1. Can a pitch/tone deaf person learn to sing?

In order to pitch accurately 3 skills are needed. (Think of these skills as being like the legs of a stool, which is held steadily by them.)

  • 1. The ability to hear and memorise a tune.
  • 2. The ability to remember what the tune is going to feel like when it is sung in tune. This is a matter of muscular memory and balance. And a necessary prerequisite is the ability to relax and deconstrict the vocal tract. I believe that a major cause of poor intonation is inappropriate muscular tension coupled with an inability to correctly raise the subglottic breath pressure which supports the voice. (Sometimes these problems have been inflicted by a poor singing teacher or vocal coach!)
  • 3. The confidence that you can sing in tune - gained by practice and expert instruction from a singer with a good musical ear.
  • Like the legs of a stool these three skills will provide stability and there will be no collapse.

    The earlier that these 3 skills (musical memory, muscular memory and confidence) are learned, the better the person develops as a singer. Absolute tone deafness is relatively rare and if a person is willing to learn to practise and learn the right technical skills of posture, breathing and vocalising, they will make progress. There are many singing teachers who go through the motions but do not provide good technical advice. Underlying faults are not diagnosed and corrected and progress is minimal. In the worse case a person who might have the potential to sing well is written off.

    I have helped many singers who did not think that they could sing, to unlock their potential. I can do the same for you. The key is to undo the root underlying cause which frequently is inappropriate muscular tension of the vocal tract. I can teach you exercises which will correct the problems. My study of vocal pedagogy and training has equipped me with the tools to shape a rough and ready voice.

    2. On pitch, vocal range and musical notation.

    It is not uncommon for untrained singers to develop a phobia related to pitch, vocal range and musical notation. Put simply, the phobia is this: "My vocal range is limited and I am afraid of singing higher notes." The singer is reluctant to sing a piece of music which they think has a range bigger than they can confidently sing. Their habitual vocal register is usually low and corresponds to what is known as the 'chest' or spoken register. Notes that lie outside of this register are either uncomfortable to sing or cause a false sound to be produced.

    The quick answer, for those who don't want to read the whole article, is to really relax the neck and jaw muscles and then release the tongue, itself a large muscle. Breath deeply and sing as nature intended. This glib answer needs some further explanation. Firstly, I believe that the correct way to sing is comfortably: comfortable tone always develops and uncomfortable tone cannot. Secondly, learn to use the vocal registers correctly. The voice does know what it is doing. (That was the very first thing I was taught studying in London, but it took me a while to learn it.)

    What are vocal registers and how do they relate to pitch?

    We have two vocal registers. Historically they are known as the Chest Register and the Head Register and they seem to sound different which tells us something significant. They sound different because they are produced by different actions of the interior muscles of the larynx. The Chest Register (also known as the Speech Register) produced speech. The muscular action involved is heavier and consequently the tone is heavier and happens to be lower in pitch.

    We have two different ways of changing the pitch of the notes at the upper end of the chest register. One is to push the larynx upwards, thereby keeping the heavier muscular set-up. This is effortful and can be physically a strain. The result is an unstable tone which is hard to control but dramatically effective in some situations. The payoff is a dramatic performance which projects well, but the voice tires very quickly and the throat becomes sore.

    The second way of changing the pitch of the notes at the upper end of the chest register is to move into the head register (also known as the Sob register). The larynx is tilted forwards, thereby making the vocal folds longer, thinner and tighter. The analogy is that longer, thinner and tighter strings make a higher pitched note as on any stringed instrument. The tone is different is quality to that of the heavier chest register. Higher in pitch and lighter in quality like a sob or laugh. The larynx actually finds the same physical position as it would do if we were laughing or sobbing. The tone produced is easier to control and more comfortable. It is also maximises vocal stamina.

    3. How do we know if we are singing properly?

    We have two means of judging the quality of our singing. First is by the way it sounds. Second is by the way it feels. The second is the better way of doing it because it is more reliable and accurate. The first is not reliable or accurate. This is because a singer cannot, without the help of external feedback equipment of very high quality, really hear the sound he makes. We do not hear ourselves properly, because our ears are behind the sound source. The sound is further distorted by the action of bone and facial tissue conduction.

    It is a common fallacy that the voice should sound and feel the same throughout the range, that is not the case because of the different physio-mechanical actions involved. Furthermore artistically a singer may have to learn to adjust the tone by a process known as 'cover' which makes it darker or lighter in tone by changing the vowels being sung.

    The best way to extend the vocal register is to learn to produce the tone comfortably. The other thing which has to be learned is that, from a vocal point of view, there is no such thing as high and low pitch. This is a musical and mathematical construct which helps us to write down the music. Vocally, what counts is how heavy or light a note is. Heavy tone will tend to be lower in pitch and light tone will tend to be higher in pitch. A singer will produce a light or heavy note that corresponds to the pitch required and then remember what it feels like so that they can do it again as and when required.

    Estill Vocal Figures.

    Jo Estill was a singer and vocal researcher. She has completed pioneering reach into six voice qualities: speech, falsetto, sob, twang, opera and belt. She has identified a system of specific exercises or 'figures' which isolate and hone these qualities, and enable the individual to delevop specific control over key muscle groups and structures in the vocal tract. They are easy to learn and invaluable to the singers because they encapsulate solid, reliable vocal technique for any genre. Her work is valuable because it is an objective and highly scientific presentation of facts which informed singers knew intuitively and could teach, but in the main only with reference to subjective facts and opinions. Following in the steps of people like Vennard, Jo Estill has used state of the art equipment to record and evaluate the data in a highly objective fashion.

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    Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Jessop.