Helping a Singer Match Pitches: Handy Hints for the Teacher

Sing It - CMVic Publication - Cover PageAn article from Sing It – A quarterly publication created by Community Music Victoria. 
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Most people can learn to match pitches if helped constructively. Some may need more assistance and experimentation than others. I don’t accept that there is a condition in some people of ‘tone deafness’, although where there is a physical injury to voice or hearing apparatus, it may not be possible to match pitches.

  1. Singing in a large group may help, but can also mask the problem or limit the singer to particular tunes or a particular group.
  2. I have discovered or learnt various things that will help the teacher who is helping a singer to match pitches (sometimes referred to as ‘singing in tune’). I would welcome feedback on these:
  3. Work with student/singer alone. Avoid group situations where family or peers act as an audience
  4. Work with a recording device if the student feels comfortable with this. They often discover extra ideas from listening to it later.
  5. Many will know this one. Experiment with slides, hoots, yells, growls, etc. Play with the sounds. There is no right or wrong in this exercise. Avoid the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – use ‘comfortable’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘matching’ as appropriate.
  6.  At first, the teacher can try matching pitches with the student rather than the other way around. If you don’t have the same registers (e.g. other sex) use an instrument to match the student’s pitches (piano is best even if you don’t play). This shows the student how ‘matching pitches’ feels. Later, get the student to match pitches with the teacher.
  7. •Once the student has started to match pitches with the teacher, find out which notes or area of notes (low, middle, high) they feel most comfortable with. Most recently I have worked with female students whose range focuses between middle C and F below it. (Later, in two cases, we have explored up to an octave in range).
  8. See if the student can distinguish between low and high areas of her/his own voice. There are tests but you can just ask the student to make what they hear as high or low notes in their own voice. (Men are usually weaker on this point).
  9. Extend the range gradually, using three or five note runs. It will also help if you can find songs in the student style of preference, first songs in their comfortable pitch area and later others.
  10. If the student is almost matching pitches but not quite, encourage them to slide their voices around in a small way until they match. Whatever method that helps is OK.
  11. Get the student to make positive affirmations about their voice (e.g.‘I am now discovering new areas of my voice’). The student rather than the teacher needs to do this, though the teacher may guide.
  12. Often people who sing off key are quick to pick up on technique.
    I have developed an abridged and adapted version of (classical)
    technique, which works well for beginning singers in all styles,
    especially relaxing the throat. Student’s confidence can increase
    quite a bit on this point, even if they are struggling to match specific pitches.

Further reading: Judy, Stephanie Making Music for The Joy Of It Wigglesworth, Leigh Post Graduate thesis on types of out-of –tune singers.

Article by Jill Scurfield
Singing Leader

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