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Over the years I've taught many self-diagnosed "tone deaf" individuals. Their issues have ranged from (literally) monotonous singing, to two-pitch singing, to consistently singing under or over the pitch, or wildly hitting pitches up and down the scale. Some of my students just needed a cheerleader to tell them they were actually singing in tune. Today I'll share what I've done in the past to address each of these issues.
The important consideration when teaching an individual with pitch issues is their learning style. My experience as a student has exposed me to three basic ways a teacher can teach: Mimicry, imagery, and mechanical explanation. Most of these styles can be supplemented to some extent with kinesthetic or tactile teaching. I have found that kinesthetic learning is often the key to reaching out to and correcting singers with pitch issues.
Mimicry can be a strong teaching style, but without any kind of kinesthesia along for the ride, it's really the worst way to try and teach someone with pitch issues. Simply demonstrating and asking for the student to parrot back a melody probably won't work, otherwise they'd have learned just by listening to the music around him or her. However, demonstrating correct technique while inviting the student to monitor what you're doing with their hands can be extremely helpful. When I worked with a student who literally sang one note over and over, I invited him to feel my larynx as I sang scales up and down (it can also be helpful to invite your student to monitor your diaphragm and breathing). Now, generally speaking, I've been discouraged from allowing my larynx to move around a whole lot when singing, but in this instance, as my pitch rose, I elevated my larynx a bit and as my pitch descended, I would depress my larynx. All the while, my student gently monitored this action, feeling vibrations and movement. I also demonstrated with one of my hands whether the pitch was raising or lowering. Then I asked him to monitor his own larynx and experiment while trying to reproduce what he had felt happening in my body. While he did so, I was able to offer feedback and answer questions. Sometimes I would match his pitch on the piano so that he could visually see the space between the pitches that he was singing.
In this vein of visual learning, I have also found it helpful to teach basic piano skills concurrently with singing. Once a student can match at least one pitch, then I have have him or her accompany themselves on a basic five note vocalize. It's actually been incredible to me how often students match pitches better if they are the ones playing them. When they are able to see and feel the steps on the piano their brains seem better able to make the connection to pitch. Beginning piano books that offer simple tunes a student can learn to both play and sing are very useful. Below are a few of my favorites, depending on the vocal ability of my student. You can click on the image to order them on Amazon:
Teaching visually or with imagery can also mean creating visual metaphors for the student to link correct technique to. For example, one student I had loved basketball. She was often able to approximate a pitch but was almost always flat or sharp. We talked about shooting baskets and how shots can either be over-energized or under-energized. We related this to pitch, breath, and abdominal engagement--engagement is all about being strong enough without being tense so that you can make your perfect "shot." Sometimes she would even mime shooting a basketball when hitting a specific pitch. Once we used this image, her pitch improved significantly. Being able to find an image that your student understands and relating it to singing can be hugely beneficial; the more personal the image, the better.
In general I try to avoid songs that are too familiar to my students, especially those with pitch issues. Remember, you're trying to teach a student to listen and learn in a new way. I think that singing familiar songs inevitably invites a level of unconscious laziness: "I know this song, so I'll just sing it now without bothering to listening too closely." Requiring a student to learn an unfamiliar song also requires listening. Choosing the songs, though, can be difficult, because even singing books for "young" singers might be too difficult. So, like I said, I often use children's piano books, or you can also find free folk songs on the internet. I've also really enjoy Joan Boytim's series of "easy songs" for beginning singers. Sometimes even then the songs are a little hard for certain students, but they often enjoy having a real music book with classical songs. My favorite songs are in the Soprano and Bass books; many of the soprano songs could be sung by a tenor, and most of the bass songs could be sung by a mezzo. Here are links to that series:
With my "tone-deaf" students, I also really like to explain the mechanics of singing. Mechanistic explanations often really resonate with them. I'll explain (and show, with diagrams) the structure of the larynx, the vocal folds, and how Bernoulli's principal works to create a buzz tone. I help them identify the various resonance chambers and the muscles in the larynx that are responsible for head voice or chest voice. With regard to pitch, explaining where the sympathetic vibrations are felt for both chest and head voice has been really useful. Once a student realizes that ranges of pitches can actually feel different, you've given him or her another self-monitoring tool. Providing students with self-monitoring tools is crucial; as I mentioned above, some of my students didn't even have significant pitch issues, they just needed some reassurance and cheer leading. These students need all of the most accurate self-monitoring tools you can give them in order to keep growing their confidence.
Correcting pitch issues can take time. It definitely requires patience from both the teacher and the student. I always make sure the student knows that while there is a fix, it's not a quick fix. I try to focus on the positive and point it out to my students. One student who began with me literally sang two pitches. When a melody went up she hit the higher pitch. When it went down, she hit the lower note. What I pointed out to her (and myself) was that this at least indicated that she could hear the direction the melody was going, right? And that was definitely a starting point. Another student would get discouraged every time she hit one or two wrong notes in a song. With her, I always said "94% is still an A; if you hit 1 wrong note out of 20, you still get an A! And not just for effort!" As teachers we should encourage reasonable expectations from our students and ourselves.
Don't let pitch problems discourage you! Happy Singing!
Singer, writer, mother, yogi, wife and chocolate enthusiast.