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Pitch memory

I have a student who doesn't seem to have any pitch memory. I have been working on ear training with her in class for two years now.  She will sing a section of the song correctly one time, and be completely off the next.  She doesn't stay within the key signature when singing accapella.  I remember having a student with this issue when I first started at this position (15 years ago!). Because I was new, I tended to think she didn't have enough ear training, but, I am now seeing it in this 8th grade girl.  She sings out, she has a beautiful tone,so, I don't think it is due to vocal production issues. The pitch moves too much, it isn't a matter of being a little flat or sharp, it is completely losing tonal center within one or two notes of singing it correctly. Even when we are working on a song she knows, her pitch varies significantly..... thoughts? suggestions? How can I help her?  Even having someone next to her that is on pitch isn't working!
Replies (8): Threaded | Chronological
on October 26, 2015 1:13pm
Perhaps try having her sing the major scale of the key the song is in prior to starting the song, then perhaps the Gordon- Bum,Bum,Bum triad singing trick.  When she gets off try having her sing it again.  If she misses the tonality, try having playing the tonic note and see if that helps.  Restablishing the tonality may be the crutch she needs to help learning, then if that works, stress singing solfege patterns to build on those skills.  Also try asking her to sing familiar tunes from childhood and see what happens.  I need to try this with a student of mine who is having issues with solfege intervals.
on October 26, 2015 1:19pm
This is a heart-breaking type of problem.  Every few years I get a student with a beautiful solo voice who apparently has no tonal memory.   Even practicing one on one for hours doesn't seem to help.   Usually tonal retention and vocal development go together.  As vowels focus and vocal technique stabilizes, the singer is also learning to tune the instrument.  But every now and then you get a student where those two neurological pathways are not integrated.  My husband teaches studio voice, and he has had students who finally gave up after a year or so of trying to learn even one song.  I am hoping a scientifically-inclined choral director will read this and enlighten the community about the causes of severe pitch-matching issues.  
on October 26, 2015 4:35pm
I've had students like this as well.  If they keep working, they will eventually do better. I have a student who has had trouble with pitch ever since 6th grade.  Finally now, as a junior she is doing better with pitch and range, but not perfect by any means.  Maturity and hard work make the difference.  Technically, breath support is an area that you should address since the lack thereof will cause intonation problems. Also, it is proven that  singing into the left ear will help students to get on pitch.  Another suggestion would be to have her hearing checked as well. 
on October 26, 2015 5:17pm
   I've never heard of singing into the left ear--what is the theory behind this?  (My knowledge of singing technique is very basic, so I'm not arguing--just curious.)
on October 27, 2015 9:47am
To my knowledge, there has been no research that has specifically found that singing into a learner's left ear improves their ear-brain-voice coordinations more quickly than not doing so. What is known, however, is this: The auditory system "sends" neurons from both ears into both the right and left auditory cortices, but there are many more neurons sent from the left ear into the right auditory cortex than the left, and many more neurons are sent from the right ear into the left auditory cortex. Areas within the brain's right hemisphere are more involved in ear-brain-voice coordinations than the left, including pitch processing. Thus, the theory is that singing into the left ear brings an advantage to learning ear-brain-voice coordinations.
on October 27, 2015 4:47am
Can she identify a single tone as being the same or different as another tone? As higher or lower than a given tone?
If so, and if she wants to help herself become a stronger "matcher" give her an A-440 pitch pipe to carry.
Throughout the day, ask her to quietly sing A, then check herself with the tuning fork each time, remembering the pitch before she checks it. 
You can also have you group "find A" at the very beginning of your choral warm-up. I've had students over the years who would divorce the "singing" process from the "pitch matching" progress, and after practicing this for a while are able to find the "new" skill of pitch matching.
This also may give you more information about which specific part(s) of the process she's missing.
The technique is Kodaly based.
on October 27, 2015 8:13am
Thank you for your comments. I think Elizabeth Waterbury hit the nail on the head. As I said, it isn't vocal production, she has a beautiful tone, it isn't lack of singing solfegge patterns (we sing them every class, she matches the patterns very well), it isn't lack of matching pitch (she matches beautifully).  But after singing about five-eight notes, there is no tonality.  I don't think having her reestablish Do will help, as I really think she has no concept of tonality. Ann Reid, she does struggle with flat/sharp a little bit.  She doesn't always hear the difference. (Although, when I have tested the class, I was alking about pitches going flat or sharp within the pitch, not changing notes) I don't think she hears tonality.I'm not sure how else to describe it.... She wants to sing. I want to help her.....
on October 28, 2015 7:11pm
From what you're saying, it sounds to me like she does hear tonality, but not for very long. What about this:
pick an exercise that is very simple and short. Have her start singing until she makes a pitch error and stop immediately. Go back about two notes. Have her echo the three notes(two she got and one she didn't) until it sounds solid. Back up a note and do four notes. Keep going backwards until you get to the start of the exercise.  Hopefully, muscle memory will start to kick in and she'll have that note. See if she can add a note or two. Keep backing up and going forward a few notes at a time. If she can get through a few measures of music, it's a major accomplishment.
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