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Student who doesn't sing -- he fries instead ?

I have a student in my middle school choir who doesn't sing, he almost fries instead.  I've tried getting the whole choir to loosen up with sirens and a variety of other warm ups but he still speaks/fries monotone instead of singing.  I've asked him about how he sings along to the radio and he says he doesn't ever sing outside of rehearsal.  This is my first year teaching MS choir.  The student is actually quite loud in rehearsal and it throws off the boys sitting next to him.  I don't want to make him feel uncomfortable or single him out but I'm running out of ideas and could really use some ideas! We only meet twice a week and really need to get moving!
Thank you!!
Replies (13): Threaded | Chronological
on September 22, 2013 9:57pm
It's possible, since you say he's quite loud, that he's enthusiastic, wants to sing well, and thinks he's already doing it. Do you think that's likely to be accurate? If so, finding a reliable method for "pointing him in the right direction" is probably all you need. I think if he's not aware of it he'll need your guidance to actually feel and hear for himself the difference between "singing" and "not singing". Getting him to mimic particular singers, the "pretend you're making fun of your sister", siren noises, etc, can also help.
I have no idea how any of that could be done without singling him out. It could be very confusing for the other students to hear "No, you're doing it wrong, do it like this instead" - when they were doing it right all along. And this really is a clear-cut case of "No, you're doing it wrong", one that needs correction rather than gradual instruction. If (by analogy) an electric guitar student has his amplifier turned off, you don't wait for him to "get the picture" - you have to tell him to turn on the amp.
on September 23, 2013 12:19pm
Hey Jess sounds like you have your hands full. Maybe should try and talk to him after one chior session. Motivate him to practice his singing outside the chior, you could even get him some singing course online. I found a great one here you could take a look at, the article reviews the whole singing course here.
Good luck at chior.
on September 24, 2013 9:58am
I truly appreciate and affirm your effort to help Jessica in this situation.
I would, however, have to express a concern about an online course.  How can an online instructor see/hear/evaluate what this student is doing - before or after the instruction?  Even Skype-type programs can have some signals delayed, while some are "on time' , causing confusion.
Students, especially ones with individual issues (and that would actually be all of us!  :) need a good instructor - degreed, experienced, and right there in the same room.  The singing voice is a very complex instrument, and every individual is different.
Again, I affirm your effort, and I do agree that instruction and practice outside of class would likely be very beneficial.
Best to all,
on September 23, 2013 1:02pm
So, i take it he speaks normally?  You may have a young man who is eagerly anticipating adolescence and who would like to think his voice is already changing.  Perhags someone in his family (his father?) has a very deep voice and your student wants to sound like him.  Obviously, one must be especially empathetic with a kid on the cusp of adolescence.  I would avoid singling him out.   I concur with the suggestions to have the kids mimic sounds, even silly ones.  If he speaks normally, you might start by having all the kids mimic a speaking voice at a various pitches, before you move on to the same with a singing voice. 
Kate Thickstun
Artistic Director
Pacific Women's Chorus
NATS, AGMA member, former voice teacher
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 23, 2013 7:04pm
Everything you're doing needs to continue with a special emphasis on breathing. If he doesn't have sufficient air, he cannot get those vocal folds vibrating fast enough to phonate well and match pitch.  Also, have him put his hand on his chest and say his name. It will vibrate - we all speak in chest voice and it will vibrate there. Then, have him attempt a siren - if he feels it vibrate, it's not a siren!  Also, have the speech therapist test his HEARING - found one a couple of years ago that had lost all hearing in the range of the average human voice in just a two year period since hearing had last been checked.  Also, find an adult male he can sing with - may help to match a similar voice. Pay a college student if you have to to come in for a few classes. Record the problem voice individually in a tutorial setting and play it back for him.  Sometimes hearing themselves does the trick. Have one of your boys sing and match your pitch, then keep adding boys one at a time. Add the one you are worried about last. He may not know what it sounds like to match pitch and will need multiple examples. I've also had some success with boys putting their hand on an acoustic piano as I play and they sing their pitch - something about feeling the vibrations for sometimes works for an extremely tactile learner.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on September 24, 2013 8:08am
Usually, I start with air flow.  BUT for someone who's producing a monotone, I'd start with pitch matching, because he may have no idea of what is required. 
I suggest meeting him one-on-one.  
1) Explain that he isn't singing the same notes as everybody else, and that this is one of the main skills a choral singer needs to develop.  (No value judgment here--just a statement of "Here's the skill you need to learn for this class.") 
2) Work with him to develop pitch-matching skills.  
3) Once he's on board with the pitch matching idea, he'll be motivated to learn proper breathing for singing, and you can start working on this or send him to a voice teacher if you prefer.  
What's his speaking voice like?  And is he a tenor or a bass?
