HIS ARTICLE IS THE second installment in my three-part series (for now) on helping children match pitch. In my last article, I explained why I believe singing in head tone is a prerequisite for children to match pitch.
Now, I explained six months ago that in their first classes with me at age 4, kids learn that the most important skill of a musician is listening. I haven’t changed my stance. But I think of it this way: a child can’t show the fruits of careful listening if they’re misusing the voice. A child who is listening intently but using their voice wrong will, in my experience, always struggle to match pitch. I’ll see in their eyes that they’re entirely focused on the task at hand, but they’ll keep missing the note.
There are a few things you can do to remove obstacles to their success. I’ll cover two of them in this article.
Tip: Make everyone sing alone
When kids struggle to match pitch, there are sometimes personality issues going on. I’m not necessarily implying a lousy attitude. It could be a simple lack of confidence, extreme shyness, or the fact that Mom signed them up against their will.
For these and other reasons, I have children sing alone in each of my classes. This approach may sound aggressive or even harsh. Indeed, in the first few classes of a school year, I do encounter some reluctance. After a while, it goes away.
Don’t make a big deal out of it; matter-of-factly ask, “Who would like to try singing this alone?” Then, beginning with the volunteers, work your way around the room, and ask each child to sing a single note or simple note pattern. If children resist, use your judgment. Perhaps let them off the hook at the first couple of classes but say, “Well, I’m sure you’ll want to try next week.” I’ve found that the reticent kids warm up after a while due to positive peer pressure.
There are at least three benefits to singling everyone out. First, it’s the best way for you to evaluate each student individually. In a class of 20 kids, it can be hard to identify which two or three are singing those off-key notes.
Second, it lets the children know that each of them has a contribution to make to the class (and eventually, the choir). The message is clear: there’s no coasting along and hiding behind the other voices. If you’re here, you should be contributing to the group sound!
And third, it forces them to listen to themselves—not just the overall group sound. I’ve met adults who say, “I can’t sing alone, but I can get it if enough other people are singing.” Ah, but what if you have a choir loft full of such reticent musicians? Nobody will sing the Kyrie! We’ve got to raise the bar by encouraging our young students to sing out, alone, and not to be afraid of making a mistake.
Now, going around the room and giving everyone a chance to sing alone won’t instantly “fix” the non-matchers. But I have another trick that can do just that in some cases.
Tip: Sing in their range and timbre
If you’re a male teacher, consider demonstrating in your falsetto or asking an advanced student to demonstrate for the class.
This one is like magic for those challenging cases who simply can’t seem to match pitch. While most of my students will hear me sing a note in my octave and instinctively sing it back in their own (higher) octave, the non-matchers will sing back a different note entirely. But when I repeat the note or pattern in my falsetto, the non-matchers will match almost every time.
Here, as always, be sure to remember that the little student sitting in front of you isn’t just a voice; she’s a soul. So when I have to give a “second chance” note in my falsetto, and they sing it back correctly, I try to deflect any embarrassment. I’ll say, “Some people’s ears are just like that; it helps them to hear me sing it in my ‘other’ voice!”
My falsetto frankly isn’t very good most days (I’ve heard that, paradoxically, basses tend to have a more robust falsetto than tenors like me). So I’ve thought about putting my more advanced students to work demonstrating note patterns for their peers. They’ll provide a valuable service and stay more engaged as I go around the room.
A teacher’s timbre matters—and there’s research to back this up. In a 1990 study, children matched pitch best when the model was a child’s voice. The next best option was a woman’s voice. You can guess who finished last.
Of course, I don’t mean to let the female teachers off the hook entirely. Do be sure you’re modeling well. You may be an operatic soprano, but think back to how you sounded as a child. Make every effort to demonstrate in a voice that’s light and sweet.