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I'm a piano teacher and I currently have a student that is taking voice lessons from another teacher. Our lessons involve me accompanying her and discussing interpretation and style. She has some interesting problems with pitch matching.

Once she knows a piece pretty well, she will sing the correct notes but be significantly out of tune on many of them. Sometimes I'll try to work on these pitch issues with her. Often, if I give her a starting pitch with the piano or with my voice, it takes her 5-10 tries to find it with her voice. These attempts sound like they are complete guesses, with pitches being higher and lower (sometimes a lot higher or lower) than the correct pitch.

I've attempted visualization exercises as well as pure repetition where once she has the correct pitch, I'll have her sing that note a bunch of times and then a bunch of times in context to help her memorize what the note sounds and feels like.

None of these things seem to be helping short or long term. It's clearly a listening problem. She's not listening to the starting pitch, not listening to her voice, or both. What's baffling is that she can sing at all with such difficulty in matching pitch.

What other things can I try that may help her start to really listening to the pitch instead of guessing?

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2  
Have her look at a tuner –  Cody Guldner Apr 21 '13 at 21:03
    
@CodyGuldner If she was just a little flat or sharp that might help. But most of the time, it's that she's not even in the ballpark. Like a 6th or a 7th off sometimes. –  ecline6 Apr 21 '13 at 21:28
    
Do you think the problem is with her not being able to match the pitch mentally, physically not being able to generate the right pitch with her voice, or a bit of both? –  berry120 Apr 21 '13 at 22:28
    
@berry120 She can produce the pitch just fine, and her range is very normal (she's an alto, BTW). I believe it to be 100% mental, but I'm not a voice teacher so I'm a bit out of my element. –  ecline6 Apr 21 '13 at 22:31
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@Tim If someone sings an A but it's flat, it's still an A. It just sounds bad. : ) I disagree about never being able to match pitch. Unless there's a physical impairment to it, it's not out of reach. Personally I don't think she has any future as a singer, but that doesn't mean she should stop taking lessons. She likes it and she'll certainly learn things that applicable outside of singing too. –  ecline6 Apr 24 '13 at 16:18

6 Answers 6

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Ear training is an unfortunate problem here in America. For children during their earliest formative years, precedence is given to visual and tactile learning. While this learning is undoubtedly important, too often are ears left under-developed. If hearing were trained the same way as sight, everyone would have perfect pitch.

If I were teaching this student, I would go to the most rudimentary concepts possible and begin "calibrating" their ears. I agree that the problem partly stems from listening. I believe it is also an awareness problem in addition to lack of personal aural development.

I would begin by simply having her identify sounds: cars, birds, telephone, people talking, etc. Identifying everyday sounds should be within her capabilities and should begin to boost her confidence and attitude. Having a positive attitude is crucial to learning new information.

After identifying basic, everyday sounds, I would then work on having her differentiate between "high" and "low" sounds, starting with the piano's extreme registers. I would do this both with chords and individual notes. Next, I would gradually work my way inward toward middle C with the resulting goal of her identifying higher or lower minor-seconds.

It would also be wise to have her demonstrate high and low sounds - not necessarily musical sounds, but so that she shows and awareness in registral difference.

Once she has shown an ability to differentiate between high and low sounds, I would then play a single pitch from the center of her vocal range and ask her to match that pitch. If she is incorrect, I would ask her if she sang higher or lower than the pitch I played.

Part of the problem here is that given your explanation, I believe that she has an underdeveloped awareness of her own phonating resonance. To aid in this awareness, I would have her plug her ears and attempt to match pitch while humming, using an "mmmm" vocalization. Doing this greatly amplifies perceived phonating resonance and should diminished awareness as a variable.

Once she is able to match a given pitch, I would then work to put it in context of a two note chord, working through matching each pitch of the chord. I would use a perfect-fifth as this two note chord because the perfect-fifth is the 3rd easiest interval to hear after a unison and octave respectively.

Once she is confident in matching two-note chords, I would add the corresponding 3rd to create a major triad. I would then play matching games asking her to sing different parts of the chord; obviously varying the chord each time.

This is by no means comprehensive, and should be realistically accomplished over the course of several lessons. If she is only meeting with you once a week, you, her, and her parents will see little improvement unless she is a very conscientious student.

At the least, I hope this gets the ball rolling.

Good luck, and keep us updated.

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Thanks for the very thorough answer. I will try to implement much of what you suggest. She's an adult student, so the parts about identifying cars and birds and her parents made me chuckle a bit. : ) –  ecline6 Apr 26 '13 at 20:50
    
Ha - my apologies, from your question's context I naturally assumed she was a child. Yes, since she is an adult student it would certainly be okay to omit that step. –  jjmusicnotes Apr 26 '13 at 22:09
    
I started some exercises with her last week and she seemed to make some immediate progress. I was ill this week and couldn't meet with her so we'll see if anything stuck. Thanks everyone! –  ecline6 May 4 '13 at 21:25

You could try severals things:

  • Intervals training (you can check my answer to this question)
  • Then have her sing the root of each chords of different chords changes. Then the third, and the five.
  • Eventually, have her sing intervals that are not in the chords (play root and fifth and let her sing the thirds)

Plus the regular singing exercices:

  • five notes scales (from root to fifth)
  • octave scales
  • octave and a half scale

Preferably, humming rather than singing, to have her focus better on the note she hears.

I'll complete my answer if I think of other ideas to this.

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As a piano teacher, you'll be aware of the aural part of ABRSM,et al exams.These could be a basis for starting her pitching.When she practises at home, does she sing along to tracks, backing tracks or what. She needs to bring along whatever , to give you a better idea of how she performs with them.If she's singing acapella, it won't help pitching at all. Would be worth getting an old cheap keyboard, and you marking several notes for her to play and sing at home (although, if she's your student, she probably has a piano.......).There's no way of checking this, except by recording, but with no datum or reference point, she's never going to be able to pitch. Given that you've established her vocal range,maybe the key she's singing in doesn't suit.Try using different keys. I don't think one can get the 'feel' of a particular note easily, especially as a beginner, merely by singing it.A C will 'feel' rather like a D, etc.
My first move would be to discuss with the vox tutor.

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She does have a keyboard at home and practices singing along with backing tracks. I will have her bring them in and listen to her use them. She's been taking voice lessons for over a year and lessons with me for about 4 months. I definitely plan on discussing with her voice teacher as well. –  ecline6 Apr 22 '13 at 17:24

I am a voice teacher and I would add that many pitch issues are actually registration issues, i.e. coordinating the different registers of the voice, or other issues of vocal production. The singing technique of the student is almost certainly an issue. It is a mistake to think that all or even most pitch issues related to hearing. If I were you I would definitely want to talk with this student's voice teacher as well, to create an approach that is not contradictory for the student. There is no way to diagnose a student without hearing her, however.

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Listening to myself through a microphone and headphones solved most of my problems with pitch. I spent a very long time dealing with this issue.

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1  
Can you elaborate on what your specific issues were and how you solved them? What was the aha! moment? –  ecline6 Apr 23 '13 at 18:16

Don't give her random pitches without any context. Instead give her pitches that are intervals against a tonal center. Develop her sense of relative pitch, first.

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