Handling a Monotone singer
Here are the responses I received from the wonderful people of this
listserve! I appreciate hearing all of your suggestions and thoughts
about my question.
After reading all of the responses below, I am going to change my
original thought on the matter. Instead of encouraging her to take up
different electives, I will get the student into one of my high school
choirs, work with her individually, talk with her about blending, and
finally arrange a sign between the two of us where I can indicate to her
that she is sticking out.
I have tried many of the suggestions below when working with students
who have trouble matching pitches. I believe that everyone is capable of
doing so (with enough work and if there is the desire on the part of the
student). I have kept the responses complete so that others on the
listserve may refer to ways of helping people learn to match pitches.
Here is the original question I sent out:
"I need your advice on the matter of monotone singers. I have an 8th
grade girl who has sung with me for two years and sang in her upper
elementary choir for two years. Neither that teacher nor I have had any
success teaching her to match pitches to much of any degree. Her fellow
choir members work hard to avoid sitting next to her as she loves to
sing and does so rather loudly. She is a special needs student and may
very well be in a self-contained classroom in high school next year
anyway. However, she really wants to sing in the high school where I
I really don't know what to do. I'm torn between my role as teacher to
this student and teacher to the other students. What I would like to do
is continue working with her individually to see if we can't make some
better progress, but her history tells me it probably just isn't going
to happen. As a teacher, I hate to give up on anyone. But, I also want
the experience of singing in choir to be as positive as possible for the
other students also. It's hard to work on blend and other musical issues
when someone in the section is not capable of singing with everyone else
in the section.
What have others of you done with any similar students?"
Here are the responses I received:
1. That's a tough situation! I think the best thing that can be done is
work with the student one-on-one. It's not fair to the other students
keep her in choir, but just as importantly, not fair to her to put her
a situation where she has no hope of succeeding, and in fact one where
will be ostracized and perhaps ridiculed. I'm not saying you did that
intentionally, but I think all of us, in our efforts to help singers
that, can forget that aspect.
If she has been singing in choirs for 3-4 years and not shown any
improvement, then the chances are, she may not be able to make any
but if she is, I would think it would be in a situation where she could
worked with individually. I think you'll probably have to find the
her speaking voice or have her sing a tone, and help her recognize where
that pitch is. You'll then probably have to work slowly expanding her
range, if at all.
Let me ask a couple of questions. If you make a sigh, puppy whine or
"whoop," does she match you on the same pitches and in the same
range/octave? If so, then I would think there would be some hope. When
singing in the choir, is she "never" on pitch, or just stray frequently?
Does she sing the melody an octave lower? Sometimes, these things can
related to registration, or helping students isolate their head voices
opposed to their chest and speaking voices).
You didn't say what kind of "special needs" she has. Does she have a
of notation and rhythms? If so, and if she is unable to learn to match
pitch, perhaps she can still gain the benefits from music by learning to
play the recorder or handbells.
Basically, some window of opportunity for learning passed for this girl
never caught up. One approach is to find "their note," and work
to expand the range above and below that note. If the child has
normal inflexion in her speaking voice, she is capable of developing
it in her singing voice.
I would suggest one-on-one work rather than choir for her at this
point, and if you do not, yourself, have good Kodaly training and
experience, perhaps with a teacher who has such a background.
If you are lucky enough to have several choirs at your high school, the
other kids could aspire to be in a better group as they improve, and the
monotone will always be in the lowest group. I have a colleague who has
similar problem, and the other kids learn to respect and encourage their
lowest choir, which is full of special needs kids. They always get a
applause even if they don't sound nearly as good as the other groups.
there needs to be a place for these kids to have an outlet for whatever
of music they can make, and a place that encourages their own
If you have only one choir, then the solution is less simple, but
I think you should keep her in the choir. After all, this is a public
school, which is egalitarian by nature. The band is able to be more
selective because it assumes that a student can play (or can learn to
and instrument and read music, but choirs don't generally have the good
fortune to have such standards in the public schools.
Perhaps you could get around this by offering an extra-curricular choir
special needs kids with little musical skills and work with them all
together in that setting, if they can't have a slot in the school day.
I have had the same problem with several special needs students. My
handbook at the high school level says that all students must be passing
class and singing on pitch in order to participate in concerts.
is also a part of the performance privilege.
We do a lot of music theory in class and learn all music on fixed-do
My administration has been very supportive of that policy. That way
be in the class but not distract from the rest of the choir at concerts
Balancing this sort of thing is tough, but at some point you have to
decision. Mine would be for the greater good of the ensemble. I would
at this as two goals: the primary one being the development and strength
the ensemble, and the secondary one being the musical development and
happiness of the special needs student.
