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Consistantly flat...

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Pablo Diablo
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Hi everyone, just joined up today.

I have been studying on my own for about a year to learn how to sing using Roger Love's book and CD have really enjoyed learning how to breathe, sing through chest, middle, and head, and learn to control my pitch.

My main issue is that I am consistently, almost universally flat on a majority of notes throughout the scale. I am only a tiny bit flat, but its enough to know the note doesn't sound quite "right". If I continue to sing the note and kind of play around I can subtly raise to the correct pitch, but then if I try the note again its flat gain until I keep it held and find the note again, sometimes I can't quite reach it despite how I try to change my air path etc.

There are a couple things going against me, small nose passages, a nose that is 24/7 inflamed/plugged because of year-long allergies, a mucusy throat, etc. Seems like every day I try to sing the air doesn't come through like the day before due to subtle changes to the above conditions and I have to relearn how the air comes through and adjust my singing as such.

Anyways, sorry for this long-winded post. Has anyone had a similar experience with this constant flatness or know of an exercise that may help.

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Hey Robert, thanks for the response. I don't have a recording but can pretty easily record a random song if need be. This is something in which you need to hear first before guessing the reason for my troubles? If so I'll record a song and post it up.

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Hi Pablo,

Sometimes when one is "all stuffed up" with a cold or allergies, your hearing isn't as good as it usually might be. So, perhaps if you tried cupping your hands to your ears (fingers behind the ears, hands along your cheeks, heel of the hand near your mouth) you'd be able to hear a bit better and work on the problem. HearFones were pretty much invented for just this reason (hearing yourself better), and would be a wise investment if you find cupping your hands helps at all.

There are LOTS of upper harmonics (partials) that we humans never hear come out of our mouth, and they give us cues on pitch that are really good to have when you're practicing and building long-term "muscle memories" that help you always arrive on-pitch.

Pete

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I quite like the sound of your voice, though I'd say you're a little sharp as well as a little flat now and again. Seems to me you're just not very sure of where you are in your voice. Haven't really experienced that particular problem to any degree that bothers me, but I think the usual (boring and unsexy) remedy is doing scales together with a piano.

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Thanks for the song, Pablo. My observations -- for what they're worth -- is that you've chosen a very depressing song to sing, such that I, for one, would expect the tone you're delivering. I can remember a divorce and having those feelings. In terms of pitch, you impressed me by sustaining your pitch all the way through extended note values -- no real quavering or vibrato. Were you sitting down, or standing up, when you sang? And then, there's the "engineering" aspect, where the recording overemphasized the 'background' music and relegated your voice to the background instead.

There's an expression we use in real engineering, where when a nail head or a screw sticks up above the surrounding surface, we say it "stands proud of" the surface. You have a good -- and a nice -- voice, and you deserve to stand proud of the music!

Pete

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Thanks for the observations thus far guys. I was sitting down, playing piano and singing. I am glad you brought that up actually because I was wondering if one position allows better control then the other. (Regarding standing vs. sitting). I made an effort to not lean forward, stay loose, and let my diaphragm expand when it has to without restrictions.

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I was sort-of afraid of that. My 17-year old composed a beautiful song a year ago, and had his friend sing it. Both of them sat on the piano bench, and the singer held a microphone as he sang, but you need to understand that "the diaphragm" is not just some little accessory thing. It's as wide as your stomach, and shaped like an upside-down bowl. When you draw in air to sing, not only your diaphragm but also all the internal organs underneath it need somewhere to go. If they can't go there, because you're sitting down, then you can barely be expected to properly 'support' the air pressure coming out of your lungs. Most of it will originate from 'chest breathing' which is a poor sister substitute for real breathing.

For the heck of it, I asked this young singer to stand up the next time he sang my son's song (which was two nights later at a different high school 'talent show'). The difference was like day and night, and you could even see it on his face as he sang. After you get as experienced as -- say -- Ray Charles, then you might want to go back to trying it seated. Sometimes, the combined spectacle of a person both playing and singing simultaneously is enough for the critics to afford him wider latitude. : )

Singing in a choir, as I do, our director has us sitting during most of our rehearsals, and the collective sigh of relief when he "asks" us to stand up almost fills the choir room. When I'm sitting down, I've found the best position is laying back as far as I can in the metal chair, with my legs stretched straight out ahead of me. It's a horrible posture for singing, but at least it allows your diaphragm some room to move -- especially since Tuesday night's rehearsals are at 7:00 p.m., right after dinner at home! "Get your books; hop in the car; we'll do the dishes when we come home."

