This topic comes up a few times a year on the various forums that I belong to. It’s time for me to write a fairly “permanent” piece on it that I can point people to. I have had good success with teaching people to match pitch, and the principles are not difficult. The problem seems to be that experienced singers make too many assumptions about how a nonsinger hears and processes pitch.
- Progress will be faster if you have the student make a sound first, which you then find on the piano and in your voice, then expand from there.
- People match to other singers more easily than to a piano.
- Stay away from register breaks at first.
- Many people will have an easier time starting with a pitch near their speaking range.
- Some people don’t know what up and down feels like in a voice, and must be drilled in that.
A typical first lesson in pitch matching would be to have the student say a simple sentence such as “The sky is blue.” Then I may have them stretch certain words while I poke around on the piano to see where their speaking voice is. Then I find the pitch of a certain word and we start going stepwise from that. Stay in a diatonic key. So, if their speaking pitch on the word “sky” or “blue” is Bb3, stay in the key of Bb for now. Going chromatically or in whole tones or skipping around will lead to chaos. They are used to hearing tonal music, and working within that environment will be most constructive at first. Sing the note with them after you have identified it.
Now we are ready to move away from the first note, always making it singer-centered and not piano-centered. Let’s make their first pitch the tonic for these exercises. (It doesn’t really matter to the student as long as the first note fits in a diatonic scale that you then use for the following exercises.) From there I would try patterns like do-ti, do-ti-la, do-ti-la-so, with me singing at their pitch and then us singing together, while playing the notes on the piano at the same time. You may not be able to go as low as “so” because many people speak near the bottom of their range.
Then I go up in patterns like do-re, do-re-mi, do-re-mi-fa. All these patterns start with do. I do not use solfege syllables with students! I’m just using them here for ease of communication to you musicians. Use the word they originally spoke or a very easy syllable like “mum” or “buh”. No all-vowel vocalises yet; they are harder for new singers.
I also have them do sirens. These are important for all voices. They need to know what sliding up and sliding down feels like so they can make adjustments as they find new pitches. They will also learn where their breaks are, if they have them. Some beginners do not have breaks! If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Generally you should do these exercises so that they do not cross register breaks. Often they can handle making sounds in both low and high parts of their voice right away. Many men are better at matching pitch in their falsetto than in their chest voice at first.
Having the singer get their pitch directly from the piano is a more advanced skill. This is because the piano has very clangy overtones of octaves and fifths that do not line up with the sound of a voice. It can make which octave to sing with unclear until the student is used to listening to, and matching, the fundamental when a piano key is played. Playing a chord with the pedal down can be especially overwhelming to the new singer. You then have many overtones reinforcing each other and competing for the singer’s attention. As humans we are programmed from birth to respond most readily to other human voices.
If you want to teach pitch-matching you will need to be prepared to demonstrate a lot vocally, in their octave, at first.
I have not failed to help a student match pitches better with this approach, and improvement usually occurs immediately. There are very few truly tone deaf people out there. The big challenge is creating a connection among ear, mind, and voice.