BELIEVE THERE’S A DANGEROUS misunderstanding around the issue of matching pitch. In my work in parishes, I’ve found that most apparently “tone-deaf” people aren’t tone-deaf at all; they just can’t coordinate their voices to sing what they hear in their audiation. I have some specific methods for helping men match pitch, based on my notion that many “tone-deaf” men are either reluctant or unable to sing high.
Today let’s focus on children. Suppose you’ve started a children’s choir or children’s music class. You get the kids together and have them warm up by singing a simple hymn or folksong. Most of the kids sing more or less in tune with decent vocal quality. But you soon notice a few “droners”—kids who can only approximate the shape of the melody and have a limited range. What do you do next?
One challenge is that every child is different. Another challenge is that in a typical church music program, you probably only have one weekly class or rehearsal to evaluate, diagnose, and fix the non-matchers—all with many other students looking on.
Thus, I don’t have a single, failsafe method of fixing this problem. But I do have a toolbox of general principles and specific techniques that have worked for me over the years. I’ll be sharing them in my next few articles.
Let’s begin with what should be our top priority as teachers of young singers.
Head Tone or Bust
Ever been to a concert performed by an outstanding children’s choir? Or attended a parish with a well-trained youth-heavy choir? What’s the number-one compliment people tend to offer? That’s right: “They sound like angels!”
What does that mean, exactly? It’s a metaphor, of course—angels don’t have bodies. But one can surmise that it refers to the purity, sweetness, and lightness of the sound. This delightful sound is called the head tone. For the singer, it produces a feeling of resonance in various parts of the face and head (these sensations can vary widely from one singer to the next). For the listener, it lifts the soul without overwhelming the ears. Find a parish with a whole gaggle of kids singing in head voice, and you’ll be in for an otherworldly experience at Mass.
The “other” tone is the chest tone. It’s the voice most people will instinctively use if they suddenly join in singing Happy Birthday and aren’t thinking about vocal quality. It’s a tone that seems to resonate lower in the body without engaging the head or face. The chest tone isn’t inherently bad, but it’s not ideal for choral singing.
Renowned choral conducting pedagogue Dr. James Jordan writes:
“If one were to ask what the single most important ingredient for the building of a healthy vocal sound is, the answer most certainly would be pedagogical insistence upon head tone….Without sufficient head tone, it is almost impossible to have a wide range of dynamics, and it is next to impossible to have crescendos or decrescendos. It is also difficult to vary tone color for different musical styles….Finally, without sufficient head tone in the sound, serious pitch problems will abound.” [Jordan, James. Evoking Sound: The Choral Warm-Up. GIA Publications, 2005. Page 76.]
As you can see, encouraging head tone isn’t just about teaching your choir to produce the best sound possible. It’s also about helping them control their pitch. In my experience, children who sing exclusively with chest tone have severe difficulty staying on key, especially when the melodic line goes up high.
How to Help Kids Find Their Head Tone
So, how to find this elusive head tone? It won’t happen overnight; it’s a habit your singers must develop.
In the same passage I cited above, Dr. Jordan encourages heavy use of [u] and [i] vowels in warmups:
“Careful selection of vowels for vocalizing is directly related to head tone development. ‘Oo’ and ‘ee’ are often referred to as ‘head tone vowels.’ Of all the vowels in English, they are the two vowels that are most abundant in their capacity for carrying head tone. In essence, all vowel colors, in my opinion, should grow from a correct production of ‘oo’ and ‘ee.’ No other vowels should be used at the beginning of the warm-up process for inexperienced choirs.” [emphasis in original]
It makes sense. It’s pretty hard to sing a spread, chesty “oo” vowel. The “ee” vowel is a bit dicier, but at its best, it has a thrilling, shimmering quality. I’ve gotten good results stressing these vowels in warmups and encouraging singers to let the other three Latin vowels grow out of these two.
But what about the severe droners? I’ve found it helps to get away from the whole idea of pitch and instead focus on making sounds. Try some warmups that aren’t on specific notes:
- Hoot owls. Tell the kids to start on the lowest pitch they can comfortably hoot and gradually hoot higher. Remind the children to drop the jaw and round the lips; they’re not going to be able to access their head voice if they don’t open their mouths. Is anyone straining or forcing to go higher? Gently remind them that once they’ve reached their “ceiling,” they should keep hooting sweetly and lightly on that note.
- Sirens. Tell the kids to start on a comfortable note, slide upwards, and then slide back down. Demonstrate, and then have them follow your hand as you raise and lower it. This exercise gives the voice a stretch, yet it’s fun and helps dissolve kids’ inhibitions about singing high.
- Big sigh. Tell the kids to take a deep breath, drop the jaw, and then gather the lips as if they’re drinking a milkshake through a straw. They should sing the highest note they can hit comfortably (no screeching or forcing) and then let the pitch slide down on “oo,” gradually reaching the lowest note they can comfortably sing. Remind them to leave the jaw dropped for the entire exercise; otherwise, they’ll fall abruptly out of head tone into an unattractive chest tone. The big sigh is invaluable for reinforcing the feeling of effortless singing that rides on the breath.
I have many more ideas for helping kids match pitch, but I’ve gone on long enough for today. I look forward to sharing more in future articles. Thank you for reading!