolinska Institute, Center for Social Sustainability, Stockholm, Sweden
David Thorarinn Johnson
Affiliation:
Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, Bergen, Norway Malmö Academy of Music, Lund University, Lund, Sweden
Viveka Lyberg-Åhlander*
Affiliation:
Åbo Akademi University, Faculty of Arts, Psychology and Theology/Speech Language Pathology, Turku, Finland Department of Clinical Sciences, Logopedics, Phoniatrics and Audiology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden
Birgitta Sahlén
Affiliation:
Department of Clinical Sciences, Logopedics, Phoniatrics and Audiology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden
Petri Laukka
Affiliation:
Department of Psychology, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
Pia Bygdéus
Affiliation:
Department of Music and Arts, Linnaeus University, Växjö, Sweden The Royal Swedish Academy of Music, Stockholm, Sweden
*
Corresponding author: Viveka Lyberg-Åhlander; Email: viveka.lybergahlander@abo.fi
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Abstract

The present study aimed to increase understanding of how singing activities may be initiated in primary school, and what support and assistance teachers require to conduct singing activities as an integrated part of the school day. Five music teachers participated in a focus group interview. The following main themes were identified: 1) pedagogical and methodological flexibility, 2) the role of routines and familiarity, 3) the embodied and multimodal dimensions of singing, 4) the importance of accompaniment and instruments, 5) the experience of insecurity and obstacles and 6) the perceived synergies between singing and other learning activities. This knowledge may be important to integrate within music teacher education in order to secure singing’s place in schools.

Type
Article
Creative Commons
Creative Common License - CCCreative Common License - BY
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Copyright
© The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press

Introduction

Over several decades, singing’s place within the music curriculum has shifted from a central to a peripheral role in several European national contexts (Ashley, Reference ASHLEY, Geisler and Johansson2014; Djupsjöbacka, Reference DJUPSJÖBACKA2018; Johnson, Reference JOHNSON and Van der Sandt2020). This shift has occurred despite recent research suggesting links between music engagement (with singing in particular) and well-being (Welch, Reference WELCH, MacDonald, Hargreaves and Miell2017; Dingle et al., Reference DINGLE, SHARMAN, BAUER, BECKMAN, BROUGHTON, BUNZLI, DAVIDSON, DRAPER, FAIRLEY, FARRELL, FLYNN, GOMERSALL, HONG, LARWOOD, LEE, LEE, NITSCHINSK, PELUSO, REEDMAN, VIDAS, WALTER and WRIGHT2021) and between musical training and cognitive and academic benefits (Maule & Hilpold, Reference MAULE and HILPOLD2013; Román-Caballero et al., Reference ROMÁN-CABALLERO, VADILLO, TRAINOR and LUPIÁÑEZ2022). For example, Guhn et al. (Reference GUHN, EMERSON and GOUZOUASIS2020) reported positive associations between academic achievement and school music participation based on population level educational records. Welch et al. (Reference WELCH, HIMONIDES, SAUNDERS, PAPAGEORGI, VRAKA, PRETI and STEPHENS2009), in an evaluation of a large-scale singing program, reported a linear association between children’s singing development and a positive sense of self and social inclusion. Based on these findings, a case can be made for the potential benefits of making space for daily singing activities. Where further research is needed is on questions of how song activities can best be integrated and organised within the school day, as well as how such singing activities may support children’s cognitive and linguistic development, vocal confidence and listening abilities, contribute to improved learning environments and strengthen social bonds.

An important and significant source of knowledge for obtaining information on how singing instruction in compulsory school can be coordinated and organised lies in music teachers’ professional experiences (Backman Bister & Persson, Reference BACKMAN BISTER and PERSSON2021). We know that cuts in arts education and teacher education can threaten the place of singing in primary and lower secondary schools and potentially impair children’s equal access to high-quality singing music education (Fancourt & Finn, Reference FANCOURT and FINN2019) and presumed extra-musical benefits. We currently have little experience and knowledge of how to counteract this ominous development. In the present study, we interviewed music teachers in a focus group with the aim of increasing our understanding of how singing activities may be initiated in primary school, and what support and assistance teachers require to conduct singing activities as an integrated part of the school day.