In "South Pacific" there's a scene where Mary Martin lies on her back (yes!) over a bar stool and sings. When you reach the ranks of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, there will be lots of tricks you will have learned. : )

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Im not too sure of the applicable relevance...he doesnt sound like hes any issues with breath carryinig his voice in this example. More the same sort of uncertainty as playing on a fretless bass without being really sure of where the frets would be.

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Matt, you're probably right. But the pitch of a pinched string is a fairly one-dimensional problem: the only meaningful "variable" is the length of string that's free to vibrate. With the vocal process, it's a bit more involved. Not to get too complex, let's look at just three factors.

First, there is the trachea, which is sort of like a cheap vacuum cleaner hose --- those kinds where they have a long, thin wire wrapped into a four-foot long coil spring, and then a tube of transparent, thin plastic is shrunk onto it so that it's wide open inside the spring, yet flexible too. If this kind of hose is under pressure -- instead of vacuum -- then the pressure has a an effect on the diameter and also the stiffness of the tube. Our trachea is like this, even though it's shorter and just connects from our lungs to our throat.

Because it's a tube, any disturbance in the flow through it will cause a ripple effect called 'resonance' where the disturbance is reflected back inside the tube in the opposite direction. Think of the effect on a running crowd of people reaching the end of a tunnel and finding the door suddenly closed. Boink.

Built into the top of the tube -- instead of a door -- is a sort of squishy pair of sidewalls that are adjusted by outsiders so that they can be pinched together (closed) or moved apart (open) or left to fend on their own as the air rushes out through them from your lungs. If the outsiders are weaklings, then when a pressure approaches them, they'll be pushed back (more open) and need to gather their strength to push back in. If they're open and relaxed, then air rushing through will suck them together, the same way air over a curved wing sucks an airplane up off the runway. Depending on how stiffly these outsiders are holding the walls in place, this pushing apart and sucking together (vibration) will assume a certain periodicity or oscillation frequency.

So there's an interaction going on between the pressure in the tube, the average resistance to letting it through the top, the frequency of flapping of the side walls and the frequency of air bouncing up and down inside the tube.

You can press harder with your diaphragm and produce a higher sub-glottal pressure against stiffly held sidewalls squeezed tensely toward one another, or you can produce a lower pressure against a more relaxed set of sidewalls, and get the same general frequency. If you surprise the sidewall holders with a rise in air pressure from below, there will be an increase in the frequency of oscillation. If you reduce the pressure, then there's a lowering of frequency. And if you lower the pressure too much, the flexible plastic around the tube will go slack and it won't be as good a resonator.

The third effect is what the filter, formed by the mouth, lets out into the world. If it's resonances don't help the higher parts of the complex sounds coming out past the sidewalls, the the sounds will be less complex, or "duller" in a psychological sense. If they help, then the sounds will be "brighter" in a psychological sense. Some listeners will perceive this as "flatter" singing, even though the 'fundamental' of the pitch stays the same. It's only flatter in a "flat-liner" sense of the word.

By standing to attention, rather than by slumping into a seated position, the geometry of all these parts works more as it should. By "supporting" the airflow and the tube walls with a higher subglottal pressure, the geometry will become a bit more rigid and the sound will become more stable and reliable. Even the psychology of standing -- alone -- will draw the performer's attention more to the task at hand. Ask any drill sergeant!

So I don't think it's so much a matter of "the breath carrying the voice" as you say, but rather a factor of the breath being a bit stronger and more consistent, so he'll be able to better control the pitch to what he wants. And speaking of pitches, this is a 'pitch' for HearFones as well, because the more higher partials of his tone he can hear, the more sensitive he'll be to his pitch problems WHILE he's singing, and the less dissatisfied he'll be with the resulting recordings. There is simply nothing else on earth that does that.

Pete

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Good read, which brings us to another interesting point. A lot of singing in tune is having a good ear and guiding your voice milliseconds ahead of producing the sounds. In fact, that would solve the issue entirely, even if your bad breathing is causing you more work and fine adjusting than should be neccessary. What makes someone like my sister sing spot on key as she wanders around the house cleaning without ever even bothering whether shes on or off key and others struggle and practice with earfones yet still are off? Surely, thats simply a well trained or naturally keen (I'd say in her case, well accustomed from an early age) ear and a simpler, straighter line towards Occams razor-sharp and flat notes?

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Well . . . first of all . . HearFones (registered trademark, U.S Patent 6,229,901) are not headphones. Not in any way, at all.

