Reply To: "Tone deaf" child playing trombone

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I don’t really like the term “tone deaf”; it’s probably more accurate to say that she has very low tonal aptitude, or possibly that she is in an early stage of her tonal development (so, possibly developmentally delayed in terms of her musical development). If I had her in a general music class, I would work with her on just matching ONE pitch to start out: the resting tone of whatever song we are singing, making sure that the pitch is in a comfortable singing range for her. (This pitch would be ‘do’ if the song is in major tonality or ‘la’ if it’s minor tonality.) A fun way to do this is to sing a song, then periodically during the song, stop and toss a foam ball, beanbag, etc. to the student and have them sing the pitch–then resume singing the song. Or sing the song all the way through and then toss them the ball to sing the pitch. This is the kind of activity I would start out with in pre-K or kindergarten in working on pitch matching skills–the majority of young children can’t match pitch when they start school, but with repeated practice of hearing the same pitch over and over, most of them eventually will be able to match for that one pitch… and then you can add additional pitches from there: 3-note stepwise pitches, the V-I (‘so-do’) pattern, or different combinations of tonic or dominant chord pitches. The older kids still enjoy activities with the ball and it’s a good way to get them to feel less self-conscious about using their singing voice. But my advice is that you need to start with just the one skill of matching one pitch before you expect her to have success with multiple pitches to sing/play a melody. Also, you could play a lot of same/different games with her–you sing or play two patterns of pitches and she has to tell if they’re same or different. But you might need to do this over and over and give her lots of experiences before she really gets it. With the trombone, maybe just work on playing rhythms and staying on one pitch that’s easiest for her. Also, you can try to find a range where she seems comfortable with her voice and match what she is doing… don’t worry about whether or not she can tell the difference or not… she may be in a stage where she is not yet able to distinguish differences in pitch.

I know that this isn’t going to help her catch up to where she should be to be on grade level any time soon, but if she hasn’t had these experiences in elementary school to help develop her sense of pitch, she’s going to struggle and just fall further behind. To think about this from a developmental standpoint, here is some info on different stages of musical development: Now, these are approximate ages that children would go through these stages during early childhood; however, even adults who have not had adequate experiences that help them to develop their sense of pitch or rhythm could still be in the “acculturation” stage, where they may be purposefully making sounds or movement (I’m sure you’ve seen adults who have little sense of rhythm and can’t clap or dance to the beat!) but may not be aware that their sound/movement doesn’t fit in with the context of the music. Some people also learn much slower than others or may need additional time or experiences before they begin to make these connections on their own.

Maybe another suggestion might be to switch her to a different instrument where having a good sense of pitch isn’t as essential? With trombone, not only do you have to hear the differences in the partials, but for younger kids (and girls/women) you have to hear them in the octave below your natural singing voice (even if she’s not matching anything with her singing voice right now, the trombone still sounds in the octave below where she would be able to produce most pitches in her singing range). Maybe percussion would be good–perhaps she has a good sense of beat and rhythm even though her tonal aptitude is low (I’ve seen this quite a bit–some kids who struggle with matching pitch using their singing voices will just shine when you give them a percussion instrument to play). Or maybe clarinet or sax, where (most of the time–ideally 🙂 ) when you’re pressing down the correct keys or covering the correct holes, the right note comes out. See how her rhythm skills are (maybe have her echo rhythm patterns) and then check with the parent, explain that she’s struggling with hearing the pitches for trombone, but she might have more success with this other instrument. I’m sure low brass players are at a premium 🙂 but you need to make sure that the instrument that a child is playing is the best fit for her/him to have success. (Differentiating instruction….)