Background

Music making and singing involves all parts of the body and mind and have been shown to be complex and multimodal with measurable properties that promote health and quality of life (Bonde, Reference BONDE2011; Saarikallio, Reference SAARIKALLIO, MacDonald, Kreutz and Mitchell2011). These measurable properties and qualities can consist of physiological responses such as deeper breathing and diaphragm activity, self-regulation of emotion and cognitive stimulation, sensory and aesthetic entrainment, imagination stimulation, among other positive effects (Fancourt & Finn, Reference FANCOURT and FINN2019). Researchers have described how music in general and singing in particular may promote health and well-being as 1) a tool for expressing and regulating emotion (Coutinho et al., Reference COUTINHO, SCHERER and DIBBEN2014), 2) a medium of communication and contact with others (Welch & Preti, Reference WELCH, PRETI, Welch, Howard and Nix2014) and 3) a means of identity construction (e.g. Denora, Reference DENORA, Juslin and Sloboda2001; Laiho, Reference LAIHO2004; Ruud, Reference RUUD2013; Welch et al., Reference WELCH, HIMONIDES, SAUNDERS, PAPAGEORGI and SARAZIN2014), factors which assessed individually or collectively can be seen as highly relevant for the promotion of a safe and nurturing school environment. Several studies have shown that music making can have positive effects on health and quality of life (Gabrielsson, Reference GABRIELSSON2011; Theorell et al., Reference THEORELL, LENNARTSSON, MOSING and ULLÉN2014; Løkken et al., Reference LØKKEN, RANGUL, MEROM, EKHOLM, KROKSTAD, SUND, Bonde and Theorell2018; Theorell & Bojner Horwitz, Reference THEORELL and BOJNER HORWITZ2019). Studies of twins indicate how self-regulation of emotion may be associated with to what degree a person has been active in music; the more hours spent in musical practice the better children are able to differentiate, communicate and read others’ emotional states (Theorell et al., Reference THEORELL, LENNARTSSON, MOSING and ULLÉN2014). Some research supports the theory that singing in particular may have a stronger potential to affect factors such as health, well-being, social cohesion and learning compared to playing other instruments due to its intimacy, universality and antiquity, as well as singing’s possible role in the evolution of human societies and spoken language (Mithen, Reference MITHEN2005; Dalla Bella, Reference DALLA BELLA2014).

Singing behavior in early childhood development has been shown in multiple studies to facilitate mother–infant bonding, aid in language acquisition and develop self-regulation skills, with positive effects on children’s health, well-being and development (Trehub & Gudmundsdottir, Reference TREHUB, GUDMUNDSDOTTIR, Welch, Howard and Nix2014; Tsang et al., Reference TSANG, FALK and HESSEL2017; Falk et al., Reference FALK, FASOLO, GENOVESE, ROMERO-LAURO and FRANCO2021). A survey study by Maule and Hilpold (Reference MAULE and HILPOLD2013) found that there was evidence of a clear positive association between singing to one’s children at an early age and their later academic achievements as students in reading, science and mathematics. ROSENBERG et al., 2022 ms) showed that in families where the parents sung to their infants, the children’s lexicon was significantly greater at 24 months of age compared to the children in families where singing was not a significant activity. Singing involves components which can be thought to strengthen language skills among older children, but the connection between singing and language remains under researched. Those few studies which have examined possible associations between language learning and singing are extremely difficult to compare due to varying and in some cases weak methods. An exception is Schön et al. (Reference SCHÖN, BOYER, MORENO, BESSON, PERETZ and KOLINSKY2008) who conducted a series of experiments studying acquisition of new words by young adults, concluding that sung novel words were significantly easier for participants to remember and repeat compared to spoken words.

