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Beginning singers: Suggestions/Philosophy for Non-Singers in Choir

Date: Mon, 2 Sep 1996 14:06:44 -0500
From: bretlisa(a)
Subject: "Poor" singer in HS Choir compilation (WARNING! VERY LONG!)

A while ago I asked for suggestions on how to deal with a new
singer in my HS choir. Situation: He is a senior, never been in choir
before, cannot match pitch. He is a nice kid, doesn't cause any problems,
but he has made it known that he is not interested in working outside of
class time on his singing. He just enjoys being with his friends in choir.
I received about 20 responses within a week! A common theme was
individual practice. I plan to (again) try and get him to come in for at
least a little while every week. Thank you all for your help. I'm going
to try as many of these suggestions as I can. Here is the compilation of
responses (with quite a bit of editing):

Bret Nason

I'm sure we can all relate to this! However the student has to realize
the responsibility he has to his other team players. If he were in
sports he would have to have individual practice in order to play on the
team. I don't see that there is a difference. I would like to
encourage you to somehow find even 15 minutes to help him. At least it
shows the importance of individual discipline for the sake of the whole.
Something to challenge him him you really care by making the
time and stressing the need!

Glenn Priest
You need to explain to him that he needs to get his voice out of speaking
range. At this point in his life, It's more psychological than anything.
No guy wants to admit that he sings above his speaking level. I would
maybe just have him play around with his speaking voice...have him imitate
a female's voice, etc...Have him speak at the lowest pitch he can,
etc...then he will realize or understand that his voice has different
pitches. Have your whole bass section do it in class. It might turn into
a comedy, but at least he will not feel alone. I also have my boys warm up
with the girls and turn it into a contest by
having them see if they can sing as high or higher than them. That's just a
simple way to get them to play around with their falsetto. After a few days
of this, plus regular singing, maybe have him come to you a few minutes after
class and tell him you want to make sure you've placed him in the right
section (a little white lie never hurt any singer). Do some warm ups..he has
to at least match some pitches. When you find the few he can match, that's
where you begin the work. But, that work must be done in some kind of
lesson. Even if it's just 15 minutes a week with him. See if one or two of
his friends wants to help out. If he is still monotone, give it a few more
weeks. Otherwise, you should really try to encourage him to come after
school, or whatever. I also found that sticking him in between your two
best basses (warn them first), he will tend to listen. Sometimes that
solves some problems too. He might just need some good leadership to train
his ear and voice.

Jennifer Badanes
1)Make sure he is always seated between the two strongest basses (hopefully
they can hold their pitch while he is wandering!)

2)Another thought - are you sure he's really a bass? Perhaps he cannot
match pitch because he's really a tenor. Try checking his range. If he's
a tenor or high baritone, make sure he sits between the two strongest
tenors during rehearsal.

3) Does he read music? If not, point out to him that the notes have a
direction, up or down, and his voice should follow that (believe it or not,
a lot of people don't get this connection until it is pointed out to them.)

Deborah Bradley
The best thing you can do for him and the group is encourage practice with
a piano outside of class time. Maybe you could find another student who
really loves music and is interested in teaching who could help you out
since you don't have the time. If you asked him what type of music he
listens to then maybe that could be a start. Everyone sings along with the
radio when they like a song, if he can do that then he has potential.

Katharyn Wilson
Your student needs audiation skills. Usually a person who cannot
match pitch does not have a bad ear but rather an ear (or the ability
to translate in the mind's ear) that cannot discriminate a discrete
pitch from the myriad of partials in each pitch that they hear.
There are numerous things that you can do of which the most
successful is to have the student observe you singing the correct
pitches in a sequence (melody?). They must watch you do this by
singing out loud first and then you mouth the music (making sure that
you are thinking the sequence clearly and accuartely). Have them
mouth the sequence only while hearing the melody in their head.
Finally, let them sing very, very breathy. Remember, people who
can't match pitch do not have bad ears, they have ears which can't
discriminate. You have to find the time to work with this person

Don Brinegar
A real problem, no doubt. ANd it's more complicated if the guy has real
potential to bring a positive attitude into the group, as this young man
may. I would suggest getting some time weekly with him and do some ear
training. It may be slow going at first, but for the duration of the
training, you must encourage/force him to LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN. And
there are no guarantees. I had 2 such situations during my high school
years, and one was only moderately succesful, but the other turned out to
be quite a good choral singer.

