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student not echoing back accurately

I direct a choir of youth in grades 3 through 7 and we use the RSCM "Voice For Life" program as well as other materials.  A 7th grade student with whom I have been working on some of the individual goals is having a difficult time hearing a short melody or rhythm and echoing it back accurately.  I have tried a few different tactics: playing the melody on piano versus singing it versus playing it on flute; asking her to cover one ear; recording her and asking her to listen to the recording.  None of these tactics seem to measurably improve her accuracy, although her accuracy improved somewhat when I sang the melody versus playing it on an instrument.  The melodies and rhythms she is being asked to echo are short, like 6 to 8 beats long, and not terribly complex.  Echoing something back is something we do frequently in our rehearsal time, but I wonder if you all have some other techniques to use to help individuals develop such a skill?
Thanks in advance!
Julie Ford
Replies (7): Threaded | Chronological
on May 19, 2015 9:04pm
Could you define her difficulty a little more precisely?  
Can she clap a rhythm accurately if there are no intervals to worry about?  Or play it back to you on the piano if there are only one or two keys involved and you show her which they are?  Is this a rhythm problem, a wrong pitch problem, or correct pitch but not in tune?  
If there is no rhythm to worry about, just stready quarter notes, does her pitch improve?  Is this a "too many things to think about at once" problem?  In which case, take things more slowly, and avoid too many instructions at once, or corrections while she is in the midst of singing.  Give her a second to think before you ask her to do.  Break things into very small steps that build on each other.  
If she did seem to do a little better when you sang it for her vs. when you played it for her to repeat, is it possible that this is a production issue?  When you sing, she can hear how you are placing the pitches in your head voice or chest voice.  If she is having difficulty figuring out how and when to switch between one and the other, it would make sense that she would improve when she is hearing you sing instead of play.  If she generally does okay in the larger group, just not by herself, that could be the problem.  
Is it possible that she has an unusual range and that the excercises are just not sitting in a comfortable place for her to sing?  Have you tried testing her full range?  Has she learned to use her head voice at all?  Her chest voice?  Her break?  Does she have an unusually small range?  Is it possible that she has vocal nodes that are making her pitch go out of control?  Or bad allergies this time of year that keep her constantly on the edge of losing her voice?  Been yelling every day on a sports team or cheer squad?
Does she definitely understand the point of the excercise?  That it is to repeat exactly, not to show off your jazz improv skills and improve upon or harmonize what has been played for you?  (I failed a swim test when I was eight, because they told us to swim "free-style," which I thought meant "any style you want."  So I swam underwater the whole way on one breath.  They must have thought I was drowning.  I had learned free-style as "the crawl."  If they'd used that term, I would have done it for them happily.)  
Is it possible she is just really nervous about singing in front the teacher all by herself and it's making her pitch go crazy?  Nerves make the voice crack like crazy.  
Have you tried asking her why this is difficult for her?  Is she aware that she's not doing well?  Or can she not hear that her pitch is off?  
on May 20, 2015 3:21am
Perhaps someone who has used a software which shows in graphic form how accurately one is singing compared to the model might be willing to comment here on how helpful this software is.  Using the computer may be a strategy that can help the student.
on May 20, 2015 4:01am
Whenever faced with this challenge, I ask people (of any age) to LISTEN to the melody in their head before singing it, and concentrate intensly on exactly that, in other words, work on their listening skills. I have had very rewarding results when being ...relentless on asking them to listen concentrated.
beste regards
Marilena Zlatanou
on May 20, 2015 4:09am
She does not understand the concept or sensation of matching your pitch. Turn it around. Let her sing a pitch and YOU MATCH HER. Once she begins to develop an understanding of what it means to hear and feel matching pitch, you'll be amazed how quickly this will resolve her issues.
on May 20, 2015 5:21am
Maggie's comments are very thorough but I have another thought.  It could be simply an undeveloped tonal memory problem.  Can she echo 4 beat quarter note melodies instead of 6 or 8 beat melodies?  You might have to begin smaller. 
If not even a 4 beat quarter note melody, can she identify upward, downward or repeating melodies if you sing or play them?  I've taught children who cannot differentiate directional changes in melody.  It's so abstract!  In this case I have to begin with only identifying and describing sweeping melodic lines moving in one direction or a series of repeated notes followed by a large leap (identify the direction of the leap) gradually bringing the leap to a 2nd.  I do this first at the keyboard with the child sitting beside me so she can see the right-left releationship to high-low and the physical movement involved.  Then I move to "not looking" and identifying the direction.  The child is only listening and describing at this point--not yet singing.
Next I move to the same activitiy using my voice instead of an external instrument--the student describes the direction of melody or leap while watching me sing while I gesture the direction with my hand and while I sing without gesturing.  Then I sing 2 pitches in a comfortable range and I point the direction of the interval in the air; I ask the student to echo and point.  Eventually I ask the student to echo and point without any gesture from me.
I repeat this process this time with one directional change in the melody i.e.,  I play/sing an ascending-descending melody and the child responds by drawing the up-down shape of the melody in the air.  Next example down-repeat or up-repeat, etc. 
Eventually I graduate to echoing 4 quarter note melodies with one directional change e.g. d r m r d and use that melody repeating it with different rhythms e.g. d rr m rr d, etc.  Usually at this point, it clicks in the student's mind and although the full range won't be reliable, the ground is laid and the door is open for progress!
Some of these activities can be done one to one with the student alone but they can also be done with the whole group during the rehearsal and different children can take a turn sitting on the piano bench.  You don't want to this child to feel like a musical deficit so reinforcing these skills with the group will help all the weaker students feel better about their contributions to the rehearsal.
Good luck!  Finding a solution and a victory for this student will be so rewarding for you, for the student and for the whole choir. 
on May 20, 2015 6:31am
Sometimes I have my students close their eyes to help them attend to the sounds. If we're having trouble with a particular melody or rhythm, getting rid of the visual stimulus will often help them focus on the auditory aspect. 
Applauded by an audience of 2
on May 20, 2015 4:16pm
I agree.  I start most of my K - 4th grade classes with 5-10 minutes of very dim light--lights off, blinds drawn.  We match pitches, echo sol-fa phrases, sing old songs, learn new ones phrase by phrase, and sing rounds.  For the pitch matching, I ask students to close their eyes also: "We want our brains to think only about what we hear, not what we see."
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