As a voice teacher, there’s a lot of strange technical issues that you have to help our students overcome, and they may be issues you’re unfamiliar with. You may find that their register break is too obvious, or that their tone is extremely breathy, or the pronunciation of certain words is unclear.
Perhaps no issue is more elusive to voice teachers than that of matching pitch. If you are relatively new to teaching and haven’t dealt with this issue yet, don’t worry – you will. It seems more elusive to us than other technical issues perhaps because it is not an issue many teachers have personally encountered. After all, many of us found we had a talent at a younger age and had that nurtured. Those who can’t match pitch, on the other hand, are often discouraged from pursuing a musical path.
So a certain amount of kudos has to be given to the student that can’t match pitch. In fact, that should be priority #1 in my opinion. If a student comes to you wanting to sing but can’t match pitch, that takes a certain amount of bravery that should be rewarded. With that said, a simple kudos will not correct the issue. Here are some things that will help your student go from being one who can’t match pitch to one that can.
Decide if your student knows they can’t match pitch
If your student know they can’t match pitch, that’s half the battle really. That means that they have the capacity to hear the correct pitch (and therefore can, in fact, eventually match pitch). All other exercises to help with pitch matching will work infinitely better if the student understands what they’re working towards. Furthermore, oftentimes when students know they aren’t matching a pitch correctly, they think they never can. Letting them know that they will be able to match pitch can be very powerful.
If your student doesn’t know that they are singing incorrect pitches, making them hear it is the true priority #1. Have them record their lessons to hear the discrepancy. Sing back to them what they’re singing to see if they can hear it from you. Figure out if there’s a range that they are singing correct pitches in to determine what might be blocking them from correct pitches in another area. This brings me to my next suggestion.
Determine if they can match any pitches
Generally speaking, when a student is having difficulty matching pitches, there is at least one pitch they can always match, if not a range of pitches. Find that range through some simple exercises (such as a 1-2-3-2-1) and then build from that part of the range. There’s really no point in working from scratch if you don’t have to.
Check their speaking voice
While we certainly don’t speak with specific pitches in mind, some people tend to have greater pitch variances in their speaking voice than others. I find that the students with the most limited ranges or understanding of pitch tend to also have very monotonous speaking voices. Give some texts for your student to read. This can be from a song, a stand-alone text, or have them tell a story from their own life. The idea is to build pitch variation in their speaking voice through emotions, which will build a muscular understanding of pitch in the singing voice.
Figure out their learning style
In my students that have had problems matching pitches (and I have had several), I find that figuring out that particular student’s learning style will help correct the problem much quicker. For example, I find that as a woman, a lot of my men have a hard time matching pitches with just the piano, but there’s something about singing the pitches in my range (an octave up from theirs) helps them settle in. I really can’t explain this phenomenon, but it has worked for me almost any time. Part of me figures that perhaps I’ve just had some very auditory men.
For kinesthetic learners, I find that having them move their hand with the pitch or using the solfege hand symbols works wonders. For visual learners, having them watch your hands do the solfege or letting them watch you on the piano may work.
Ask them about their thought process
If I know anything about teaching voice, especially for older students, new voice students come in with so many preconceived notions about themselves and what they can and can’t do. This may include their sense of pitch. For example, they may be afraid of their higher range, causing them to sing flat. Perhaps they hear their voice as really deep and go sharp to try to correct that. Asking a student what they’re thinking about when they go off pitch may reveal some patterns that you can then correct.
Work on a variety of songs with them
Sometimes students aren’t matching pitches correctly because a song is too new to them. Other times, they are singing something that they think they know very well, but in fact have learned incorrectly. Try to mix and match these kinds of songs to determine if they simply need more time with a song or an exercise, or if they need a new song to fix the habits of the old ones.
Teach them how to read music
If your student doesn’t know how to read music, this can be a good tool for building pitch matching, especially for visual learners. This will allow the notes to not be some enigmatic thing floating in the air but instead a concrete idea that’s right in front of them.
Learning how to teach a student who can’t match pitch is really no different than any other technical issue, other than it needs to be dealt with first. Discovering what works and what doesn’t work for your student will take some trial and error. With time, patience, and work though it’ll come to them. To all of you teachers out there with a student who can’t match pitch, I’ll say this: take a deep breath, don’t panic, and trust your instincts. Even if it takes your student a fair amount of time to match pitch, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourselves along the way!
Have you ever had a student that couldn’t match pitch? Ever had problems matching pitch yourself? What exercises worked for you? Please share your thoughts to help us all become better teachers and learners!