But yes, they work with practice to hone pitch control and accuracy. Young kids sing perfectly on pitch sitting in the back seat of your car with their friends as they go Christmas shopping, but the same kids can't agree on pitch in a junior choir. This is where the "perception" and "self-monitoring" aspects play a huge role. HearFones provide the feedback that you need in -- let's see -- 0.5 feet divided by 1,100 feet-per-second equals -- umm . . . less than a half of a millisecond. Which is why they do what they do. : )

Pete

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Hi Pablo...yes I think you need ear training and tone training will help you! You can try Hearfones or Tomatis methods as they will help you. I find my students listening and pitching increases enormously with my work on tones! You will have blocks that need releasing that maybe you are unaware of and tones will help you! love Hilary :cool:

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Thanks guys, I may give the hearphones a shot. Right now I am singing into a microphone and using noise canceling headphones to monitor myself, hearphones may be a better solution though.

For now I will be doing scales, breathing exercises, and exercise in general to lose an extra 40 pounds that may interfering with diaphragm movement/lung capacity for sustained notes and so on.

As I said previously, stability is my major issue as one day I feel completely in control of my voice and the next it seems I can't find any notes and/or even that my tone has changed without me understanding why. Also like Matt said, I am not sure of where to "go to" in my vocal range when trying to hit a note, and it feels as though that place changes. I.E. Monday I may be able to perfectly hit a high c, yet it feels as though it is in a completely different area when trying the same note a few days later.

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"Not sure where to go" sounds familiar. That's one reason (among many) that choristers always warm up using a series of pitches for a while before they perform. Each day is different, and each singer is different each day. Out of 40 of us, I know of not one who professes to be able to look at the first measure of the hymn or anthem and just "sing the first note." There's a whole body of "normal" people that lies between those with "tone deafness" and "perfect pitch" and somehow we all come together when the downbeat comes. Or not -- if its "one of those days!"

Guess that's why we have pitch pipes, or a piano handy. : )

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I used to trick people that I had perfect pitch, because I knew where the reasonably comfortable top of my range, A, was. I'd sing that and say, go ahead, check, I bet you its A. And it was - vaguely at least. While that was just a trick, I do have a real thing though, which is if I sing along to a song, and several hours later sing it again, I'm usually still in the correct key. Generally, I can pretty much feel notes in my throat/head/passagio as well as I would feel them along a guitar neck. Not sure if its purely imagined or not. On considering, I think I have a mental image based on the guitar neck of the distance between for.ex. the dominant and the sub dominant, etc. However, I can only feel them in relation to each other, I could only guess roughly what key they're in.

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Neurology is a complex field! : )

If I need a starting place, I sing the first two measures of "Drop, Drop, Slow Tears" by Orlando Gibbons . . . and there it is. It sort of needs 'context'.

And Tuesday nights, as we climb the stairs of the church up to the third floor, there's something about the ambient sound or possibly "the formants" of the stairway that homes me in on G -- a fifth above C -- that is almost always the first note our director uses in our warm-ups "nay-oh-nay-oh-nay-oh-nay-oh-nay." When I get into the choir room, I hit G on the piano, and "BAM" there it is.

But I would NEVER say that I have perfect pitch! ;-)

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Heh...you're obviously a more honest guy than me ;)

On further consideration, theres also something about the harmonies within the scales that also leads and guides me, I think. Just as the obvious harmonies in f. ex. the key of E minor are G and B (etc), moving to them seems to have a natural logic which I think subconsciously guides me too. Theres probably someone here who can expand on that and get into all the sinus waves and memory conditioning or something.

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Right on, Matt! The only fly in that ointment is that "scales" are entirely transportable -- or transposable, one might say -- such that you can pick absolutely ANY pitch you'd like and call it "DO," after which you can build these harmonies based on that pitch. Four barbershoppers can stand alone on a stage. One can suggest a pitch "Hmmmmmmm," and the others will build a chord on it, like "DO, FA, SO, DO" and off they go!

No one knows or cares what pitch they started on, nor whether anyone might consider that pitch "flat" or "sharp" since, unlike the Celsius scale, there's no reference present . . . unless of course someone reaches their upper or lower vocal limit -- like your "A" that you mentioned -- and the whole piece falls apart! : )

But I'd guess Pablo is asking about how and why he "goes flat" while he's singing, which I think has more to do with "support" from his trachea and perhaps a slightly inadequate attention to what he's doing, which can be influenced by one's psyche.

I kid people when I talk about "Mickelson's Uniform Effect:" the tendency for people to take themselves more seriously when they put on a uniform and become another character, so to say. In my Navy days, even when our 'uniform' was a tattered old discarded flight suit, if the drill sergeant bellowed "ten-HUT!" we suddenly became different, more capable people. A college boy like me, doing fifty (yes, 50) push-ups!

I'd lean in the direction of Hilary's suggestion: toning drills (tuning drills), using a pitch reference to start off, and building scales on that pitch. It's clear that he already has a sense that he's going flat, so using that sense and Tomatis' suggestions and practice, practice, practice with HearFones so he hears what he's doing, he should be able to build his skills set, and thence his confidence, and thence his psyche so that he's a new person.

