“You can work one-on-one with students to improve their pitch,” says choral expert Janice Smith. The process can take weeks or even months, and the student must trust the teacher and want to learn to sing.
- Warm-ups and vocal exploration help the student relax and focus. Stretching the rib cage and doing shoulder rolls may improve posture and breathing.
- Start with a note the student can sing. Ask the student to sing that note, then sing it back to him or her. Have the student hold the note for 5 seconds, then 10, then longer. “Many unpitched singers,” says Smith, “don’t use enough air to sustain a pitch.” Ask the singer to try a different note, than repeat the process.
- Sing short rhythmic passages on a single note to see if the singer can accurately echo the rhythms.
- Describe to the student this four-step process and try to implement it: (1) Student listens as teacher sings a note; (2) Student thinks the note inside his or her head; (3) Student sings it back to the teacher; (4) Student decides whether the sound was the same as the teacher’s. If the student answers incorrectly, using a nonjudgmental voice, let the student know the correct answer, then repeat the process several times. Repeat questions to see if the student can answer more accurately the second time—often he or she can.
- Sing the student’s preferred pitch, then another pitch, and ask the student if the second one is the same or different from the first. Start with widely different pitches, then make the difference increasingly less pronounced. Correct as needed, e.g.: “No, the two sounds were not the same. The second sound was higher than the first. Here they are again. [Sing both pitches.] Let’s do another pair. Remember to think the sounds in your head before you answer.”
- Next step: Have the student echo two-note patterns, starting with whole steps above and below to create patterns using mi, re, and do. If the descending minor third is successful, attempt sol, mi, la patterns. Once 5-note patterns are successful, use range-extension exercises until the patterns can be sung in any key.
- Don’t use a piano or other instrument. As Smith states, “the best model for human singing is a human voice that can sing in the same range as the student’s.” Male adolescents will be best able to reproduce a male model, and children can most easily echo other children’s or women’s voices.
- To be sure unpitched singers can hear themselves, try a flexible piece of tubing such as a vacuum-cleaner hose or some PVC piping. Have the student hold one end near one ear and the other end in front of the mouth. Cupped hands can also serve this purpose.
- Make sure all singers are getting proper breath support. Above-pitch singers also benefit from proper support. Try downward glissandos that stop on a specific pitch.
Adapted from “Every Child a Singer: Techniques for Assisting Developing Singers” by Janice Smith, Music Educators Journal, November 2006, pp. 32–34.
MENC member Janice P. Smith is an associate professor of music education at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, City University of New York, Flushing. She is also the coauthor of Minds on Music: Composition for Creative and Critical Thinking (MENC / Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2009).
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–Ella Wilcox, September 22, 2010, © National Association for Music Education