A handful of studies have looked at the connection between language and musical processing in children with ‘developmental language disorder’ (DLD) finding that they exhibit similar difficulties with musical processes and language syntax (Jentschke et al., Reference JENTSCHKE, KOELSCH and FRIEDERICI2005, Reference JENTSCHKE, KOELSCH, SALLAT and FRIEDERICI2008). This may be due to the fact that children with DLD often have difficulties processing auditory information such as sound pitch, duration and fast formant changes, elements which are necessary for processing both musical as well as language syntax. Interventions using music and rhythm have been shown to be effective in the treatment of children with DLD (Bedoin et al., Reference BEDOIN, BRISSEAU, MOLINIER, ROCH and TILLMANN2016). Anvari et al. (Reference ANVARI, TRAINOR, WOODSIDE and LEVY2002) found in a study of four- and five-year-olds that music making and musical competence (discrimination between similar and dissimilar musical statements, production of rhythm and melody sequences) was a reliable predictor of reading level even when controlling for cognitive ability.

To summarise, current research shows music and singing in particular to have positive effects on health, well-being, language learning and social cohesion. To the best of our knowledge, no negative effects associated with increased focus on singing in compulsory education have been shown in current research. In short, it seems clear that promoting wider participation in music and singing activities in elementary school could have wide-reaching benefits for life-long learning and public health. Teacher’s competence, discretionary powers and professional experience may well be key factors in the successful integration of singing activities into the school day and therefore need to be further studied and better understood.

Overall aim with our research

The present study was conducted within the project Singing, health and well-being in school – a societal matter (SiS: Sånghälsa i skolan), a Swedish multi-year transdisciplinary research initiative that aims to develop models for research-based, developmentally appropriate daily singing instruction in elementary school and to measure the effects of daily singing on children’s sense of well-being and learning environment, as well as on their cognitive, language and social competences. In order to develop this research-based model in the best possible way, we started by interviewing music teachers in a focus group to collect and build a deeper understanding of professional attitudes and experiences of working with singing in their everyday primary school work. The aim with this focus group interview was to build practice-based knowledge with music teachers based on their experiences of initiating and leading singing activities in primary schools 2021.

Methodology

To be able to better understand the phenomenon of singing in primary schools from the perspectives of in-service music teachers, a focus group method was used. This focus group interview sought to analyse teachers’ experiences and ideas about singing activities that are integrated into the school day in primary schools in Sweden, for children aged 8-9 years. Questions focused on the teachers’ didactic tools and ideas on how to implement singing activities in the classroom (see the interview guide Table 1).

Table 1. The questions included in the interview guide

Participants

Five music teachers were included in the focus group after a purposive selection procedure. Contact information for a group of potential participants fullfilling the study’s inclusion criteria were collected. To address unknown sources of bias, participants were selected randomly from this larger group for inclusion in the study. Considerations for the composition of the study sample were the inclusion of participants who 1) received teacher training from different higher education institutions (from northern, central and southern Sweden), 2) had varying amount of professional experience as music teachers (a spread from 1981 until 2021) and 3) were active as music teachers in Swedish primary school 2021.The sample was also constituted to include both women and men. In these ways the study sample sought to address possible geographical, experience and gender biases. All of the participants provided written consent for their inclusion in the study.

The oldest music teacher in the focus group has been working continuously since the beginning of the 1980s and the youngest finished their music teacher education three years ago. All of them were working as music teachers at the time of the interview. In this article, the five participating music teachers have been given fictitious names: Anna (A), Bea (B), Carl (C), Dennis (D), Eric (E).

The interviewer 1 (music and health researcher) and interviewer 2 (music education researcher and director) facilitated the interview together. The interview took place via ZOOM and was audio recorded in September 2021, for 70 minutes.

Data collection

Data was collected from one focus group consisting of five music teachers and two researchers (Interviewer 1 and 2).