Applauded by an audience of 1
on November 22, 2013 5:31pm
Late reply, but is it possible to work one on one with him? Perhaps by hearing himself without other singers, he'll realize what he's doing. Sometimes the first step to solving a problem is making the person who has one aware of it.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on November 23, 2013 8:17am
Also a late reply, but if you only meet twice/week and he doesn't sing along with the radio outside of school, is this a case where he was just dumped into your class, or did he choose to be there?  That makes a whole lot of difference in how you approach the situation.  If he actually chose to be in the choir, then working with him individually, finding out in what range (if any) he can match pitch, recording his voice for playback would probably be the way to go.  If he doesn't really want to be there, but he is going to get a grade in the class, perhaps you could give him other things to do besides sing, (written reports, music theory work?) if he doesn't seem to make an effort to match the other singers.  You might also look for some Youtube videos of boys choirs--for instance, American Boy Choir, Phoenix Boy Choir.
Best wishes,
Eloise Porter
on November 23, 2013 1:18pm
Send him to Tibet to be a monk!.... kidding.  Yep, definitely one-on one-time.  Glissandos, falsetto, yodeling, breath exercises.
on November 26, 2013 7:27am
The first question I would ask is, "Does he speak in a monotone in conversation?". If he does then he is either following a bad vocal model (what do you know about his father? Does he have an appreciation for music or does he see it as "sissy stuff"?), an overpowering vocalis (register muscle within the vocal fold) or a weak or paralyzed chricothyroid (pitch muscle). If he does not speak in a monotone then a paralyzed chricothyroid is not the problem since it has to be active to give inflection.
If his father has no understanding or appreciation for music, particularly vocal music, then you may need to have a discussion with him and his son about the normal vocal physical maturation process and at what point in the process the son should be. A friend of mine turned a belligerent father, a farmer/rancher by trade, into a supporter by comparing it with the maturation process of cows. She put it in terms he could understand.
If the father does have an appreciation for music, then he's probably not the problem unless he is overly enthusiastic. In that case you may need to have a "cow conversation" with him.
If the son has an overpowering vocalis, and, given your comment about him always being loud, I'm leaning toward this one, then exercises to loosen it up may be in order. The good news is that you can do this and help the entire choir at the same time. On any chord you deem appropriate for your choir, have them sing a crescendo-decrescendo on a 5 count, 1 being piano and 5 being forte. You can either have them sing the count, 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1, or have them sing it an a vowel of your choice while you count. You can also expand this to a 9, 13, etc. count. The vocalis is less engaged when singing piano and more engaged when singing forte, especially at his age.
on November 26, 2013 7:37am
(My apologies for the split reply -IPad problem.)
To be clear, the 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 are beats, not pitches.
Assuming the chricothyroid is healthy, you may be able to teach him to sing various pitches through 1-3-5-3-1 pitch staccato exercises which may keep his vocalis loose long enough for the chricothyroid to become active.
If he does speak in a monotone, the first thing to do is get him to a doctor.
Good luck, and please give us an update.
on November 26, 2013 8:30am
Hi Jessica,
I know it might be frustrating to find in the choir someone that cannot match the pitch and in addition he has a loud voice.
First of all let me tell you that singing is a human right and every child that can speak, can sing. However, there are also some situations where the child might have amusia (very rare), a pathology that has to do with the imposibility of singing tones. I am not saying that this is  the case, but still, even if this student has this pathology, the neuronal plasticity may help with work and time (and lots of patience). BUT, the only way to do such a thing is to have a good diagnosis. Remember that we are not doctors, "just" conductors that have some tools but not all to solve difficult problems.
If I were you (I have been in your shoes, sometime), I would ask his parents to send him to an othorinolaryngolologist. Once you have his diagnosis you will be in a position to make decisions yourself with or without the doctor's help, but this will be a later decision according to the result of the study.
I have written a book called "A choir in each class room", that speaks about most of the problems  a teacher of music at high or middle school will face surely in his/her groups. Unfortunately it is in Spanish as I live in Argentina, but there is a lot of experience and strategies that will be very helpful. If you wish, I will be delighted to discuss with you this issue. You can write me to my personal email at escalada(a)
I am convinced that you will find the best way to help your student and this will be the best gift you will receive at the end of the year.
Good luck. (please forgive my English)
on November 27, 2013 10:00am
   Lots of good advice.  Yes, check for possible medical problems, and get a speech teacher involved.  Eloise's suggestion to determine if he wants to be in choir or is being required to take it against his preference, and if so then give him alternate work, is excellent.  We would like to avoid all the little extras like this that pop up and inconvenience us, but there are times when we need to take on extra work.  Consider it volunteer work done on site.  It will be noticed by colleagues and supervisors, to your benefit.  "It's rarely crowded along the extra mile." 
   For the same reason, consider working with him privately during prep, lunch, before or after school.  Or swap time with a male colleague, if available.  Lastly, can you find a male voice major who could work with him for free, as part of his college requirements to participate in schools and work with students?  How about a good singer in a local church choir who is retired and looking for an opportunity to "give back" and pass on the music that he loves?  Are there any good singers at your high school(s) who might be interested?  Some high schools have a community service requirement.  Can you find a retired non-music teacher who is a good amateur singer?  Calling around to music directors at churches, colleges and schools might produce results.  Some communities have a volunteer coordinator or clearinghouse.
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