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Basic skills for singers: Matching pitch

Dear fellow listers,

Below is my original post bout matching pitch and the ten (10) responses I
got from this list and another list. They are unattributed. Thanks to all
who replied, and good luck to all listers with holiday programs coming up.

Ekanem Ebinne
The New Community Music School
Houston, TX

===Original Post
If there are any children's choir directors or general music teachers from
elementary schools here who would like to lend me advice... I'm working
with about five children in grades 2-5 who have a good sense of the beat and
of phrasing but who cannot match the pitch of their voices to the unison of
their class, my voice, or a metallophone. I've already asked them whether
they think their voices are higher or lower than what's being sung/played,
and most of them know, but can't compensate for it (even though the look on
their faces when they try seems to say they THINK they're getting there).
Please, any drills or visualizations or word paintings you have found to
work - let me know! Sincerely, Ekanem Ebinne Houston, TX ekanem(a)

I've had some successes working with these children either individually or
with a small isolated group outside of class time. None of the suggestions
below are my own; I learned them over the years from attending a variety of
church children's choir workshops. (In particular, if you haven't worked
with Helen Kemp, do so at your next opportunity). I have used these ideas
with elementary through high school choir students.

1) Have them each face a partner of about the same heighth and sing right
towards each other on a neutral vowel. If they can finally match even one
pitch this way, they experience something truly affirming between themselves
and hopefully will gain the desire to experience it again and again.

2) If the child has trouble varying pitch even speaking, play some imitative
games where they echo your pitch of "speaking" or of making various noises
with your mouth. Start with claps and stomps if the child is self-conscious.
Then gradually add vocal sounds; they rarely realize you've tricked them
into being brave.

3) Get a small ball that won't damage anything in your room. Sing a note as
you throw the ball to a student. You must breathe as you pull the ball back
to throw it (with energy as if you're outside), and sustain the tone until
the student catches the ball. The child then must do the same thing back to
you (or around the room if you're working with more than one student).
Encourage the child to sing the same pitch you sing and then vary that pitch
each time you throw the ball.

4) Cut some rubber tubing and have the students sing into one end and put
the other end up to their own ear to really hear themselves.

Within a class (choir), I arrange a signal privately with each child and
when I hear them off key, I cue them. They then know to cup a hand behind an
ear to listen to themselves. Don't make this difficult---just look at them,
point to your ear, and nod. It can be the same cue to each of the students
struggling. (If their classmates even realize what's going on, they will
appreciate that you and the students are working on the problem).

With most of the children, it takes time, but I believe it is something that
can be taught. I don't think it is something, however, that can be readily
taught within the large group setting, simply because it takes too much time
away from the rest of the group.

Good Luck! Please share what others send in.

Major thing is have them sing a pitch and you match it. Then sing a melody
around that pitch. Sometimes that is all they need. Also, sometimes it is
breath support. Talk about supporting the sound, use hand gestures to help
with the sensation of up and down.

Try matching their pitch instead of them matching your pitch. Once they
hear what it is to match a pitch, see if they can match another one 1/2 step
up or down. Have them do sirens to gain some flexibility. Are they
supporting the sound with any air? also, have them cup their hand behind
their ear so they can hear themselves better, or better yet, get one of
those flexible tubes that you swing around to make a whistling sound, and
have them sing in one end while having the other end up to their ear.

One word: Kodaly! Seven-year-olds probably don't belong in an ensemble,
but in a Kodaly class where they will learn what your five have not. There
are specific learning periods for music skills, just as there are for many
other learning areas, and if those periods pass without the learning having
taken place, they have to go back and retrace the process they've
missed--and it will never again be as easy as it would have been.

Beyond that, it's an individual, one-on-one process. For each kid, find
"their note." Then work from that note, both up and down, but very
gradually. Praise small improvements, and don't make them self-conscious
about what the can't yet do. It will come.