The focus group interview followed a set of questions based on the interview guide (Table 1), which were based on previous research findings and used a phenomenological hermeneutic approach (Bojner Horwitz et al., Reference BOJNER HORWITZ, THEORELL and ANDERBERG2003; Bojner Horwitz et al., Reference BOJNER HORWITZ, STENFORS and OSIKA2018). This method was chosen to better understand how music teachers experienced singing activities in their own classrooms; discussions pursuing related issues, particular processes and embodied experiences were facilitated by the researchers. The preunderstanding of the interviewers, with long professional involvement in music education, music and health and voice and vocal music pedagogy, were useful in the analysis of the transcripts. Each participant contributed to the focus group interviews and all participants’ narratives are part of the complete interpretation. With regard to the richness of the focus group interview, a saturation arose before the discussion ended; that is, nothing new emerged during the final part of the interview.

Data analysis

We analysed the participants’ conversation through a phenomenological-hermeneutic lens which helped us to identify, organise, interpret and systematise meaning units and themes that emerged from within the data that mirrors the entire data set. This approach goes beyond a semantic analysis as it identifies underlying patterns and assumptions that shape the semantic content in the data (Bojner Horwitz et al., Reference BOJNER HORWITZ, THEORELL and ANDERBERG2003). The preunderstanding of the interviewers is part of the analytical process and Naïve Reading. A Naïve Reading is the general comprehension of the whole (text)material which serves as a direction for the structural analyses. The phenomenological-hermeneutic method is inspired by the French philosopher Paul Riceur (Riceur, Reference RICEUR1976) and has earlier been used by many researchers (Ekman et al., Reference EKMAN, ROBINS-WAHLIN and NORBERG1993; Norberg et al., Reference NORBERG, AXELSSON and HÄGGSTRÖM1994; Talseth et al., Reference TALSETH, JACOBSSON and NORBERG2000; Bojner Horwitz, Reference BOJNER HORWITZ2004).

In accordance with the problem outlined and the aim of our research, we analysed the data in the following order:

  1. 1) Reading through all the material, after orthographical transcribing from audio recording by Interviewer 2.

  2. 2) Writing a Naïve Reading.

  3. 3) Interpreting and systematically categorising the content of the interview transcripts into meaning units, sub-themes and themes and associated patterns.

  4. 4) Thematising and structuring the text according to the significant meaning (Bojner Horwitz et al., Reference BOJNER HORWITZ, GRAPE VIDING, RYDWIK and HUSS2017; Bojner Horwitz et al., Reference BOJNER HORWITZ, STENFORS and OSIKA2018).

  5. 5) Writing a structure analysis.

  6. 6) Rendering a complete interpretation.

Interviewer 1 (Bojner Horwitz) first analysed the transcribed interviews. The preunderstanding of interviewer 1 added deeper interpretations and helped to ensure richness and details from the material. In the next step of the analyses, interviewer 2 (Bygdéus) added her interpretations and together with interviewer 1 discussed overlapping and new findings. This multi-step process of building broader knowledge and interpretation from the transcripts can strengthen internal and interpretive validity and is of great value for the Complete Interpretation: that is, the final step of the analyses where all the different steps of the structure analyses are set (Silverman, Reference SILVERMAN2014).

Interlinked verification was conducted involving all six of the present study’s co-authors which led to a consensus regarding the categories and themes that were identified. They were thus identified by using an inductive approach and not based on pre-existing theoretical frameworks. This process was particularly rewarding due to the unusually broad multidisciplinary backgrounds of the co-authors who represent a wide range of professional competences and theoretical perspectives from diverse fields: speech and language development and pathology, music and health, music education, psychology, social medicine, sound and music computing and music psychology. This interdisciplinary mix affords this study a unique perspective on the subject material.

