Understanding the diagnosis behind pitch problems will help you avoid false cures –says Daniel K. Robinson.
Most singers are concerned first and foremost with singing in tune. That’s understandable. No one wants to be heard as being ‘off pitch.’
But for the beginning singer, if all the attention is focused on improving intonation, that is akin to teaching a child better doggy paddle techniques.
Sure, the student might feel like they’ve improved a little, but they still won’t be going anywhere.
Simply put, poor pitch (singing a single note out of tune) and inaccurate intonation (singing many different notes out of tune) is a symptom of other factors.
When we become obsessed with the symptom we often fail to cure the disease. With this in mind, my attention as a singing teacher is never focused on what I’m hearing.
No, I’m watching. You see, the symptom of poor pitch is typically caused by the following three inefficiencies:
Poor Body Alignment: singing with poor body alignment not only leads to tension; it also results in poor intonation. Think about it: if your neck is out of alignment or you have no ‘whole-body’ support then how can your instrument possibly be expected to hit each and every note effortlessly? The next time you do your vocal practice make a video recording and play it back without any sound…and watch. Watch your physical frame, noting how your body alignment is benefiting or detracting from your vocals.
Underdeveloped Breath Management: Breath fuels the voice. Inconsistent breath equals inconsistent sound. Without an even breath-stream your voice cannot be relied upon to tune accurately. Furthermore, poor breath management is generally being governed by a larynx that is doing all the work. That is, the inactivity of the abdominals and obliques causes the larynx to manage the air flow resulting in intrinsic laryngeal tension. Again, tension usually results in poor pitch.
Lazy Vocal Tract Shaping: The human voice is a remarkable piece of equipment. Not only do we initiate pitch at the level of the vocal folds, we then shape and mould that pitch (and tone) as the sound travels the length of our vocal tracts (folds to lips/nostrils). For example, a tight pharynx (the back of the throat) can cause the singer’s pitch to travel sharp. Equally, a lazy soft palate with a backward placed tongue can drag the pitch flat. Learning to sing with active and intentional vocal tract shapes empowers the singer to phonate with better tone, and yes, better intonation.
Work Smarter Not Harder
Most of us are busy these days. In fact, I think some of us can fall into the trap of qualifying our self-worth according to the weight of our schedule.
Believe it or not, this issue may have a lot to do with pitch problems. Let me explain.
I have to put my hand up and say I used to take great pride in telling everyone just how hectic I was. Somehow I had connected my sense of business with a sense of importance.
Not only were my seventy hour weeks unhealthy, they were completely unnecessary. Like a child doing doggy paddle, I was making a lot of splash, but I wasn’t really going anywhere.
My poor time management led to poor outcomes: vocationally, socially and yes, with my singing.
Today I can report that I have matured (a little) and upgraded my doggy paddle to the more efficient stroke of freestyle (metaphorically speaking).
I’m no time management Olympian, but I have learnt to work less and achieve more.
It’s this same journey of ‘working smarter’ that I seek to take my students along.
More often than not, new students arrive in my studio with a desire to improve their vocals. When I worked my seventy hour weeks, I couldn’t figure out why I was getting so little done.
I wasn’t making any headway. I now look back and see rather clearly (and embarrassingly) that I was focused on the urgent while neglecting the important.
The Secret to Being Better with Pitch
Yes, we all want to ‘urgently’ sing in tune, but that isn’t the ‘important’ task.
If you want to improve your pitch, stop listening to your voice. Stop being so focused on trying to adjust the pitch by simply altering your sound. Start focusing on your alignment, your breath and the vocal pathway.
Your doggy paddle will soon evolve into a more efficient and graceful stroke that will propel you further with much less effort. Essentially, if you want to improve your pitch, learn to sing smarter, not harder.
My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry
Sarah Louise Dooley - Hello
Nice production guys. Sarah Louise, I love the aesthetic of your sound…it really suits the Adele vibe! My sincere encouragement comes with a caution…there is a reason Adele has had vocal problems (vocal fold haemorrhage). Many of the vocal effects that Adele employs can, when employed habitually, cause significant wear and tear on the voice. I love your sound…just make sure that your vocal aesthetic is sustainable.
Why I chose Sarah Louise Dooley as a Finalist
I’m choosing Sarah Louise to move ahead in the VoiceCouncil’s competition because her vocals show an aesthetic quality that I think many singers aspire to.
Dr Dan is a freelance artist and educator. He is the principal Singing Voice Specialist for Djarts and presents workshops to singers across Australia and abroad. He has served as National Vice President (2009–11) and National Secretary for the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing (2006–11). Over the past two decades, while maintaining his own performance career, Daniel has instructed thousands of voices. This vast experience enables Daniel to effortlessly work with voices of all skill levels: beginners to professionals. You can join Dr Dan every Tuesday & Thursday on his YouTube channel: Dr Dan’s Voice Essentials. Dr Dan is also the creator of 7 Days to a Better Voice: a FREE one-week technical detox for your voice.