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When correcting "tone deafness," avoid telling your students to sing "higher" or "lower"

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I remember once, when I was a kid in jr. high, I walked in on my choral director trying to teach another student to sing on pitch. He was a fabulous teacher, and she was a diligent student. Both of them wanted her to "get it" so badly, but both were becoming more and more frustrated by the second.

He would play a tone and say, "Try singing that." She would try, and he would say, "No, it's higher." She would try something else. "No, it's still higher." This went on an on.

Before developing my method for correcting off-pitch singing, I approached pitch correction the same way. Then one day I realized that many off-pitch singers have no idea what it means to sing higher or lower. I would tell students to sing higher, only to have them sing louder. Sometimes they would lift their chin or just raise their eyebrows!

An exercise in inflection

Before you can talk to a beginning singer about singing higher and lower, you first have to get her acquainted with those concepts as they relate to vocal pitch. The best way I know to do this is to perform a simple exercise in inflection.

Tell your student you are going to speak three sentences that you would like her to repeat back to you. Then say,

"I'm going to the store," and cue your student to repeat. Next say,

"You're going to the store?" and sound really incredulous. Cue your student to repeat. Finally say,

"Yes, I'm going to the store," and cue your student to repeat for the last time.

In the English language, we often distinguish a statement from a question simply by a falling or rising inflection. Your student will be familiar with this, though she may not have thought about it as it relates to vocal pitch. Explain to her that the rising inflection at the end of "You're going to the store?" was an example of rising pitch and that the falling inflection on "I'm going to the store," or "Yes, I'm going to the store," was an example of falling pitch. This will help her to make the association between direction (higher vs. lower) and pitch/frequency (more vibrations per second vs. fewer).

"Try something else."

When you begin to work with your student to match pitch, stay away from the words "higher" and "lower" for a little while, when asking her to make an adjustment. Instead, simply say, "Try something else," and leave it to her instincts to guide her. Soon, she will actually say to you, "I'm too low, aren't I." And then you will know she's ready for you to talk to her in terms of higher and lower.

Another very important determinant of your student's success, which must work hand in hand with her awareness of frequential direction, is her ability to recognize when she is on pitch. I'll speak to this in my next blog post.

Paul Cuneo is the founder of NotToneDeaf.com and the author of Correcting Tone Deafness. This is the ONLY completely sensible approach I have ever encountered to resolving the problem and stigma of "Tone Deafness." - Jeannie Deva

You can hear Paul on his lullaby album Rest Here, described by national parenting magazine Childas "...perfect for soothing your baby."

Paul is also an actor and teaches Movement for Actors at the Stella Adler Studio, Los Angeles. He blogs on the topic of Performance and Movement for Actors at MovementalLA.com. You can catch Paul on a recent episode of MTV's From Gs to Gents by clicking here. He is currently performing the reference movements for the new Lionel Trains animated feature and will begin shooting the indie feature Of Silence end of this month.

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