Results

Our analysis of the focus group interview conversation identified six main themes that serve to deepen an understanding of how singing is and can be integrated into the school day. These themes were 1) pedagogical and methodological flexibility, 2) the role of routines and familiarity, 3) the embodied and multimodal dimensions of singing, 4) accompaniment and instruments play a role in singing education, 5) the experience of insecurities and obstacles and 6) the perceived synergies between singing and other learning activities. The six themes will be presented in greater detail below.

Theme 1: Pedagogical and methodological flexibility

Examples of citations and sub-themes related to pedagogical and methodological flexibility (Theme 1) are shown in Table 2.

‘Sometimes you do not like to sing a song and then it does not work… you need to give it a few lessons before they really start to understand how it should be and then they think it is fun’ (C)

Table 2. Theme 1 – Pedagogical and methodological flexibility

Participants stressed the need to have flexible lesson plans and a relaxed attitude to make room for singing to work well and engage students. Listening, empathy, giving the process time and flexibility need to be exhibited in music making both by the children and by the music teacher. The pedagogical instruction is often multimodal, with diverse strategies used to teach and engage the group: symbols representing the lyrics, saying the first sentence and letting the children fill in new words, call and response, shifting learners’ attention to different focal points (e.g., ‘look at my mouth, look at me, you decide where you want to look’), giving options of how to follow along (e.g., lip reading/text/image). Giving options for how learners can direct their attention in this way becomes a support for learning which is an integral part of methodological flexibility. As one participant states, ‘You can choose a little yourself whatever you want to look at’. Sometimes, learners are best engaged by simply listening and imitating the vocal leader. At other times, learning props may support learner engagement. The tactile experience of feeling objects related to themes expressed in song lyrics such as chestnuts, leaves, things spread on a carpet or hidden in a bag may also catch learners’ attention in other ways and support learning and active participation.

Theme 2: The role of routines and familiarity

Examples of citations and sub-themes related to the role of routines and familiarity (Theme 2) are shown in Table 3.

‘It’s a great way to always start with [the startson] to get to know all the children with someone’s names that should not be so complicated’ (D)

Table 3. Theme 2 – The role of routines and familiarity

Strategies for ‘getting started’ were discussed and described by study participants in diverse ways. Some may introduce each lesson by starting with the same song for an entire semester, an entire academic year or for a certain period, before it is time to change the introductory song. At the start song, the children usually sound the most – it’s what they know the best – and if the music teacher should choose to start or end in some other way, the children may be quick to reprimand and note that, ‘Now you forgot!’: that is, the routine is important for the children, a start routine that sets the tone and provides security and courage. As one participant states, routines are so vital and clearly established to the point where ‘there is almost no doubt about what will happen when you enter the room’.

Theme 3: The embodied and multimodal dimensions of singing

Examples of citations and sub-themes related to embodied multimodal transformation (Theme 3) are shown in Table 4.

‘… it can be ‘pulse’ or ‘tempi’, ‘embodied’ or something I wrote on the board … but I do not use more than two new words at a time’. (A)

Table 4. Theme 3 –The embodied and multimodal dimensions of singing

An embodied multimodal approach for the music teacher is emphasised allowing children to follow along by watching the mouth, gestures, texts, images, notation and alternating symbols in musical embodied learning:

‘You make movements to the songs so that the words become clearer through it, you do a lot with the youngest children, you act out everything: you know how to fish and fly, and everything you do as well’. (B)

By nurturing a learning experience grounded in playfulness with their bodies and the importance of play, teachers can engender an embodied multimodal transformation that allows for musical elements to be tried several times and in different ways. Working multimodally – following cues from body language and facial expressions, for example – can also contribute to flexibility. Multimodal work in singing instruction helps ‘so that the words become clearer’ for learners. With the youngest children, ‘you act out everything’. The study participants stressed the fact that singing and music are not events that take place only in one particular formal classroom learning environment at school. Instead, they describe the subject as being in the classroom, in the corridor, in the gym, in different rooms and not just at one time a week, but rather as something that can permeate a school milieu in different places within the framework of the school day.