I think we as teachers often let our sense of compassion and sensitivity
the desires and passions of our students cause us to lose perspective of
whole. Life can be cruel sometimes, and it is also our role as teachers
help our students realize that they will sometimes be handed a defeat.
I'm sure that all of your other students realize the extra lengths to
you have gone in order to help this student fit in. And to a point, I'm
sure you have earned great respect for your carefulness. But if they
frustrated by trying to get away from this student, that may turn into
resentment towards you for allowing this situation to continue over time
affect their group. As the leader, you need to make a cut, just as
done in any other organization under similar circumstances, in order to
preserve the effectiveness of the whole.
Finally, here is a true story that migh help you: I had a 93 year old
who started to come to my choir rehearsals. She couldn't sing at all,
made noises reminiscent of a chicken squawking. It was a pastoral issue
that cut both ways. She had been "banished" from her family because
didn't want to care for her, and put into a house they owned in this
town outside of New Haven, Ct. All she lived for was choir practice and
church. But the soprano section got so upset that they threatened to
en masse, if I didn't do something.I struggled with this for several
talking with the pastor, etc., when finally the woman solved the issue.
rehearsals she would sing away, especially in vocal warmups, but on
Sundays she mouthed the words! Everyone was happy: she could stay
in the group and the sopranos sounded good.
This is a very difficult position. I'm right there with you. For the
few years I've dealt with a wide range of special needs students in my
choir. I make sure that I work with them individually. I also talk
them about how the ensemble is about lots of voices mixing to make a
sound. Many times this will help me then approach the individual singer
sing more quietly. I also have non-special needs students that sing too
loudly not on pitch. I think the best way to handle all of these
is to be as tactful as possible. I never discourage a student from
participating in choir. I believe for many of my students, they find
way into the choir room because they kind of find their niche in the
I have run into this problem as well. Most of mine though are special
needs students. I was able to work with their classroom teacher and
she (as she is also a singer) talked with him about blend. It has been
better but the kids around him still have trouble. Fortunately, they are
polite enough not to laugh. Next year I am dividing the choirs into a
select and an non-select. My problem now is...I don't want my non-
select choir to be full of monotones! This is my first year teaching and
I would love to hear what others say.
I've been there! I'd suggest continuing individual work. I'd also
suggest being up front with her about the need for everyone's voice to
blend into the section, and then coming up with some sort of secret
sign between you letting her know when you can hear her. I have this
arrangement with a HS student right now, and while it isn't perfect, it
has improved things dramatically. She is much better at matching pitch,
and much more self-aware of not matching.
Have you tried having her cup her hand behind her ear to hear herself
better? Or you can try a long flexible tube (I use one of those toys
that you swing around to make a whistling sound) that she can sing into,
and bring the other end to her ear to hear herself? Or have you tried
working at the piano, starting with a pitch she CAN sing, and then have
her move up and down note by note matching pitches until she can hear
what she is doing? Perhapse she needs her hearing checked?
I am a voice teacher in Los Angeles who has had good success with
singers, both in choral situations, as well as class and private voice
Often singers with difficulty matching pitch, have some learning
such as dyslexia, ADD/ADHD or problems with memory, etc. I have best
with the use of the lip trill and tongue trill to get them coordinating
production with air flow, while working against a wall to also control
neck and chest/shoulder position. But I am also now convinced that
singers have had early ear/hearing disfunction (middle ear infections
3-5 years of age) and then their hearing discrimination delays are
by the emotional blocks of the reactions of others when they are "off
Very often they have been told they can't sing or should not sing. You
to be commended that you have continued to include her in a group. I
your idea of working with her a bit by herself is an excellent idea. I
suggest 5 or 10 minutes a day, perhaps before classes or between
Especially have her do vocal "slides", starting as high as she can
especially on tongue or lip trills and "catch" her pitch on the way down
using a five tone descending scale. Work from light to heavy mechanism,
she is probably caught in her speaking voice. If I can be of help let
I am just now experimenting with the use of the Tomatis method with one
former "monotone" singers. He has also made tremendous gains with some
lessons with an Alexander teacher. He was a "very serious monotone" in
community college, and now is minoring in music at a State University
learning his first lyric tenor aria as well as singing pop rock top
You may find that your student will improve her academic work as she
her pitch matching.