James Gall
I've had some success with having one of my "good" basses record the parts
on tape for the struggling singer to use in practice. Even if the boy just
plays the tape while he does his other homework, he'll be getting a better
idea of the size of the intervals. Also, it's hard not to sing along with
a tape your buddy made for you, so he'll wind up with more practice time.
Maybe you could get together with him just once and hear him sing with the
tape, so you could gauge his progress (or lack thereof)? It sounds from
your description as if he's uncoordinated vocally, not seriously impaired,
but that's just my speculation. If you have strong section leaders,
sometimes they can exert a little positive pressure on a singer to get the
notes right, by offering sectionals, encouragement, or whatever...

This is a distressing problem, especially since the student is
interested in chorus, and hasn't just been "dumped" there by his schedule
(now that's a nightmare!).

Ann Foster
First of all, if there is any way you can get this kid to show up for just
one or two coachings after school, it would be very helpful...

I have a singer who has a bit of a pitch matching problem in one of my
groups. I got together with her individually a couple of times. What we came
up with together was the following idea:

Listen more than you sing.

It is not a new idea, but basically she needed to be told that choral singing
is not about how much sound you make; it's about how well you fit into the
sound that everyone is trying to make together. Having been told to listen
more than she sang, she began work on the listening more than the singing,
and she began to match pitch much better.

Of course even if someone turns out not to be able to match pitch, just the
act of listening more is likely to help them not stand out as being so far

Martha Sullivan
I've have been teaching for many years and often have boys come to me who
can't match pitch. Unfortunately, it is difficult to help a "non-singer"
without working one on one. Try placing him with strong singers directly
behind him and on either side. Have them actually sing in his ears in
rehearsal. This sounds humiliating but if he really wants to learn to sing
he will appreciate the help. I often tell boys who are new to singing to
sing softer and listen louder. Try vocalizing in falsetto, often a boy who
has no experience, or if their voice recently changed they can match in
falsetto, start at A above middle C and work down. SOL,FA,MI,RE,DO in
falsetto. If you can find time to work with him alone or even have another
advanced student work with him, sometimes it only takes ten minutes and
something "clicks" and they're on pitch. Start by matching his pitch, repeat
this several times so he knows its correct. Then VERY SLOWLY work up the
scale. Start with DO,RE,DO; then DO,RE,MI,RE,DO, etc. eventually they get

Jeff Seaward
First, I once had this experience when I conducted an all-county h.s.
choir (pretty amazing, since they were supposed to be the best singers in
the county...). After spending the first hour saying pointedly, "one of
the basses is sharp/flat," I finally pulled the kid aside and told him
GENTLY that I thought he was probably the one and that I was sure the
problem was just that he needed to listen more. I suggested that he sing
more softly so that he could hear everyone around him better. I don't
think that he got on pitch that day, but at least he did not disrupt the
sound. If you can make some such suggestion, it will at least take care
of the immediate problem.

Second, I had this problem with a fellow who had a pretty voice but no
choral experience (it was a university men's glee club). I set up 1 or 2
1/2-hour meetings a week in which I went over notes with him. This last
about 6 months. Eventually he became the president of the group and is
still my best success story.

David Schildkret
You really need to FIND time to work with him, at least long enough
to identify the problem--ear, vocal production, pitch matching? And he
really needs to find time to work with YOU! Use a football analogy--it's
the right time of year! Tell him there's a place for him on the team, but
he has to learn the basic rules and plays so he won't mess up his
teammates. On an immediate, practical level, place him in the BACK and as
close as possible to the OUTSIDE on your risers to minimize the damage.
The psychological reasoning is that if he doesn't have people surrounding
him and singing his part in his ear, he'll tend to sing more quietly and/or
listen more carefully. I don't blame you for not wanting to cut him.

John Howell
I'm afraid you will have to put in the time and you will have to convince him
that at least a little individual work will be involved. It doesn't have to
be much - once a week for a while should do it - but after having tried it
both ways, you'll get more satisfactory and long-lasting results by working
individually with him.

My best approach in working with singers (especially males) who have
difficulty matching pitch is to start where they are. Have him sing a note,
any note, find where he is on the piano, and vocalize him from there. Do
this as many times as necessary. As his laryngeal muscles become stronger,
he'll match pitches more readily. If you both work on this together, you'll
see a lot of improvement. He may still need occasional reminders, but you'll
get more satisfactory results.

Alexa Johnson
If he is not willing to stay for help, how can you help him???? Tell him
that he may stay in the group if he meets with you at least once a week for
ten weeks. Then match his pitch first, roll around that pitch until he
begins to feel the sensation of different pitches in the skeletal area of
his face and mouth. There is no short-cut to teaching a person to match
pitch. YOU must take the initiative and teach him with your time and

Roy Klassen
Start him just speaking. Make sure it is loud. (A common problem is they
don't sing loud enough to hear themselves.) Then have him speak slower, then
longer, and longer until he is actually sustaining his speach. It is the same
as singing.

