T’S SOMETHING EVERY church choir director dreads. A bright-eyed, enthusiastic parishioner approaches you and asks about joining your choir. You schedule a time to hear them sing and get to know them a bit. You start off the session by asking them to vocalize on some simple patterns while you play chords at the piano. Within seconds, you realize they can’t match pitch.
Or you start a music class for children to enrich their formation and train them for your choir. Within minutes, you notice that several of the children are not singing the melody with the rest of the class, but rather, are droning on lower notes.
In either case, you fear you may have to tell someone, “I’m sorry, but music just isn’t for you.” While it’s true that participation in a parish choir isn’t for everyone, it’s painful to think of telling someone that they can’t experience the joys of sacred music on any level. What can you do instead?
When Tone-Deafness Isn’t Really Tone-Deafness
Conventional wisdom says that a certain percentage of the population is “tone-deaf.” In fact, you may have heard people present themselves this way: “I’d love to try singing in your choir, but I have to warn you: I’m a little tone-deaf.”
I used to dread situations like these. But I’ve come to realize over the years that the vast majority of “tone-deaf” people aren’t really tone-deaf at all. They just haven’t been trained to coordinate their voices with the notes they hear in their audiation, or internal hearing.
How do I know this? One clue came in a conversation I had years ago with a supposedly tone-deaf man who explained to me what happens when he sings off key. He claimed he could tell when he was off—but he just couldn’t make his voice sing the correct note.
Another clue came as I gradually taught more and more batches of students. I began to notice that after just a few sessions with each new group, some of the non-matchers would eventually right themselves without the need for one-on-one intervention. This taught me that when we’re not used to using the voice, we find it difficult to control—but just like with any other part of the body, this improves with practice.
Think of it this way: if you never play catch, you’ll have a hard time throwing the baseball to your partner’s mitt. You’ll either sail it over his head or keep coming up short and throwing “bouncers.” But after a week or so of practice, you’ll be much more accurate with your throws. After a month, you’ll be even better. This is not to say that the problem of apparent tone deafness will always go away on its own. But for some people, it only requires a little practice to make impressive strides.
Yet another clue came as I gained experience in working one-on-one with “hard cases.” Non-matchers can generally match at least a few notes. Which ones? The lower ones in their range. But after I go above a certain point in the scale, they’ll start undershooting notes. There’s no reason to believe that their ears simply stop working at a certain point in the scale. What’s far more likely is that they simply don’t have the vocal control to sing those high notes—and to be fair, even a professional singer has limits to her range.
If you’re working with a male singer who’s struggling to match pitch, you may need to help him overcome a natural reticence to sing high. Ironically, little boys are often the most unwilling to sing high. Perhaps at that age, there’s a perceived need to separate oneself from the girls in class. This is a shame; there’s nothing like the sound of a good boychoir.
What It Takes to Fix the Problem
I’m not saying that absolutely everyone has the potential to match pitch like a champ. We all have God-given strengths and weaknesses, which is why I don’t provide my own illustrations to these articles or go anywhere without consulting Google Maps. But I’ve gotten the best results by approaching pitch-matching problems as primarily vocal problems. The work isn’t easy, but it’s easiest with children, who naturally have less self-consciousness and fewer inhibitions about trying new things. I have choir members who presented as tone-deaf when they first began training with me. It’s not that I’m a genius teacher; it’s just that I’ve been blessed with students who are willing to work hard and navigate their struggles before finding success.
In future articles, I’ll share ideas on how to get children into their head voice, which not only unlocks their best sound, but also removes one of the biggest barriers to matching pitch.