You pose a vital and complex question. And I appreciate your concern
and willingness to help the singer. There are too many in our
profession who would not, and say that such a singer has no place in a
choir. In the same way our schools provide remedial help for students
who have reading problems, if we believer singing is a vital
life-skill, we should be willing and able to provide remedial help for
those who have singing problems. There should be a place for them in
Pitch matching requires that
1. The singer can actually hear the pitch, i.e., that the ear and its
mechanism are actually receiving the sound and translating it into
impulses that can be interpreted by the brain.
2. The singer's brain can accurately interpret the signals sent by the
ear, then send the proper adjustments of the vocal folds and breath
pressure to accurately produce the pitch.
3. The breathing and larynx can do what the brain is telling it to do.
That being said, a "glitch" along any one of these paths can create a
pitch matching problem. Matching even one pitch is an incredibly
complex process that is often taken for granted by those of us who can
match pitch. Matching a whole song-ful of pitches, and then being able
to hold the line against a counterpoint, no matter how simple, and the
complexity is mind-boggling.
I firmly believe, however that everyone can be taught to match
pitch--if the "monotone" singer has a desire (and your singer
apparently does), and the teacher is willing to take the time (and you
apparently do). My experience (over 30 years in middle school) bears
I usually start by making sure the singer knows that singing differs
from speech in that singing is "sustained" and "connected," rather than
detached. I will have the singer do some sustaining sounds--on
whatever pitch their voice produces. I would also work with them on
connecting the breath to the voice at this stage.
Once the singer can produce a sustained sound, have them vary the pitch
of the sustained sound. I don't give them a pitch to match, I just let
them explore various pitches with "try a higher (or lower) pitch." A
variation is to have the singer produce a sustained tone, stop, take a
breath, then sing the same tone they were singing (i.e., matching their
After the singer gets proficient at this, I will then ask the singer to
sustain a tone, and then I will match their pitch, then ask them to
change pitches, and then I match the new pitch, etc. A variation is to
play a game where I ask them to tell me if I am matching their pitch or
not. Of course, my first misses are rather far out, but then gradually
getting nearer to the pitch. Another variation is to have the singer
produce a sustained tone, the I match the pitch with them and gradually
slide off their pitch (up or down). I ask them to raise their hand
when I change off of the pitch they are singing. I try to get them to
focus on how it feels and sounds to have two people sing the same pitch
and have their sounds "lock in" together.
After this, then I try producing one sustained tone (that I know their
voice will produce). I will ask them to "listen; hear the pitch inside
their head; imagine the sound; imagine their voice producing that
sound, etc." I sing, then stop and ask them--the idea is to get them
to hear the sound without it being made--the auditory equivalent of
"visualizing." When I repeat the pitch, I will also ask them if I just
sang the same pitch as before--and sometimes I do not. There are lots
of variations on this step. Finally, after another hearing of the
pitch, I will ask them to take a breath and sing the tone. Note: some
students have difficulty with a "humm", some with "Lah"--I have the
most success with "loo" or "whooo".
After this type of activity sets in, then I can go to giving them two,
then three and more consecutive pitches. A fun game is like the old
electronic "Simon" games where you keep adding a new note to the melody
you are singing. The key here is success--stay within the notes the
singer can produce, have them match your voice singing in their octave,
and only very gradually and slowly mix in matching piano notes.
This process can take a month, or two or six or...it just depends on
the singer. They may have a range of only 5 or 6 pitches. But there
are other exercises to help them explore and expand the number of notes
When do I do this? Maybe take the singer aside for two minutes after
or before rehearsal, or find a study hall or lunch period. However,
many of the above activities can be adapted to use in the full-class
choral warm-ups. I find that even experienced singers can benefit from
this type of work.
Sorry, this has gotten rather long. There is no simple solution
because it is such a complex process. What I try to do is give the
singer-to-be opportunities to explore their own instrument and allow
their brain to acquire by experience (or "self-author"), the "software"
to operate the vocal "hardware" (sorry about the computer metaphor!).
And it is all dependent on the connections and hardware being in proper
working order (i.e., that there are no physical reasons that the
pitches cannot be produced).
My best outcome with a young singer: I tried to imagine how the child's
particular aptitudes might best be nurtured (choral singing clearly
the right venue). The kid in question was bright and gregarious. With
affectionate tact I steered her toward theater and debating and all was
My best outcome with an older singer: proposing a non-singing role so
she might continue to make an important contribution to the life of the
organization, even if she could no longer sing.
Taking into account her special needs, perhaps there's some other
where your student could also feel strongly motivated, but with better
results. If she can be reoriented away from your choir and toward
something else less frustrating and for which she's better suited, she
if tactfully handled, feel appreciative rather than rejected. Or there
be a meaningful non-singing role for her in your choir.