This post discusses strategies for teaching some of the most difficult subjects encountered in vocal instruction:

  • How to Teach Pitch Matching
  • How to Teach Vibrato
  • How to Teach a Dysfunctional Voice to Negotiate the “Dead Zone”

How To Teach Someone to Match Pitch

At one time or another, every choral conductor has encountered enthusiastic singers who have trouble matching pitch. What is the best way to handle this situation? One could simply label the students as “tone deaf,” prohibit them from joining the choir, and avoid working with them altogether. However, a more humane, educational approach for the enlightened choral conductor is to teach the students how to acquire pitch-matching skills. Through effective pedagogy, and given time for experience and skill building to take place, the false and unproven “tone deaf” label is discarded and doors are opened for students to participate in unlimited singing opportunities.

The first step to teach pitch matching is to understand why people have trouble in the first place. It is usually matter of inexperience; they have not been singing in an organized forum where pitch is important. A lack of coordination exists to match pitches they hear “outside” of themselves to what their voice needs to produce from the “inside.” Inexperienced singers need to learn to hear themselves better and to become accustomed to their own vocal self-image. Often, they have not used much expressive flexibility in their speaking voice either. They may talk in a monotonically and will rarely incorporate much pitch variation in their speech patterns. The muscles that control these tonal qualities, therefore, are completely out of shape, probably under-developed, and definitely under-used. Since an inability to sing tunefully is most likely a combination of these factors, the process of teaching someone to match pitch must take all of this into account.

An introductory exercise encourages students to become acquainted with the expressive possibilities of their speaking voices. This is accomplished by having the students imitate speech patterns that utilize obvious pitch changes. The student should echo the teacher with dramatic expressions that emphasize varied ascending and descending inflections, such as “How are you today?” or “I’m fine!” or “Whoa!” or “Whee!” or “Hey!” The process then continues with sighs or sirens or an owl-like “who” or a “moaning Myrtle or Merle.” Be spontaneous and fun – think theater games! – and have students enjoy the expressive potential of their voices. Such dramatic activity is a good vocal icebreaker as well, because it leads to initial success, get the voice moving, and paves the way for more specific pitch work to follow.

Once the general concept of pitch variance in the speaking voice has been activated, the student is ready to begin more focused activities to match specific notes. Here is a step-by-step method for teaching someone to match pitch:

1. Begin with super-expressive echo speech as described above. Develop awareness of voice and pitch in general. Monitor student for ability to move voice up and down. Use gesture or theatrical games to encourage even more pitch flexibility. Freely move spoken pitch through contrasting ranges (registers).

2. Sing or play on the piano mi-re-do [m-r-d] in comfortable medium range. Notice three pitches are used with a melodic context to aid comprehension of pitch. Have student echo-sing just the first three notes to the solfege syllables or use the familiar song, Three Blind Mice. If they do not match your version, try to find the pitches (or general pitch area) where they do sing it correctly and repeat it immediately. In other words, you’re matching them first, if necessary, and proceed from there.

3. Move starting pitch up or down by half steps and see if they are able to follow. If using the piano, it is best for you to play it first, then sing it for them, and then have them sing it back. Observe if they are more successful following you or the piano, as it sometimes makes a big difference. For example, often a male can match a singing male voice better than they can the tone of a piano; or sometimes, a female can match her head tone better to a male teacher’s falsetto; or, usually, a male can match the lower tones on a piano better than a female teacher’s head (or even chest) tone. Experiment, as there can be much variation here. Aim for success!

4. If students are having real trouble with this, perhaps they simply cannot “hear” what they are doing. Them them to “cup their ear(s)” with their fingers and bring the palm(s) forward. This usually produces immediate results. They are now hearing themselves from the “outside” and may make the necessary adjustment on the “inside.” Run the m-r-d pattern a number of times with, then without, the ear cupping. See how it works. They will develop the ability to hear (feel) themselves from the inside better as they become accustomed to feeling the sensation of success.

5. As you continue with the m-r-d pattern, explore low and high ranges. It is best to begin where it is comfortable before proceeding to pitches in more extreme ranges. You should also explore head and chest ranges to see if pitch matching improves according to register; this is highly individual and is related to how one uses their speaking voice.

6. Next, you may want to introduce some basic vocal techniques. If they are having trouble matching, this may help them find their voice. If they are improving, singing better will help them to gain more confidence. A descending 5-note pattern (s-f-m-r-d) on “vee” [vi] is a good place to start. (Note: the “ee” [i] vowel (bright, high, and forward) is the easiest to hear and feel in the singing mechanism. The pitched-“v” helps to propel the sound forward on a mini-burst of air.) Explore and extend ranges with this vocalise. Remember gender differences as singers move from a more focused vowel to a more open vowel into the extremes:

  • Female: modify “ee” [i] to “ah” [a] for transition to top of the head voice; change “ee” [i] to “oo” [u] to “oh” [o] to “ah” [a] for descent into chest voice;
  • Male: keep the “ee” [i] into the top, open vowel to “ah” [a] into lower                         register.