How's that for faith-based healing?

You mentioned "a good ear" as being a huge help, and I recall Pablo telling us he was frequently "plugged up" so that his hearing capability may be impeded, especially in the higher ranges where all the partials lie. Steven Fraser and Judy Rodman have an excellent short dissertation on this 'partial' effect in the "Does thinking change pitch" forum, just a day ago or so. Since "partials" are 'integer multiples' of the fundamental (pitch), your ear's access to hearing them is critical -- especially for us guys -- because they "leverage" your sense of pitch, just as a microscope's or telescope's optics leverage your vision.

That's where the HearFones come into play. Human hearing falls off, like, 80 decibels from its peak around C6 to when the pitch you're hearing gets down around C1. If a guy sings at C3, his pitch is down by about 20 dB . . . a significant hearing loss.

If you peek at Fig. 2 on Page 3 of "Effects of HearFones" <www.hearfones.com/Research.pdf> you'll see that they boost this same range by about 15 dB, so that the partials are much more available to your ears. You sort of become your own voice coach, and the muscle memories you build can serve you later on.

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Right on, Matt! The only fly in that ointment is that "scales" are entirely transportable -- or transposable, one might say -- such that you can pick absolutely ANY pitch you'd like and call it "DO," after which you can build these harmonies based on that pitch. Four barbershoppers can stand alone on a stage. One can suggest a pitch "Hmmmmmmm," and the others will build a chord on it, like "DO, FA, SO, DO" and off they go!

naturally, a note can only be flat or sharp or in key in relation to the other notes/key that the bad notes are made within. its all a man-made invention/language anyway, a system of patterns and rules that we've agreed upon - you only have to go listen to a Tibetian or whole tone scale or something to hear stuff that starts to sound off key only because it doeesnt follow the rules we're used to.

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Hi there!

I was listening to the example and I´ve to tell you my opinion with all my respect to all the other opinions :D

As a future Estill teacher I´ve to tell you that you´ve a little problem with your vocal fold´s movements.

There are some answers that told you about the air, that´s great, but in my opinion we don´t talk about your true vocal folds onset and offset.

When I´m listening to you first of all I can listen "air" flowing. The reason is that your vocal folds aren´t so close as they´ve to while you´re singing. Reasons? Sitting down, a sad atittude with your body, sadness, fear.... so your vocal folds haven´t the support of the muscles that help them to close in a right way, so you´re flatting, the voice sometimes isn´t clear, etc.

So your homework includes breathing and ear training too but you need to work vocal folds onset too!! If you want I can record a little examples and send it to you....

Best regards

Alizia

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Hi everyone.

I know that Tomatis based listening is good for the ear/brain connection. It has been way too expensive in general, for the singers to consider it. Though it started out in the Paris Opera, the singers have been loath to part with big bucks. Finally an opportunity has fallen in my lap. I was given some wonderful music files, uncompressed MP3 that I have used in my practice for nearly 10 years. I can commercialize them as I see fit. what I have chosen to do is put them on a DVD 3.2 GB for use on your iPod or whatever, with over the ear headphones, for 20,000 or better. I put a price on the DVD of 90 dollars, including postage. New Yorkers have to pay sales tax, but we send them out for that price, which includes free coaching with me. If any of you have ADD kids, you c an use them with your kids as well. You may have seen the checklist on my blog, and I will move stuff over to the Tomatis section, poco a poco as well.

There is one more very exciting piece to this puzzle, and and it is bone conduction. I am on the trail of someone who will let us have this unit, which so enhances results, at a more reasonable price. I am hoping it works. Postage is included for Europe as well. Anyone who is interested can write to me. This is going to be a nice piece for the strategy of improving pitch and vocal technique, as well as fringe benefits that will only delight.

Regards,

Roberta

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Pablo...

Yes, I agree with Mat... you are more often sharp than flat. You may be trying to over-compensate the wrong way (north instead of central).

I tell you what has worked for my students - try forgetting about your voice. Do two things: Position yourself correctly at the mic (move your feet into the mic so your head is balanced on your tailbone), level your chin and float your head on your neck. Now put your fingertips together. Just give your voice access to your fingertips at critical points... if you're doing it properly, when you press your fingers into each other, your chest and nose should open.

Now FORGET ABOUT HOW YOUR VOICE IS SOUNDING. How can you do that? By psychologically focusing your mind on truly communicating TO someone, in a way that feels authentic to you.

It is my experience that these things set so many things straight, and you can't sing thinking about technique, anyway... it's a catch-22.

Again... set yourself up correctly, then just GO for it with passion. I'd love to know if you find this helpful. Happy singing!

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