In the focus group conversation, the five music teachers discussed themes such as expressing embodied emotions through music, the ‘sparkling eyes’ of engaged students, the roll of place and learning environment in singing pedagogy, community, group energy, play and playfulness, call and response and tools to encourage collaborative learning. These elements can all be seen as part of the embodied dimension of singing.

Theme 4: Accompaniment and instruments play a role in singing education

Examples of citations and sub-themes related to the role and meaning of instruments (Theme 4) are shown in Table 5.

‘It is difficult for those (music teacher) students today to lead a class because they simply do not have that (instrument) knowledge’. (A)

Table 5. Theme 4 – Accompaniment and instruments play a role in singing education

According to study participants, an acoustic instrument such as a piano or guitar is unbeatable when working with children and young people: to find simple songs, have fun and find a popular way to socialise through the song and music. The piano’s strength to be able to present a melody and to be able to do so much more if you master the instrument is one of the tools teacher students today need time for in teacher education, although other instruments such as guitar have their own relative advantages. Many firmly feel that instruments in the room are the best option for supporting and leading group singing; pre-recorded tools and creating online material may also be needed, but a real instrument gives more power and strength to the music. The ability to play along while leading the group, however, requires a high degree of familiarity and technical mastery if the teacher is to be able to effectively accompany while maintaining focus primarily on the singers; they need to ‘handle the instrument without expending energy- [it] should go towards the children, not down in what your hands do’. Musical instruments then are useful but require a high level of mastery in order to be used effectively. Participants noted the often low level of mastery on accompaniment instruments exhibited by student teachers and the limitations this can imply for their professional competence.

Theme 5: The experience of insecurity and obstacles

Examples of citations and sub-themes related to insecurity and obstacles/challenges

(Theme 5) are shown in Table 6.

‘Some children are not allowed to sing…’ (B)

Table 6. Theme 5 – The experience of insecurity and obstacles

Situations where a child is not allowed to sing may occur due to cultural or personal reasons. Regulations and restrictions imposed from outside school are challenges that are important to handle so that all children are able to participate actively in classroom singing activities.

Primary school teachers, teacher students and even specialist music teachers can feel insecure in the subject of music and singing in particular. A participant noted, ‘I have teachers around me who think it would be great to be able to work with music in the classroom more, but they do not have the tools to do so’. Skills and tools such as a reliable repertoire of songs take time and classroom experience to develop. Repertoire was identified by one participant as ‘the biggest challenge’: to find music ‘that both you can handle and that the children like to sing and that are simple enough but not too simple’. Mentorship from music teachers would be valuable for new teachers and teachers less experienced in classroom singing to help in development of repertoire and singing practices, but this represents a large commitment of work hours that are difficult to come by. As one participant puts it, ‘I do not think any of us music teachers have time to do such a process’.

Participants describe situations where music teacher-students come out for internships and are afraid to lead music activities. In these instances, the student teacher’s ability to serve as a positive role model – which is crucial in the meeting with children and young people – is sorely lacking.

Theme 6: The perceived synergies between singing and other learning activities

Examples of citations and sub-themes related to synergies (Theme 6) are shown in Table 7.

‘[Singing] can help the children develop and I think that language and music are very closely related. I know myself how many rhymes you learned in school that still remain after like 20 years’. (C)

‘I have noticed in school that it [language] gets better with music’. (A)

Table 7. Theme 6 – Perceived synergies between singing and other learning activities

A synergy between learning language and singing was noted by participants. An attitude of aiming for singing that is ‘good enough’ may be employed in the learning of singing repertoire in stages of independence and sophistication with the children: the leader singing the whole song first for the group, trying the whole and then working with the parts, choosing to listen or sing along or to vary, choosing where learners want to fix their gaze (for example, text, image or prop) during performance of the song. Participants describe giving learners space to ‘hop on’ to a song, listen and imitate, sing along more and more in a gradual expansion of the child’s own space for participation that creates choice for the children. This open attitude of ‘good enough’ enables growth into an active participation over time.

