Training the Uncertain Singer

When students cannot sing certain pitches, it is not an indication that they are tone-deaf.  The amount of talent, gift, or innate ability to sing tunefully varies only slightly among individuals.  The capacity to make music vocally is inherent in everyone, just as the capacity to learn is inherent.  How quickly and how early in life students learn to sing tunefully varies according to their capacity to make music.  Educators now believe that children who become involved in the music-making process at a very early age have a greater capacity to make music as adults than those who begin making music later in life. The vocal experiences students might have had before they were tutored by a certain instructor will affect their ability to sing tunefully at any particular time.  To teach singing effectively to adolescents, directors must believe that all their students are capable of singing in tune and then transfer that belief to those with whom they work daily.

In most cases, the inability to match pitch is a result of a lack of understanding about the singing voice.  Students often relate the singing voice to the speaking voice.  They do not realize how much energy it takes to produce tones substantially higher than those they use in speaking.  This is particularly true with the young baritone, who has to learn to deal with his rapidly growing vocal apparatus that often reacts in a rather erratic manner.  However, any students who are inexperienced singers might have to be taught to understand their vocal instruments and how to use them properly before they can sing tunefully.

After proper voice classification (click here to access a description of this procedure), many inexperienced singers who might have been singing untunefully in the first session of choir or music class will automatically begin to match pitch in a day or two.  Placing them in the correct section allows them to use their comfortable singing tessitura.  Instructors should make a  mental note of which students were having trouble during the voice-classification procedure.  During each of the first several sessions together, directors should pass in front of these students several times to determine if they are in fact beginning to sing tunefully.  If, after several sessions together, some of the students are still having trouble matching some of the pitches, it will be necessary to give them individual attention.  Chances are that these students will never learn to match pitch without being taught individually.  Obviously, the success of the overall group sound is jeopardized until directors deal with the problem.  Observation of different choirs at choral festivals reveals that one of the most common mistakes choral directors make is to ignore the uncertain singers.  An even more deplorable practice is to ask uncertain singers to "mouth the words" and not sing when they cannot sing tunefully.  This approach is devastating to the morale and self-image of young singers who are having difficulty.  This only camouflages the problem and does nothing for the self-assurance of the singers who obviously realize they are not performing well.

Directors can best provide individual attention in several ten-minute segments alone with the student.  During the first ten-minute session, explain to the student that the difficulty is not the student's ability to sing in tune.  Students must be assured that after they learn to use their vocal instrument, they will be able to make a fine contribution to the singing group.  Directors should attempt to keep the students from feeling that their difficulty in singing is a problem because that feeling will cause the students to be harder to teach in the succeeding times together.  Students should be led to understand that learning to sing is just as easy as learning to count or to read.  If they work hard and attend to their difficulties, they will learn to sing well.

It is difficult to believe that adolescents might not understand the simple concepts of upand down and high and low, but occasionally they do not.  In the first session with the individual students, directors should play or sing some high and low pitches and ascending and descending scales to determine if such is the case.  If the students confuse high and low or up or down, a few minutes of helping them to recognize the difference is generally all that is necessary to correct the lack of understanding.

Adolescents can learn to sing a melodic pattern more easily than they can match isolated pitches that are not related to each other.  Therefore it is better to continue the first session with a simple melodic pattern played or sung at different pitch levels than to play or sing a single pitch and ask the students to sing it.  The simple childhood chant (so, so, mi, la, so, mi) is a good melodic pattern to use.  Without any indication from the voice or the piano, ask the students to sing the childhood chant where it is most comfortable in their voices.  Sing or play the pattern back to them at the same pitch level; then move up one-half step and sing or play the same pattern, and ask the students to sing it.  If they are successful in moving up one-half step, move up another and ask them to sing the pattern at that level.  Continue to move up and down above and below the initial pitch that the students chose to sing.  Each time they are successful, congratulate them.  If the students are unsuccessful, ask them if what they sang was correct.  They must realize when they are not matching the pitches.  If the students do not realize that they have sung the pitches incorrectly, move back to an area where they are successful, then ask them to sing the pattern again and congratulate them when it is correct.  Continue this process until the students are able to tell the instructors each time they have sung correctly or incorrectly.

