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Helping Reluctant Singers Find a Voice

by George Bevan, Director of Music at Monkton Combe School.

In teaching instrumental pupils, it is inevitable that at some point they will need to sing, if only to tackle the aural component of an instrumental exam. If this is the only time that they sing, however, it’s never going to be easy. In fact, we should always been singing, either inside our head or outside it, if we are engaged in music-making - which is why I include a little singing of some description in every instrumental lesson that I teach.

Before going further, it might be helpful to make a distinction between those who can’t sing, those who won’t, and those who perhaps fall into both categories - they are often closely linked, at least in perception if not in reality. In my experience, most reluctant singers can be transformed with one magic ingredient - confidence - but herewith, a few things which might also help.

When it comes to really bad singers - those who might describe themselves as tone deaf - the majority of problems are rarely due to a lack of ability to hear, but rather an inability to identify how physically to reproduce the sounds which they hear. In other words, there is a problem with the output, not the input. I suspect that true tone deafness is difficult to fix, but the latter condition is most definitely not.

Many teenage boys have quite a narrow pitch range in their speaking voice, and they generally loiter in the lower register - so this is the best place to start! I sing them a note towards the bottom of their vocal range, since this requires the least physical effort - in fact, I refer to this as their ‘lazy’ voice. I then ask them to imagine singing the note back to me; to rehearse in their ‘inner ear’ what they expect the note to sound like when they actually sing it. In almost every case, they go on to sing the correct note straight back to me.

This in itself can be a big moment, since most people who can’t sing have had this message reinforced over an extended time period by other people telling them that they can’t sing. And sadly they have believed it - until now that is! Seize the moment and give them the good news; “you can sing in tune!”.

Physics helps.... The natural beats which are set up when two notes are not quite in tune disappear once teacher and pupil are singing the same pitch; standing face to face, it's difficult to miss this. Having found their note - "you're an A flat man!" - I generally move on and explore the next two or three notes in the scale (using solfa). Before singing each note I encourage them to take their time, going through the complete process again in their inner ear first, and when they are ready, sing.

…. And biology also helps! Singing yourself allows your pupil to see and hear how to sing; the sound, the breath, the energy. On the other hand, the piano gives none of these clues whatsoever. Do not use the piano. Incidentally, this approach might also put some teachers on the spot in terms of their own singing - go ahead, challenge yourself!
Many people who can’t sing very well don’t listen carefully enough to what they are doing, either because they don’t realise how important it is to listen, or because they don’t believe that they can do it and have given up before they even before they have even started.

Critical listening is vital, so set the tone straight away. Some students will ‘swoop’ onto a note, usually from below, having misjudged where to pitch it. This in itself is a good thing since they are adjusting with their ear, which shows that they must be listening! Remind them to prepare the note in their inner ear first, and then sing it, as if they are sticking a pin in a board - they need to put it in exactly the right place, first time. Good breathing is vital, as is the concept of supporting the breath. Without this, a singer just doesn’t have the fuel to make the voice work. I often use the analogy of a toothpaste tube; if you squeeze it in the middle the squeeze doesn’t last very long, but if you work up from the base it keeps on going. Another analogy is to suggest that if you were under water, you wouldn’t take a breath just yet! Asking the pupil to sustain a note for another five or even ten seconds will soon show them where the real work is going on, namely the diaphragm. [It's more complex than this, but a quick demo gets them thinking, and might even make them question how they've been breathing all these years....!]

Singing is a hugely personal thing, and it can take a great deal of courage just to sing that first note. Encouragement it so important at this early stage; our students need to know that we believe that they can do this, and if they can sense our excitement as we open the box, they are more likely to step up to the mark and have a go. Everyone likes to succeed, and this really is a question of one small step at a time to build confidence. Closely linked to confidence is energy and gesture. There is no escaping the fact that teenagers don’t like to embarrass themselves. Singing is deeply personal, and it’s altogether safer to keep a low profile. But singing is also a very physical activity, and I believe that gesture can really help to persuade the body to get going in the vocal department too; it is important to realise that singing is a whole body experience. Stand up, move around, punch the air, open the arms - all of these things also help to fight natural inhibitions.

I have worked with lots of young ‘non-singers’ who have learned to sing individual notes in tune, and as part of a choir (‘The Choir who can’t sing’) can indeed sing heartily and pretty well in tune. However, singing without accompaniment, and without all the other safety nets which we are able to put in place in the secure environment of a lesson, is altogether more challenging. For some, even singing up a five note scale and down again will find them finishing up in a completely different place to where they started! A basic working knowledge of theory is really important; it’s all very well asking a student to sing ‘a step’ higher, but if they have no idea how far that is, then singing even the simplest of melodies can be really difficult. Working within a five note range (do re mi fa so) can be really helpful in securing a strong sense of tonality, singing up and down both the scale and also the major triad (do me so). My aim is invariably to empower the student to sing in tune, and not simply to teach them how to be hauled into tune by a piano.

How often have you played a note for a student - perhaps a key note ahead of a aural test - and the immediate response has been ‘Can you play it again please?!’ The request to hear it again might even come whilst the note is still sounding! Of course it may well be that the pupil is using stalling tactics – any excuse not to have to sing. Worse, however, is that I suspect that many genuinely believe that they can’t remember the pitch. At this point I have to insist, gently but firmly “Just sing the note! Unless they have genuine pitching problems I find that they will almost invariably get it right.

Developing a pitch memory is really important, as it enables us to have a point of reference which in turn will help us to sing more reliably in tune. And this conveniently brings me full circle: as a pupil sits down at the piano and opens their music to the piece which they are currently studying, more often than not I will ask them to sing the first note of the piece, or perhaps the key note. Without perfect pitch this might seem an impossible task, but actually I think it’s really important to engage the inner ear before any actual notes begin to sound. It doesn’t matter that much if we get it wrong, but it’s a good mindset to adopt, to switch on the inner ear. And the single best way to develop the inner ear is to sing!

George Bevan

Director of Music, Monkton Combe School