Discussion

In the present study, five music teachers discussed themes such as expressing emotions through music, multimodal learning, learning environment in singing pedagogy, group energy, play and playfulness, confidence, learning tools, collaborative learning and the embodied dimension of singing. While limited conclusions may be drawn from this study’s small sample size, results point towards a framework for understanding those elements which may support the initiation of singing activities. The recurring use of various mediating tools in our participants’ everyday singing pedagogy experience, for example, links very well to previous research suggesting the central role such tools can play (Bygdéus, Reference BYGDÉUS2015, Reference BYGDÉUS2018). The importance of props such as pictures that reinforce aspects of musical performance (via media such as PowerPoint/keynote to display images or texts) and various other forms of symbols and objects that enhance the learning environment were important for music teachers’ leading singing activities.

Singing instruction is often multimodal, with diverse strategies used to lead and engage the group of children: symbols representing the lyrics, leaves and chestnuts stimulating the tactile senses, saying the first sentence and letting the children fill in new words, call and response, shifting learners’ attention and the like. Listening, empathy skills and flexibility are exhibited in the music making both by the children and by the music teacher. Giving options for how learners (in this case both music teachers and children) can direct their attention also becomes a support for the musical/singing learning. This multimodal strategy gives young students a chance to learn new words in a multi-faceted way.

Singing together supports dimensions of language such as phonology, vocabulary, grammar and language use (pragmatics) (Anvari et al., Reference ANVARI, TRAINOR, WOODSIDE and LEVY2002). The multimodal processing of auditory, visual and motor cues develop and support language learning in mono as well as in the increasing number of multi-lingual children with Swedish as L2 in schools today (Rudner et al., Reference RUDNER, LYBERG-ÅHLANDER, BRÄNNSTROM, NIRME, PICHORA-FULLER and SAHLÉN2018). Dynamic aspects of singing such as variations in rhythm, tempo, pausing and interaction with others may contribute to development of turn-taking skills and basic aspects of excecutive functioning such as flexibility and inhibition. To give feedback to children about the meaningful interaction between singing and language emerges from the present study’s results is an important part of the music teachers’ multifaceted role.

Participants described how it takes patience from the music teacher to dare to work through the music, to be in the rehearsal in different ways with the children and to understand that it may take a few lessons before it gets fun. Fun is not always the first reaction, but with patience and routines it evolves as part of the situated learning response. By nurturing a learning experience grounded in playfulness and the importance of play, the teachers engender a flexibility that allows musical elements to be tried several times in different ways. Working multimodally, i.e., following cues from body language, facial expressions, gaze, gestures, sounds and sensations, also contributes to making a safe space for learning flexibility. Call and response methods were prominent. When the music teacher and the children hit a roadblock, this may be due to misunderstandings or confusion over for example the lyrics or melody; the song can then be split up into smaller bits and practiced (Bygdéus, Reference BYGDÉUS2015).

Reference points are needed to create a longing and anticipation from the group; this can be facilitated by building a secure repertoire of songs in the meeting with and through the songs with the children (Johnson, Reference JOHNSON2021). Beyond repertoire, a rug or similar object that defines a space in front of the feet can act as a focal point to place props during the singing session. This dialogic process interlinking singing practices results in a repertoire of durable songs and routines that stimulate interest and encourage students to continue singing.

