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How to Work with Boys Who Seem to Be Tone-Deaf

One fifth grade boy, one third grade boy, who are brothers. Both have droning monotone singing habits. I've worked some with them individually to see if they can match a pitch. They can generally find an A or a B below Middle C if I walk up/down the keyboard and bring them to it. I'm not even sure they can feel that they are on pitch when they actually do find the right pitch. How can I help them?
Thanks in advance!
Replies (5): Threaded | Chronological
on January 6, 2016 8:35am
My experience in working with those singers is that they need to "experience unison".  Sing the actual note with them.  (Use another guys voice if you can't sing their pitch).  Hearing it on the piano is harder for them to match.  
Also, I think people that haven't learned to listen yet, need to see and feel the concept of changing pitch.  I would hold their hand at eye level as a guide to them.  Then I would practice  2nds and thirds moving their hands appropriately up and down.  If they made a big leap I would show them with their hand "how far" they had deviated and then move their hand to a distance that would better illustrate the intended interval.  It is vague, I know, but the idea was to teach them that there are "big distances" between notes and "little distances" between notes.  Practice having them sing with you (in their range) limited range songs ( or part of the song):  "Are You Sleeping", "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" (first phrase), "Jingle Bells", etc.  Move their  hand in space as you sing. 
There are more helps I could give you, but probably too much for this post.  Contact me if you want more explanation.    
on January 6, 2016 6:28pm
John gives great advice. By the same token, there are too many unknowns for specific advice to be of much help. What I do think is important to remember is this: improvement is more important to celebrate than accuracy. Maybe they can't match pitch yet, but can you get them to use their head voice? What about even consciously raise the pitch of their voice to a higher note? Even little successes build confidence. These boys probably know that they aren't matching pitch. They have probably been told by their friends, families, and teachers that they can't sing. Usually, this is done with a smile. They are laughed at. It is not intended to be mean spirited, but it sends a clear message: you're no good at singing. They have probably come to believe that there are good singers and bad singers and they are forever in the "bad" category.
This message is going to be hard to break. You can do it, but not over night. It may take five years of solid work before any child begins to show marked improvement in his or her singing. They will do it (and stick with it) if you believe in them, stay positive, and celebrate the tiniest gains.
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on January 9, 2016 1:23pm
I worked this semester with such a boy--a bass 'drone' that was loud, low, and nearly monotone. He was unable to make progress in the class context, I had to work with him 1-2x per week individually  (15 minute sessions) during the entire last semester.  We worked on his voice flexibility; he got to the point where his range was normal. We worked on his hearing, and discovered that when I sang any pitch even slightly flat or sharp, he could distinguish it from the right one. So the final frontier was overcoming his inability to hear his own voice. When we realized that, he actually came up with his own solution, which was holding his folder in front of his mouth so the sound refracted back to his ears. 
    All these things helped him, but it took a really long time, and it takes perseverance and desire on the part of the student. In the end, he was singing his part (bass) relatively correctly, but still not in perfect tune and still not with a lovely tone. He moved away during Christmas break, and I'm both glad and sad. He was  my 'oh no' Choir student...and he was the student that made measurable progress. He gave me the opportunity to work with an 'impossible' voice problem and experience success, and I got to know him as a person in the process. Rewarding.
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on January 10, 2016 6:53am
I agree with Seth: celebrate the little gains. Here are some other things that I've noticed over the years:
1. There are numerous reasons for having trouble matching pitch (you probably already know that). To me, it seems to be less about hearing and more about sensation/vocal production. Boys who have trouble matching pitching are almost always hanging out primarily in their lowest vocal range. I remond them to "get our of the basement" or remind them that, although zombies are fun, we don't necessarily want a "zombie choir".        : )
2. Regarding sensations, remind them about chest voice vs. head voice. Have them move their hand to where they feel the sound (they'll probably do what you expect, but you can guide them). How/where they feel the sensations is very important, because, ultimately, that is our gauge as singers, since we don't have keys to push--and because we hear vibrations in our head more than we hear actual tone, as far as our own sound is concerned. Have them cover one ear with their hand, so that they can hear themselves better. Or try "hearphones"--basically a tube connecting their mouth (or another singer's mouth) to their ear.
3. I use a "crank". If their pitch is too low (usually the case), I crank my hand, like I'm tightening a ratchet, and I have them do the same. A lot of times that fixes it.
4. Maybe use the analogy of a fan: as a fan speeds up, the pitch goes higher. Similar to the crank, have them spin the fan. One of the things that this points out (and you can point it out to them) is that faster air speed results in higher pitch. We can even "overblow" like when they play their recorders.
5. Experiment with different tone generation. Some boys match pitch better when they hear the piano; others do better with other voices. Don't forget to check their ears individually. Remember that we tend to hear better in our "non-dominant" ear. (That's why old telephones were designed to be "left-eared"; most of us are right-handed and hear better in our left ear.)
6. Somtimes proximity helps.  Having another boy sitting close to them, singing right into their ear can make a difference.
7. "Let it happen". Sometimes we work really hard to produce pitches. Often, boys simply need to lighten their tone, letting it "float up into the head"--rather than pushing it up. I use the analogy of a chimney: if we try to really make it happen down below, we're just blowin' smoke out the front. If we let the sound go back and up, it floats out of the chimney (also works with the sensation of space in the back of the throat).
Best wishes--and keep at it!
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on January 12, 2016 8:57pm
Depending on the age of the singer and their advances toward puberty, the voice may have great gaps which will eventually fill with singing notes. I did find that discovering what some clinician called "chanting tone" was a place to start. A place from which to start finding a voice.
The process starts with finding that "chanting tone"; I started by asking the singers to count backwards from 20 to find the tone to which their voice settles. The singer always was heartened by this.
From this "chanting tone" start expanding the number of notes a step at a time. Courage comes as the range expands.
I taught high school singers qnd before I was introduced to this simple procedure, I lost singers, usually guys, rarely girls unless they spoke unnaturally low. But after using this technique, I never lost a singer and progress was quite rapid much to the delight of all.
One more thing I just remembered: most often, the student found their Chanting Tone by saying a well focused, affirmative, uhuh. Or closed mouth umhum. Then we would try a five note decending scale on that hm, hm,hm,hm,hm,hmmmm. or even just the chanting tone, itself.
The key is to find the note and have the student feel it and build on that.
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