7. Another vocalise that is helpful to improve pitch is one that encourages good vowel production. Poor pitch is often the result of mistuned resonators, or simply put: bad vowels create poor pitch. This sustained vocalise is recommended: “ah” [a]-“eh” [E]-“ee” [i] -“oh” [o] -“oo…..” [u] on s-s-s-s-s-f-m-r-d.

8. Next, proceed to echo patterns accompanied by the Curwen hand signs and make transition to solfeggio. Begin with brief familiar patterns (s-m; s-l-s; m-r-d) and expand to longer ones. Encourage excellent pitch, reinforced by quality vowel shapes and good singing, in a comfortable range. The solfeggio helps to strictly define the pitches and gives an inexperienced singer a handle to grasp for reference and stability.

9.  With their comfort level now established, explore more extreme ranges. In men, the development of falsetto is especially helpful. Often, men will match better in falsetto than in the chest/head voice! This will give them ringing sensations in the head, a feeling of “up” to their vocal production, more animated facial expression, better use of air flow, and a healthy workout for their voice. Developing the falsetto helps the entire instrument to work better (high and low registers). Bring falsetto down into the “light mix” production of chest/head register, with suggestions that tones should have a similar ringing sensation, even if the registers (like gears) are different. Inexperienced singers will have a difficult time with this, but planting the seed is valuable.

10. Practice, practice, practice: Listen, Think, Hum, Sing. Hopefully this introduction to voice matching will bring about successful results, however, continued practice is required to fine-tune the coordination of hearing and singing pitches. Students must be given the tools to practice on their own. Here are some suggestions:

  • Bring the student around to the piano keyboard and show them where they are working at matching pitch (notes of their range, etc.)
  • Play a single pitch and have the student: (1) listen carefully to the pitch; (2) think the pitch; (3) hum the pitch; (4) sing the pitch on “vee” [vi] or “vah” [va];
  • Continue this process for single notes throughout the student’s range;
  • Show students exactly what you are doing and have them do it. Monitor students as they do it a couple of times. This will allow them to practice effectively on their own. Suggest they do this often: at least three times a day for 5-10 minutes each session.
  • If they are successful at single notes, suggest they sing patterns from a given note using the same process: (1) play a pitch; (2) listen to the pitch and think a pattern: m-r-d; (3) hum the first pitch; and (4)  sing the first pitch followed by the pattern.

11. Demonstrate how well an expert (you) can do this. Have students play any pitch on the piano while you sing it back immediately. Use a variety of your own registers to show how an extended range and fully developed voice operates and how quickly the listen-think-sing process works.

12. Encourage the student to practice on their own and schedule regular appointments with them to monitor their progress. Assign them a song to prepare, as the ultimate goal of tuneful singing is the application to a successful performance.

The final step in the process is to have your student audition for a choral ensemble in your program so that you might observe their profound growth and artistic triumph. As choral conductors, we must always keep in mind that we are also voice teachers – perhaps the only one many of your students will ever have – and we must accept the responsibility to teach our students to use their instruments to the best of their ability for a lifetime of participation in the choral art.

How To Teach Someone to Sing with a Vibrato

First, What is (and isn’t) a Vibrato?

  • An even fluctuation of pitch that doesn’t draw attention to itself and enhances warmth, depth, sensitivity, and naturalness in a sung tone.
  • The product of a freely functioning voice caused by a variety of factors: myoelastic (musculature), aerodynamic (air flow/pressure), and acoustical (phonation and resonance).
  • It is not a tremolo (which draws attention to itself by being too fast) or a wobble (which draws attention to itself by being too slow).
  • Non-vibrato or straight tone, while a stylistic feature in some styles, signals that a voice is not completely free; something is being held (tense vocal musculature, lack of air flow, faulty air flow/air pressure ratio) or resonators are not completely “in tune” with the pitch being phonated.

Why is Vibrato Important?

  • It is a signal that the singing is correct (free, well-produced, balanced, expressive).
  • It improves musical qualities, such as timbre (warmth) and intonation, and allows the voice to find its own best resonance. This results in improved negotiation of register transitions, an even scale from the top to the bottom of one’s range, and, usually, extension of range in both directions (high and low).
  • Ultimately, a voice with a well-produced vibrato serves the music better. Even in styles where a straight tone is required, vibrato is often employed as an ornament (e.g., early music to produce affect or as cadential ornaments; contemporary styles on sustained long notes at ends of songs).