Music teachers need knowledge and skills, but they may also need support to dare. Insecurity and self-efficacy have been the focus of music education research assessing teacher willingness to initiate singing and music-making activities. In her study of generalist primary school teachers, Stunell (Reference STUNELL2010) found that two related dimensions – musical skills and confidence in one’s musical identity– were key to enabling generalist teachers to lead musical activities with their students. De Vries (Reference DE VRIES2011, Reference DE VRIES2015) found that institutional support and professional development were needed to encourage generalist teachers in initiating music activities. As the present study suggests, even some specialist teacher students and new graduates may lack some of the knowledge, skills and support necessary to dare to lead singing with their students. Both trust and psychological safety (Edmundson, Reference EDMUNDSON1999; Edmundson & Lei, Reference EDMUNDSON and LEI2014) are needed for the courage to express oneself, explore and perform in a group. Whereas trust (in oneself and others) is an individual concept, psychological safety refers to whether it feels safe to take interpersonal risks in a group (Edmundson, Reference EDMUNDSON1999; Edmundson & Lei, Reference EDMUNDSON and LEI2014). For example, the inclusion of new music teachers in teaching teams – where there is space and time to share concepts, for reciprocal feedback and for true collaborative learning – may be crucial for the music teachers’ feeling of safety in the classroom. In-service school leaders have an important role to play here in mentoring apprentice teachers. Additionally, music teachers’ abilities to create psychological safety regarding the broader learning context, e.g. handling restrictions and challenges from students’ experiences outside the school environment as mentioned by study participants are also of great importance for promoting the feeling of psychological safety (Andersson et al., Reference ANDERSSON, SANDGREN, ROSQVIST, LYBERG ÅHLANDER, HANSSON and SAHLÉN2022).

Participants reasoned that it can be more difficult to lead singing activities if you do not master an instrument. The focus group conversation revolved around what effects pre-recorded tracks can have on the children’s singing, both positive and negative. Simple songs to sing and having fun together are enriched by live instruments. In this context, many firmly feel that instruments in the room are vital; pre-recorded tools and creating online material may also be needed, but a real instrument gives more power and strength to the music. While other instruments may certainly support learning, the participants’ experiences as related in the present study support an understanding of the piano’s particular strength, allowing teachers to be able to accompany with melody, harmony and rhythm. As such, it can be seen as a tool that ought to be prioritised in teacher education.

Some participants describe important perspectives on singing pedagogy gained from their experiences and observations as teacher trainers and advisors for prospective music teachers. They describe situations where they meet music teacher students lacking basic tools and skills for leading singing effectively: teacher students who cannot play instruments to accompany singing, do not have repertoire, chant rather than sing, cannot sing in tune and cannot adapt keys and the like. In these instances, the student teacher’s ability to serve as a positive role model – which is crucial in the meeting with children and young people when singing – is seriously underdeveloped. Both general classroom school teachers and specialist music teachers can feel insecure in the subject of singing at school. Teachers in primary school may feel that they do not have the tools to work with to be able to create lessons involving singing and singing health.

In conclusion, this study points at several needs and obstacles that are important to consider when integrating singing within the school day in Swedish educational programmes. By building on teacher experiences such as those examined here as well as evidence-based methods, the Singing Health and Well-being in Schools initiative will continue to develop and share knowledge to support effective singing pedagogy in primary schools to further investigate this important dimension of music education.

Acknowledgements

The authors want to express their sincere gratitude towards the teachers participating in this study and to the Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Foundation for financial support.

Ethical considerations

Participation in the study was voluntary. All participants provided informed written consent prior to their participation. Data were collected confidentially and pseudonymised so that participants cannot be identified in study publications. The ethical guidelines of the study were formally approved by the Swedish Ethical Review Authority (decision number 2021-06751-01).

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Figure 0

Table 1. The questions included in the interview guide

Figure 1

Table 2. Theme 1 – Pedagogical and methodological flexibility

Figure 2

Table 3. Theme 2 – The role of routines and familiarity

Figure 3

Table 4. Theme 3 –The embodied and multimodal dimensions of singing

Figure 4

Table 5. Theme 4 – Accompaniment and instruments play a role in singing education

Figure 5

Table 6. Theme 5 – The experience of insecurity and obstacles

Figure 6

Table 7. Theme 6 – Perceived synergies between singing and other learning activities