1)Lots of tone matches - lots of soh-me ("Hello" "What's your favourite
colour" to ssmlsm - they answer "green " or whatever but on soh-me)
2)Use an object like a nerf ball - throw it while singing their name - They
sing "Here I am" and return the ball.
3)Always have a warm-up before you start to teach the 'song of the day...'
4)Use your voice - primarily for tone matching - piano next.
5) For fun and initial warm-ups - try sirens - ooooo go high and low several
times - find out if ooooo is just one one note - (I've never found this..)
then do a few more - kids love it see how high they can go - then do a Soh
Me response.
6) Pick apples off an imaginary tree (I don't know why this works with some
children, but it does...) Tell them you are looking for the perfect apple -
they aim their voices to get this apple - they act it out - they pick the
apple on a tone - matching yours. Then change the pitch...because there's
another apple that needs picking
7) Bull-eye also works - the arrow is the voice - see how close to the mark
(centre tone) they can get.
8) But lots and lots of tone matches
9) Have other children sing tone matches to them as the example
10) Tell them they may NOT sing until you have sung the word etc. three
times - forcing them to listen.
11) Give personal examples using the piano - ask them if you have matched
the pitch - if 'yes' they smile - if 'no' they can hold their nose (in other
words it stinks - this is fun because you are the offending person - but
DON'T DO this and have the kids hold their noses to eachother - this would
be hurtful to their confidence
12) Lots of encouragement and keep them singing - believe it or not - when
it happens and they hear themselves - what a wonderful and rewarding

Here are some things I do:
1) Some children get used to singing either higher or lower than everyone
else - probably subconsciously so that they can hear themselves. When a
child sings with the group, often the group sound is louder than their
voice. If they sing in unison, they can't hear themselves. Tell them this
is probably what is going on and that if they sing in unison, sometimes it
feels like the sound is outside them rather than coming from their mouths
and this is when they are singing correctly. If they hear themselves well,
it is probably not the correct sound.

2) Do some echo singing regularly that you keep a rubric response form. I
do a singing role call - starting with Sol-Mi after we have sung several
Sol-Mi songs. I use: 4 - echoes same tune same pitch 3 - echoes same tune
different pitch 2 - echoes different tune (hardly ever happens) 1 - speaks
the response 0 - no response If I give a 3 - I indicate beside the number
with an up or down arrow indicating which direction they were off.
Sometimes I put a + beside a 4 for an exceptionally pure sounding voice (use
them for models). If someone is consistently lower, I try them with a lower
pitch than the rest of the class to see if they will echo there.

3) If a student is consistently lower, I have them sing and oo and slide up
to the pitch (or vice versa - encourage relaxation if they sing too high).
If successful, I have them show with their hand in front of them where they
feel like the sound is, then try to start on that pitch rather than sliding
up/down to get there.

4) If successful making the pitch but still not in unison with others, I
have them start a pitch (on oo) and then I match them them. Sometimes as I
join, they will slide from their pitch in the direction of their habitual
error. Tell them to stay and not slide and then do it again. When you get
a unison - tell them that is it correct (That's it!) and ask if it feels
like the sound is outside them. See if they feel the beats in the air if
the pitch is close but slightly off. Tell them that the slower the beats
are, the better. Eventually a sense of unison develops.

5) If a student has trouble finding their singing voice, do sirens with the
class and then give the child a homework assignment to do sirens at home by
themselves, seeing how high and how low they can go. Children need to hear
themselves singing by themselves in order for the brain to process correctly
and learn how to control the muscles in order to make a desired pitch. Often
a child comes back the next week after a "homework" assignment singing in
tune with the rest of the class. Usually if the ear hears the voice making
different sounds in the singing range, the brain will figure out which
nerves to trigger to make those sounds again - just like a baby learning to
go from random involuntary motions to muscle control.

I tell my students that every child has a beautiful singing voice, but some
haven't learned how to use it. It is like buried treasure in their back
yard. If no one helps them by giving them a map or helping them dig, they
won't get the treasure. If they will allow me help them (by cooperating
with my requests), they will find the treasure and have it to use to make
beautiful music the rest of their lives.

Can't tell your gender from your name. If male, learn to use falsetto (your
boy's voice) when demonstrating for younger children.

Have you tried talking to them about their "singing voices" as opposed to
their "speaking voices"? Sometimes just suggesting that they use their
"singing voices" does the trick.