A Strategy to Discover and Cultivate a Vibrato:

  1. Teach GOOD VOCAL TECHNIQUE (functional unity of posture and alignment, breath management, phonation, resonation, and articulation). If this doesn’t produce a vibrato naturally – as a sign of a freely functioning voice!! – go to the next step.
  1. IMITATE a stereotypical, over-the-top, vibrato-crazed opera star. Have student fully engaged their singing and let it go! Suggest that they not worry about what they sound like: be someone else – act!! Or, try some other playful imitation, i.e., have them sound like the cowardly lion from the The Wizard of Oz, “I am the King of the Fo – re – eh- ehst!” If this doesn’t produce a vibrato, go to the next step.
  1. Create vibrato through a FULL BODY SHAKE, which is the complete shaking of the body, which will simultaneously shake the sung tone. Actually, if the singer is committed to strongly holding onto their straight tone, you (the teacher) can turn around and just listen: you might be surprised that this activity produced a nice vibrato. . . it just looks kind of funny! This step is necessary to unlock a rigid body, of which the voice is a part, and to get some kind of vibrato going. Of course, it’s completely silly, but it does blend some pitch fluctuation into the singing sound, which the singer will hear on their lesson recording. Hopefully, this will inspire them to be receptive in having their natural vibrato emerge. The goal is for the natural vibrato to magically appear in their own singing, and it usually happens when least expected. Proceeding from the full body shake through the following steps further encourages this.
  1. Transfer full body shaking to only a SHAKING HAND (or two); make sure voice is still wavering with the physical movement. Again, the “vibrato” may be completely “unnatural” at this point, but go with the flow. The goal is to have something continuing to happen!
  1. Stop shaking the hand(s) and put it (them) down, with the voice still shaking. Again, may still seem unnatural at this point, and that’s ok, but let’s call this step: NATURAL.
  1. It is possible to run steps (3) through (5) above in succession during one vocalise. For example, sing sol-fa-mi-re-do on a suitable vowel in a comfortable range, then sustain do and while holding do FULL BODY SHAKE…HAND SHAKE…NATURAL. Continue for a number of repetitions, and then try the vocalise with a feeling of stillness, but without holding/locking the body/breath.
  1. PRACTICE…practice…practice! Rome wasn’t built in a day! Remember: this is a multi-faceted, evolutionary process that requires the development, balance, and coordination of the entire vocal mechanism.

While there may be immediate results and a rapid transference to naturalness, most likely continued practice and passing of time is necessary. Eventually, with attention to good vocal technique, elimination of unnecessary tension, and an energized breath stream, a natural vibrato will emerge as the product of a freely functioning voice.

Bridge Over Trouble Water: Improving Dysfunctional Singing and Negotiating the “Dead Zone”

You will occasionally encounter a student who has trouble singing certain pitches. It could be something simple like a cold or flu where inflammation is keeping the laryngeal musculature from working properly. Of course, most importantly, if it hurts, student shouldn’t be singing anyway and vocal rest is the best remedy. In the adolescent voice, this is could be due to the voice change which will, in time, be completed and the voice will return. Here, you can help the student with attention to good vocal technique and a brief discussion about how patience and trusting the flow of time will solve these issues related muscular growth and coordination. Also, be sensitive to the possibility of more serious medical problems, especially if the issue has persisted for a long time, such as the beginning growth of nodules or, very common today, acid reflux. If it seems serious, call the parents and recommend that the student visit an E-N-T (otolaryngologist) for examination, information, and treatment.

If all of the above has been considered, and you still feel comfortable working with the student vocally, listen to what happens as the student sings. Damaged vocal fold function is often signaled by the presence of at least one “dead zone,” where particular notes fail to sound. These are prevalent most often at register transition points, particularly in the middle voice where the qualities of chest and head registers are “shared” to create the middle register. For women, this is usually somewhere in the middle of the treble staff. In the course of singing a scalar passage, for example, there may be a complete interruption in the vocal fold vibration, resulting in a “break,” a “rough patch,” or even a halt to the tone altogether (“dead”), often followed by a touching in the neck area, throat clearing, or a hacking cough. These physical maneuvers are often accompanied by other body language that signals a familiar frustration, including a look of “what just happened?,” a defeated postural stance, or even a slight tear in the eye. A disturbance is definitely felt “in the throat” or on the vocal folds themselves. Not a comfortable situation.

In dealing with this issue when working with a number of singers, I have found the following strategies to work well in bringing the voice back to life in this zone:

  1. Strengthen the head tone!
  2. Improve use of supra-glottal resonation, i.e., more spacious resonation.
  3. Encourage a feeling of lift in resonators and facial expressions.
  4. Bring head tone down through the middle voice through descending vocalises to blend registers more effectively.
  5. Cultivate healthy chest tone, where it is neither pressed nor heavy in phonatory quality.
  6. Blend head tone into chest register, enrich head tone with balanced connection to chest register. As a matter of fact, strive for BALANCE in all things!
  7. Work registers separately at first, with goal of bringing them together. This will develop the habits, skills, and musculature necessary to coordinate smooth transitions.
  8. Listen for vibrato as final factor that success is achieved; it is the product of a freely functioning voice.
  9. Notice look of ease, satisfaction, and accomplishment as singer negotiates a once trouble area with confidence and finesse!