HANK YOU FOR READING the final installment in my three-part series (for now) on helping children match pitch. In my first article, I explained why I believe your first step should be to get kids singing in head tone. My next article shared two practical tips for running your music classes.
Today, I’ll share three more tips on what to do and how to act with your young students.
Tip: Be persistent
When a “droner” finally matches pitch for the first time, you may think you’ve finally cracked the case and can rest a little. But I’ve found that this skill can wax and wane depending on the day. Some kids can match in their sleep. Others are generally good but slip a bit here and there.
And then there are kids who come in as droners, finally start matching after some training, but then have classes or rehearsals where they struggle a bit. On those days, I’ll gently but firmly give them some extra attention, offering them several chances to match a note and asking them if they can hear that they’re a little too low (that’s almost always the case; few kids “miss high”).
When the choir or class sings as a group, you may hear droners go back to not matching pitch. Be sure to stop and remind them, “Everyone on the same pitch!” If necessary, sing the starting note again and have them hold it until you can’t hear any wayward notes. Reinforce by asking the group if they can hear how beautiful it sounds to have everyone singing exactly the same note.
Whatever you do, impress upon them that they can’t just space out and approximate—they have to listen and strive to stay on pitch all the time.
Tip: Do lots of singing
This may seem obvious. But it can be tempting to spend a great deal of class time explaining concepts, talking theory, or playing at the piano. Instead, give the kids plenty of chances to sing.
As important as it is to stop and fix the wayward voices when your kids are singing as a group, you have to pick your spots. Sometimes it’s best to let everyone sing through a song together and let it be imperfect because we should be cultivating a love for singing, not merely a skill at singing. Keep the big picture in mind. Listen for constant progress rather than constant perfection.
Tip: Love them
Are you running your music class or rehearsal like one long audition? Be sure you don’t spend the entire session pointing out mistakes and correcting wrong notes. As you’re going around the room and listening to individual singers, take a few seconds here and there to enjoy some banter. When a child is struggling, give them a more attainable goal and help them achieve it. Praise their progress, but don’t overdo it—they know when they’re being patronized.
Greet them when they come into the room. Smile. Use open, friendly body language. Ask them how their Christmas was. Doing these things with sincerity helps the kids understand that they’re not just here to meet your standards—you actually care about them. They’ll be more docile for a teacher who loves them. This eliminates a potential barrier so that their achievement will be limited by only two things: their potential as musicians and your skill as a teacher.
These intangibles matter. I’ve had kids come back from summer break matching pitch much better than they did the previous semester, even though they weren’t receiving any training over the summer. Perhaps, for them, it’s a matter of sheer will. This is not to suggest that the kids who don’t match are being stubborn or lazy, but I’m convinced that there’s much more to musical achievement than musical training. If I ever figure out exactly what it is, I’ll write lots of articles about it.
In the meantime, I’ll share an anecdote that may be helpful (and may even sound familiar). I once had three sisters in one class. One of them, “Renee,” was really having trouble matching pitch when it was her turn to sing solo. She kept singing considerably below the note I gave her, even after a few tries. Finally, one of her sisters said, “Oh, you can do it. I think you’re just being a pain!”
We all laughed. In the next class, Renee matched pitch. Now, it was incredibly quiet, and from there I had to build up her confidence to match pitch at an audible volume. But the skill was in there all along.
The Bottom Line in Helping Kids Match Pitch
I’ve found that when it comes to teaching kids to match pitch, it’s all about how you do it. If you come across as the Pitch Police, kids will be intimidated and approach music class as something they simply hope to survive without embarrassment. But if you show—through your words, tone, and body language—that you care about them and want to show them how to do something enjoyable and worthwhile, you’ll win them over. The results will sing for themselves.