One Two Three Echo Me has some games/exercises that address that problem.

Sometimes having them echo in a higher pitch helps, although I've found some
older children that echo better in a lower pitch.

I've heard of teachers that sing to them (very softly) through a tube set on
their ear.

I like to demonstrate pitch matching with two puppets. I purposely sing too
high, then too low, then just right. I have the students tell me which is

Good luck! Ruth

I do these things mainly with K-3. I begin every class with echo clapping
and echo vocalization. The vocalization consists of sirens up and down,
animal sounds, little dog yap, big dog woof, birds: polly wants a cracker
(high voice), owl (whoo-whoo high) Minnie Mouse in high voice: "Hello
Mickey", Mickey Mouse in slightly lower voice: "Hello Minnie", just
anything to get them to use the full range of their voices in a fun way.

I also use S-M "yoo-hoo" for a million things from just echoing (I do it
mid-range, but also really high and really low) to singing it mid-range as I
add movements such as head to shoulders, wiggle fingers, pull my ears. I
found out by accident that when they think it's a silly game, those who tend
to be non-singers, sing their hearts out when they think the point is to
wiggle their fingers or nod their head or whatever movement I'm doing at the
same time.

I almost never talk about their singing voice. We just play lots of games.

Another "yoo hoo" use. I sing a food and if they like that food I tell the
class in general to "yoo hoo". I tell them that if they don't like that
food DON'T yoo hoo and that I'll watch and see what foods they like and what
foods they don't like and that when they come over to my house to eat
sometime, I'll know just what to have for them. :) They think that's so
great. Sometimes I'll just use a particular food such as food at McDonald's
so I'll sing: (McNuggets S-S-M) they go YooHoo (S-M) if they like it,
nothing if they don't. (Chocolate milkshake S-S-S-M) etc. Sometimes after
a particularly enthusiastic response I'll say, "Oh, that's definitely on my
menu for when you come to my house".

My answer is quite lengthy, but in classroom use, I'd use one or two of
these ideas at the start of class for about 90 seconds to 2 minutes tops.

I have tons of other little vocal games and exercises too, but those are
just a few of my favorites.

one of the most interesting games, often used with adults. In private,
perhaps after/before school, have the child stand in a corner of the room
and place a hand behind each ear to force it forward (WE called it
"elephant"). Then ask the child to sing Row row Row your boat or Twinkle or
some other well known, familiar and limited range tune and listen to the
sound that is bouncing from the walls. If you demonstrate it first, the kid
may laugh but you can explain it is a great private way to hear one's own
voice, exactly as it comes out, and just as others hear it. There's always
the possibility that the child is "tone hard of hearing" NOT tone deaf. I
really believe nobody is that.

1. Don't "work" on it any longer. Makes kids even more self conscious. Take
a break.
2. Put each one between two good singers, so the good pitch gets there in
3. Sing informally as much as you can, every class period, right at the end
or to start, with all singing together in a free, relaxed child-like way
4. Matching voice to an instrument seems to me to be like trying to see the
scenery while in the back of a dark station wagon moving fast.
5. Many little ones suddenly discover their voices in the midst of a singing
game or in echo singing
(Happened many times) I tried not to look shocked, just smiled.
6. If such does happen, say only "good for you" but don't embarrass the
kid. It may not happen again for months.
7. Play this game: call the roll, sing each child's name, ask him/her to
sing it back to you.\ the same way. Try lower pitch for the troubled ones,
or move to stand very close to that one..It is easier to match YOUR voice
than an instrument.
8. Another Game: Draw sliding "ski lines' on the board and have the class
sing OOH or AHH as you point to the shape SLOWLY, and with giggle time to
slide back down for fun. Sometimes a child can be the pointing one.
Speech: Music should be the most joyful time in a child's school day, Heaven
forbid that we become the one class they come to dislike, when we really
want them to love what we love for the rest of their lives! Tis a huge
responsibility, one we took on willingly & need to remember every day..Amen
on November 21, 2005 10:00pm
I had one adult student who had great difficulty matching pitch, but then I taught him the Kodaly hand signs and the two together gave him a new way to feel the pitch and he did greatly better.

Michael Conran