Have him sing a note and you match him. This will let him know what a match
sounds like. Then switch it. You sing and have him match you.

Get him to slide up and down. Then get him to stop on the pitch you are
singing. Make sure he knows what is correct match and not.

Continually let him know that he does not have a personal problem and that it
is only a matter of training muscles. I use the analogy of shooting a
basketball. The first time you pick one up and shoot, it falls short. The
next several times you get closer and closer until it eventually goes in.

It takes work on your part as well as his. You MUST do some individual work
with him. One minute per day. As soon as he arrives at your door and before
class starts is a good time. One minute is all it takes to do some of the
things mentioned above, but you must make the effort everyday. Eventually he
will come around. Sometimes a few days, sometimes a few months. Stick with

Greg Lapp
Normally, I would tell you to drop the kid because he's not doing
anything for the choir except to take up space. Obviously, he has a
pitch problem and with work, this can sometimes be corrected. BUT, you
said he shows NO INTEREST in staying late or doing anything extra to
solve the problem. I do not allow students to remain in my performing
groups (where MY reputation is constantly on the line) just because they
enjoy being with their friends. That's not your purpose, is it? Say

Since he is more comfortable from B-flat to F, work lots of warm-ups in that
range. (especially with just the men's section) You can also work some
finer points, i.e. polish diction, work for dynamic contrasts, achieving
textual accentuations within a very small vocal range. That way you are
challenging others more to their musical potential, while hopefully enabling
him to find his voice in his optimal range.

Transpose some of his parts into that range and stretch him up slowly by half-
steps...Jingle Bells in C, then D-flat, then D, etc. Usually this works,
particularly if is a melody line to which he can hear a strong tune. First
you have to get a tune, or segment of a tune, which he can sing in his
comfortable (or more consistent) range.

Lots of positive reinforcement to let him know when he is on it.

Lots of yawning, sighs, sirens, and vocalises to help him find an upper
range. I have found that once a guy finds his falsetto and is able to use
it, lots of things sometimes just click.

He is probably not hooking the breath at all into the singing voice, and I've
found that when approaching the top of the voice that he is able to use, just
to say "great! more air!" will enable some guys to find another area of the
voice to explore.

Using physical imagery to show where the note is supposed to be, and where
he is actually singing. It helps some people to make the connection. Having
him to show the melody with his hand can reinforce the principle of high-low.

Jim Tipps
1. Always model for him yourself, don't use the piano and expect him to match
pitch, something about the overtones makes it harder for less-adept ears.

2. Have a men's sectional where you can work with all of the guys and not put
him on the spot. (Maybe give your girls some theory work). Somethimes the
focus of a sectional environment helps.

3. If you ever get an opportunity to work with him alone, when he doesn't
match pitch, find the pitch that he is singing and YOU match it and then work
up or down to the desired note.

4. Sometimes the problem is not being able to access the head voice or
falsetto, especially if he hasn't been singing since his voice changed. Try
some 'siren' sighs, something that brings the head voice down through his
other ranges.

Good luck. I feel like I should be saying, "Physician, heal thyself" because
I know I will be facing some of the same problems. Do keep encouraging him,
and keep him involved in the group. It's a credit to you that he wants to be
in your choir.

Patricia Corbin
I'm a singer in a HS choir myself and this happened to one of my
friends. What we did was pair him up with one of his friends from the bass
section. My friend listened to his partner and got the pitch down. After
awhile, he didn't need his partner anymore. Pair him up with someone he likes
in the bass section and see what happens.

How old is the singer in question? If he did not sing through his voice
change, I have found that they often cannot match pitch particularly in
the middle of the normal range. Work with he and all your guys in falsetto
downward vocalization. Also, try sliding up and down on pitches trying to make
him listen. Don't give up I had one like this in his Jr. year that
starred in a musical and made the All State choir his Sr. year.

Gary E. Morris
Please don't kick the guy out, there COULD be some talent in there.
If you have access to a cd-rom, or some of the computer programs with
sound cards, make him do interval exercises. Its a start!
Some of us with very weak theory backgrounds are still struggling with
interval recognition from dictation practice but we press on! Tell him
others have had to work on their musical shortcomings while polishing
the things we do really well.

Patricia K. Buffington

THIS IS ME (BRET) AGAIN. Thanks to all who responded. I apologize
for the lengthy compilation, but I tried my best to edit the replies down
to the bare bones. Again, I intend to try and get this young man in for
some individual work. Maybe I just need to be more persistent! I really
appreciate all the help you gave me. May Choralist live on forever!