N A RECENT article, I explored the phenomenon of so-called tone-deafness. As with any given skill, people have varying degrees of talent for matching pitch. But I believe that actual tone-deafness is extremely rare. In my experience, the most common problem is that some people haven’t developed the coordination they need to make their voice match the pitch they’re hearing in their audiation. And in some cases, there’s a reluctance to make their voices go as high as the note you’re demonstrating.
As I mentioned in the previous article, I like to approach pitch-matching problems as vocal problems. There are several methods I use to help students get over the hump.
Unlocking the High Range for Male Singers
The classic case I’ve encountered is the adult male who is interested in choir but says he has trouble staying on key. Because he’s the rarest of rare creatures—a man who actually wants to sing!—I’m always inclined to work with a guy like this.
One young man approached me several years ago with exactly this set of symptoms. He was bright and enthusiastic but deeply concerned that he couldn’t carry a tune. I tested his pitch-matching abilities on lower notes. Not bad. Then we got up high, and that’s where the accuracy started to falter. I could tell from his facial expressions and body language that he was extremely uncomfortable singing high.
So I worked with him on unlocking his high notes. Here’s how I typically approach a case like this:
- Teach him the yawn breath. It’s as simple as it sounds. As James C. McKinney writes in The Diagnosis & Correction of Vocal Faults:
“Pretend you are beginning a yawn, but do not actually go into a full yawn. Notice how your lower jaw drops free in its socket, notice the gently lifting feeling in the area of your soft palate, notice that your throat feels deeper, notice the cool air moving easily through your throat, notice how deep in the body your breath goes without any effort.”
- Get him to open his mouth. The yawn breath does much to address this problem, but it’s worth pointing out the necessity of space to any new singer. Call his attention to the fact that it takes quite a bit of vertical space to make a good sound for singing. Some choir directors urge singers to put two fingers between their front teeth as a reminder; others prefer to have them put one finger between their molars (by poking into the cheeks). Either way, almost nobody uses enough space when they first begin singing.
- Hum. Don’t have him sing full-voice yet. Ask him to make his nice, large singer-space, and then have him simply close his lips. Then have him do some vocalizing of short note patterns, working upscale. As he hums, encourage him to feel the vibrations in his mask area. This will be especially important as he goes up high.
- Relax. At some point in the scale, your singer will start to feel and hear resistance: tension, cracking, breathiness, and the like. Remind him that he’s entering new territory as a singer. Reassure him that the goal isn’t to put out lots of sound on the first try; it’s to find the core of what will eventually be his high range. For these first few attempts at humming up high, he should focus on taking relaxed yawn breaths before every attempt, then gently closing the lips before letting the sound spin out of him. No forcing of breath, no lifting of the larynx, no clenching of the jaw. The sound may be wispy, unstable, or even unpleasant. Tell him not to judge it. He’ll have more coordination and control every time he practices.
- Move to vowels. Once your singer sounds like he’s handling his voice well on hums, have him simply open his lips to repeat the vocalizing patterns on “ah.” Remind him frequently that he should carry over the relaxed approach of his humming into his full-voice singing. As he goes up high, remind him that less is more—a light, well-controlled sound is better than a forced, breathy sound.
Over time, this low-pressure approach will expand the range of the singer and give him more confidence when a melodic line goes up high. That’s an absolute prerequisite to matching pitch in the upper register.
A Modest Success Story
The young man I’ve described sang with our choir for a short time before his work schedule and uncertain living situation made it impossible for him to stick with it. He did his strongest work on the Gregorian chant—including the propers—and he continues to sing in other settings. I’m happy that singing sacred music is now part of his life, rather than something he assumes he simply shouldn’t attempt.
The methods I use aren’t failsafe. You’ll sometimes encounter hard cases who will probably never reach a level of proficiency that allows them to function as a choir member. But I hope these tips help you tap into the potential of any new singer. The worst case scenario is that at least he’ll be able to sing along with more confidence from the pews.
In a future article, I’ll share some tips on helping apparently tone-deaf children match pitch.