Singing a Story

This post was originally on the wonderful Pre-K and Sharing Blog, it has been slightly edited for length, and was written by member Brigid Finucane.

SINGING A STORY – The Magic of Musical Books: Part II

Part II: Piggybacking Melodies

A portion of the material presented is adapted from posts on In Harmony – A music education blog from Heritage Music Press

Hello, everyone. Ms. Brigid here, from Merit School of Music  in Chicago, IL. Thank you for joining me.

An App to Love

Before we get to the main topic of this post, I’d like to share a recently discovered note taking/ brain mapping app: Popplet Lite. The FREE version is, well, free, and once your “popplet” is created, it can be exported via email as a pdf or jpeg. It can also be saved as a jpeg on your iPad’s camera roll. The limitation? Popplet Lite has no archiving ability. Upgrade to Popplet(4.99) for a host of additional options, including web sharing. For my purposes, the lite version is fine. I used it, below, to demonstrate ideas for turning Eric Carle’s ubiquitous EC classic into a singing book.

Sing a book? How?

In Part I, I wrote about ways to add musical books to the classroom repertoire. A quick recap:  Choose a song that has been made into a book, like What a Wonderful World or Little White Duck. Since both these books are linked with famous recordings, one extension option includes turning pages while the soundtrack is playing. This works best with songs that are not sung at a breakneck speed, e.g. My Favorite Things. The song is just too fast to turn the pages to, though I would certainly encourage including it as a piece to listen and/or move to.

Another type of book to look for and sing is one that references a well-known melody. Examples include I Aint’s Gonna Paint No More (It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More), The Aunts Go Marching (The Ants Go Marching),and The Seals on the Busone of the many books based on The Wheels of the Bus.  These books wouldn’t work as well, or at all, if they didn’t have a very specific song and melody as their foundation.

But wait, there’s more! Piggybacking Melodies

For books that don’t have their own melody, use a shared, or “piggyback” melody, to carry the text. Many rhyming books for young audiences share a similar syllabic  count.  Try piggybacking books to common melodies including London Bridge, Frere Jacques, Skip To My Lou, Twinkle, etc. Choose whatever melody complements the text best.

Many use this “piggyback” technique already, with no understanding of how/why it works, and what an accessible tool this is. Certainly that was the case with me, until I attended, by chance, the Imagination Education Conference for Everyone! at National Louis University (created by friend, Kristin Lems), and sat in on a children’s books workshop given by author W. Nicola-Lisa.
A chance statement changed forever how I would approach singing (many) children’s books.  At one point, Nicola-Lisa opened an uncut, two-sided galley (for lack of a better word), of one his children’s books to dramatically illustrate the point that children’s book are a certain, standardized, number of pages, due to printing / cutting / binding mechanics.

The galley must have been 8’ x 8’ – or larger, with print and image going in various directions on successive page – and looked like a fabulous quilt!  He cited examples where he had to extend an idea to fit into this format. He claimed that most children’s books were multiples of eight, the most common being 24 or 32 pages. Up to that point, I had never given any thought to the format, structure and pagination of children’s books, but when I got home, I devoted myself to counting the pages of my books – and he was right!

At some point, a connection was made between the number of syllables on each page, and the syllabication of nursery rhymes. To complete the process, I tested my hypothesis on random books, the first being One Red Rooster. There are so many reasons I adore this book besides the rhyming text: Suzette Barbier’s illustrations are charming, text is printed in large font, the images are additive, it teaches numbers and colors, the framing device on each page – and more!  To my delight, I discovered the text could be sung to a number of nursery rhyme melodies, including Skip to My Lou andLondon Bridge.

The Power of Process!

As part of a recent music and literacy workshop I conducted for Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society at the Mount Prospect Library, attendees tried out this simple strategy of  piggybacking  the text to familiar, child-friendly melodies. I provided picture books from my collection – and all had multiple solutions.

1) As a group exercise, I asked the group to compile a list of common children’ songs, then wrote the titles on a whiteboard. In took just a minute or two to come up with this list: Row Your Boat, Happy Birthday, Twinkle, Skinnamarink, Frere Jacques, Oat, Peas, Beans and Barley (one song), London Bridge, The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Oh McDonald Had a Farm, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Shoe Fly, Itsy Bitsy Spider, You Are My Sunshine, Wheels on the Bus, and Skip to My Lou. Only a few of these have known composers.

2) Attendees broke into small groups, chose a book, and had a short period to experiment, choose and  add a melody to the text and practice. They were not limited to the songs on the group’s initial list (above). They also decided whether they wanted their book to be a listening experience, echo/participation, or a bit of both.

Made with Popplet Lite iPad app.

3) Groups took turns singing their books to the gathering and received brief feedback.

Note:  At the end of the workshop, after introducing additional strategies, I provided my key to the books they sang.  Only a few used the same song solution I used.

*Send me an email, and I’ll be happy to send you the list of books and partner songs I used for this exercise:

So – what did they come up with? Here’s a sampling of their song solutions. A surprise: The go-to song for most of the books turned out to be Skip to My Lou!

Book                                                                                                Piggyback Melody

Me I Am by Jack Prelutsky                                                         Going to Kentucky

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes                                    If You’re Happy and You Know It by Mem Fox

When Winter Comes by Nancy Van Laan                               Skip to My Lou


Make list of familiar childhood songs, pick a book, see what works, and make the magic happen!