As part of our current work on tone deafness we’ve also been exploring the issue of singing in tune.
To some people this comes easily, naturally. For others it can be a mysterious skill which they believe they are simply incapable of.
The ability to reliably sing in tune depends on your ears. If you are tone deaf, you won’t be able to sing in tune. Fortunately there are very few people who are truly tone deaf. The rest just need some pitch ear training and then a bit of practice to develop the feedback loop between voice and ears.
Among those who think they are tone deaf, there is normally some kind of emotional barrier to overcome before they can sing in tune. A lack of confidence due to negative comments in the past, or simple fear of the unknown can both cause reluctance to try singing. This goes double during those difficult school years.
In recent weeks I’ve spoken with a number of music educators who specialise in helping people learn to sing in tune and it’s been fascinating to hear how they tackle these issues of ears, voice and emotion.
Today I wanted to share with you some of the tips and techniques they have found most effective.
George Bevan, Monkton Combe School
George Bevan is the Director of Music at Monkton Combe School, near Bath in England. He previously wrote a guest article for us about his “Choir Who Can’t Sing” and so he was one of the first people I turned to for advice on helping people learn to sing in tune.
In talking to George it became clear he has a well-practiced method for leading students from not singing at all to singing in tune reliably with a choir. Having taught hundreds of singers he has only found one he believed might truly be “tone deaf” – and even that one he wasn’t sure about!
Begin by helping the student find “their note”: the note which comes naturally and easily from their “lazy” speaking voice.
You can start by having them say something, and then asking them to sing a note around the pitch range they were speaking in. Find that note for them on the piano to identify it. Then practice singing it back and forth with them.
Once they have “their note” you know you can always return to this anchor if they start to lose confidence or get lost.
→ Read more about George’s teaching on the Music@Monkton blog
Thomas Kay, The Edara Method
Thomas Kay is one of the co-founders of an innovative musicianship course taught in London: the Edara Method. Singing is an integral part of how they teach relative pitch skills to students of all ages. He has found that students ears are almost never the sticking point – it’s their vocal production which needs work.
First help the student produce a loud and long note. Normally students struggle to sing in tune because they simply struggle to sing!
Most nervous singers will sing too quietly or stop singing the note too soon. This means their ears never have a chance to listen to the note they are producing, and don’t have a chance to correct their pitch based on what they hear.
Encourage the student to sing loud and long, and to listen to the sound they’re making. More often than not, this is all that’s necessary for them to start self-correcting and singing in tune.
Amy Nielsen, Tune It Up
Amy Nielsen is a music educator from Utah who has taught voice lessons to students of all ages. She is currently developing a new online course to teach people to sing, starting from the very basics: how to sing in tune.
Like George, Amy has found that using a monotone speaking voice as a stepping stone from speaking to singing can be a useful way to help students get started. From there she uses a clever approach to build towards note-to-note pitch movement.
Use pitch sweeps to help students find their way to target notes. At first students may have trouble directly singing back a heard note. However their ears are normally sensitive enough to pitch-matching that you can ask them to sweep upwards or downwards in pitch until they reach the target note.
As their vocal pitch moves and coincides with the target note, they hear the consonance and stop sweeping. By finding notes gradually in this way they begin to connect their ears with their voice and are soon able to sing back target notes directly.
A person’s ears are rarely the reason they can’t sing in tune. Generally the ears are quite capable of judging matched pitches. The trick to helping reluctant singers is to get them producing notes (any notes!) which are long and strong. Starting from their speaking pitch can be very effective for this. Then encourage them to start listening in to the pitch they are producing and experiment with pitch sweeps to work towards note transitions.
Thanks to our three experts for sharing their insights on teaching students to sing in tune.
Do you have teaching experience or tips of your own to share? We’d love to hear from you by email or in the comments below!