Education Quandary

'My 11-year-old is upset because he's been told to mime in the Christmas concert. Can I help him to sing in tune?'
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Hilary's advice

I know how he feels. This was done to me at school, and I was exiled from the wonderful world of singing forever. Yet music experts are adamant that everyone can sing: it's just that some children need more training than others, in the same way that some children need more help with reading or sporting skills.

The Hungarian educator Zoltá* Kodály devised a graded approach to teaching pitch, with accompanying hand signals, that research has shown not only increases children's musical ability but also their reading, writing and study habits. British schoolchildren were widely exposed to his methods in the early 20th century, and probably had more chance to increase their aural perception than children today. Some modern music education courses, such as Growing With Music (, incorporate his methods.

Your son needs to practise hearing notes and then imitating them. You could find somebody to help him ask his music teacher at school if he or she knows of anyone, at the same time pointing out just how hurtful it is for pupils to feel excluded from musical celebrations. Or, if you have a piano or keyboard, you could work with your son yourself, striking notes and asking him to sing them back to you. Alternatively, you could trawl the internet for exercises he might enjoy following by himself: go to for a list of free programmes.

Readers' advice

If he really wants to sing, here's how it's done. You play or sing to him a note comfortably in his range, and ask him to repeat it. If it's wrong, which it probably will be, you sing his note back to him, saying: "This is your note, sing it again". Hopefully he will repeat it. "Great!" you say. Then you sing his note and the next up the scale. "Now sing these two notes," you say, and he does. You repeat these notes once or twice so that he realises he CAN sing in tune. By spending a little time each day adding notes in the scale one by one, he will start to listen more carefully and reproduce the sound more accurately. I did this with my son and he had years of pleasure singing in the local choir. Good luck!

C M Allen, Lancashire

Remind him there are many different types of intelligence and music is only one.

Alice Matthews, Clackmannanshire

Having been told to mime he may now have a fear of singing. Learning harmonies and rhythms does take time, but breathing and relaxation exercises may help him focus. I would go and tell the teacher she was wrong to tell him to mime, and ask him to hum the tune. Then, as his confidence grows, get him to "la la" his way through the songs until he feels able to give singing another try. Maybe his voice is starting to break and that could be why he's a "growler".

Christine Norton, Norfolk

Next week's quandary

Dear Hilary

What are the best memories you and your readers have of education during the past year? I'm a reading volunteer in a Brighton primary school, and will never forget the day that one little boy jumped up and shouted out to the whole class "I can read now!" when he first managed to get through a book without mistakes.

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 10 December to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax: 020-7005 2143; or e-mail: Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary 5th Edition