Students who struggle to match pitch (I sometimes call them “Free Spirit Singers”) present special challenges for choir directors at all levels. On the one hand, we want to invite as many students as possible into musical experiences, but we also want to ensure a high level of success for our choirs as a whole. How is it possible to bring students who struggle with this most basic element of music into the choral music family without detracting from the experience of other choir members?
Before I attempt to answer the question, allow me to share a personal experience. A very dear relative of mine was told at a young age that she couldn’t sing. To this day, she still refuses to even try. Similarly, when I started taking piano lessons (at age 8), I planned to come home and teach my mother what I learned each day (she also wanted to learn to play). During the very first attempt, I said, “Mom, you just don’t have it!” She has never let me forget those words and has never allowed me to fix my mistake.
The truth is, our words have power for both good and evil, and will bless or haunt students for many years after they leave our classrooms. This is magnified due to the personal nature of the voice—we can’t buy a new voice as one might buy a new clarinet, so any perceived insult regarding the quality of a voice can scar a young person for life. Phrases like “just mouth the words” or “don’t sing this song/concert” can have profound, long-term effects on a student’s musical journey.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I have yet to meet a single person who wanted to learn to sing, but couldn’t. With unceasing positivity, some one-on-one training (even five minutes once a week can have an impact), and a solid work ethic, no one is a hopeless case.
The key is to look for root causes, of which there may be many. A Free Spirit Singer may not understand our terminology; perhaps they don’t have the proper concept of “high” and “low”. To find out, ask them to sing or use a piano to demonstrate a high pitch or a low pitch. They may have an issue with hearing or processing auditory information. Play or sing two different pitches, one after the other, and see if they can tell you which is higher. Start with wide leaps before bringing the two notes closer together.
They may have problems with discerning changes in pitch. Ask them to sing a note (always start with where they are, not where you want them to be) and then match them (this is a great time to make sure they actually understand the term, “matching pitch”). Move to a slightly higher or lower pitch and see if they follow you. Ask them if they recognized a change in pitch. With success in close ranges, progress through larger intervals.
Other students may have difficulty concentrating, and changes in classroom management techniques could help. For those with short-term memory or audiation issues, encouraging students to think the pitch before they sing it can develop these skills over time. Some voices may struggle to match pitch simply because they are changing and what used to work no longer does. In my experience, breathing and vocal production are the most common culprits, and regular, traditional vocal training will gradually fix the problem (again, individual instruction will prove most beneficial in these cases). Finally, vocal damage is a possible cause even for very young students, and suggesting that these students visit a speech therapist is the best option (but be careful not to diagnose anything—that isn’t your responsibility).
In closing, I offer my ten commandments for helping Free Spirit Singers:
I. Thou shalt NOT call a “skill” a “gift”. Neither shalt thou call it a “talent”.
II. Thou shalt NOT ask a Free Spirit Singer to match a note on the piano.
III. Thou shalt NOT ask a Free Spirit Singer to match a random note you are singing.
IV. Thou shalt NOT ask a Free Spirit Singer to “lip-synch”, “not sing”, “sing quietly”, or “sing silently”.
· This even applies to the most important concert of the year.
V. Thou shalt NOT diagnose medical conditions.
VI. Thou SHALT find ways to work individually with free spirits.
VII. Thou shalt ALWAYS be positive and encouraging.
· Being a free spirit is not a disease. It is a skill that hasn’t yet been learned (just like spelling, calculus, or rocket science).
· Even the slightest improvement should receive the loudest praise.
· Praise the work, not the ability.
VIII. Thou shalt analyze the root cause(s) before treating symptoms.
IX. Thou shalt make a plan for strengthening skills and overcoming challenges.
X. Thou shalt prepare Free Spirit Singers for a long journey of hard work.
· No sugar coating. Anyone who wants to learn to sing can learn to sing, but they have to be willing to work at it.