As long as the teacher stays near the initial pitch level, the students will have success matching the pitches.  As the teacher moves upward, a pitch level will be reached in which the students are not using enough energy to match the correct pitches.  At this point, instructors should take a different approach.  The interval of an ascending fifth (do up to so) is a good interval to use to help the students move into the area of the voice where they are tunefully uncertain.  Place do in the area of the voice where they have been successful but where so will occur in the area of the voice that they have been unable to reach.  Using the words Good Morning (do, do, so), sing or play the pattern to the students and ask them to sing it.  It is best for both the students and instructor to stand.  As the students attempt to sing the pitch so and the syllable ing, the instructors should press inwardly with the hand using a quick yet slight movement at the front of the breath-band area just above the navel.  (If the students are of the opposite sex from the instructor -- or in some cases, even if the student is of the same sex -- it may be best that the students place one of their hands on their own breath-band areas, then one of the instructor's hands may be placed on the students' hand for the purpose of initiating the quick yet slight movement.)  The sudden impulse of air created by the quick movement will free the voice to produce the upper pitch.  If the first attempt is not successful, the teacher should try the exercise several times.  After several attempts, students are usually successful in singing the upper pitch in tune.  Once they have succeeded, subsequent attempts will be easier.  After the upper pitch has been achieved, the student should maintain the pressure on the breath-band area as they are asked to sustain the tone.  Move the do, do, so pattern up one-half step and then another using the same technique until the students realize that they can sing the upper pitches.

Another method to achieve the same results may be used.  Tell the students to cup their two hands together about waist high, pretend the sounds are in the palms of the hands, and, with the leap to the second pitch of the pattern, lift both hands quickly above the forehead.  The teacher should stand in front of the students and go through the same motion, which will provide a stimulus.  Occasionally the students will overshoot the higher pitch, which is acceptable because the process will have freed the upper voice.  Another method is the siren technique that is particularly helpful in assisting the students in discovering the head voice or falsetto.  Instruct the students to begin as low in the voice as they are able and imitate a police siren (use the old-fashioned straight single-tone effect, not the modern double-toned descending minor third effect), going as high as possible.  As soon as a significant range movement is detected, the instructor should transfer to the good morn-ing pattern.

One session with uncertain singers is insufficient.  Instructors will find that the students will revert to the uncertain singing when they are put back with the other singers.  It is essential to hold several sessions with the students, each time doing basically the same thing, constantly reinforcing the successes with praise, and questioning the lack of success until the students overcome their inhibitions and sing with confidence and energy on correct pitches.

Place the uncertain singers near the strongest vocalist in the section when they sing with the group.  Often it is necessary to take those stronger vocalists into the instructor's confidence, explaining that the uncertain singers have been placed near them intentionally and asking them to assist in helping the uncertain singers find their voices.  This is necessary because occasionally tuneful singers will ridicule untuneful ones and tease them about their untunefulness, particularly if the untuneful one is sitting nearby.  Recruiting the tuneful singers to serve as helpers discourages the teasing.

The octave difference between females (and unchanged voices) and males whose voices have already changed may make it difficult for males to relate well to female pitches, so female instructors may have difficulty assisting male uncertain singers.  This can be alleviated by inviting a male tuneful singer from the group to attend the sessions with the uncertain singer and to demonstrate with his voice.  The uncertain singer soon learns to relate to the tuneful singer's voice because it sounds in the same octave and has a very similar timbre.

During the last several years as professor of music at Florida State University, Irvin Cooper conducted a chorus of all the students enrolled at the Blessed Sacrament School in Tallahassee.  He would never exclude a student because of untunefulness, and, believe it or not, he never had uncertain singers.  Individual attention was the secret to success.  It takes time and a good bit of extra effort on your part as an instructor, but the rewards are great!

Early in Don L. Collins’ career he was working with an early-adolescent girl who for the first time began to produce music with correct pitches.  She stopped singing, and after several seconds he turned around (she was standing behind him as he played the piano) to ascertain what was wrong.  Tears were flowing down her cheeks.  After years of untunefulness, she was literally overwhelmed with her success as a music maker.  Collins later related that nothing was more satisfying to him than seeing the expression on the face of a youngster who is enjoying and appreciating music making for the first time.