by JoAnn Struck
Choir in middle school seems to be the meeting place for every student who loves to sing but has difficulty matching pitch. The choir program at my school excludes no one. Everyone who wants to sing can join. It’s my job to help them become better singers.
It’s a misconception that middle school boys are the only ones who have trouble matching pitch. Don’t get me wrong, they and it’s obvious when their voice becomes its own alien being. Even though my feeder school music teachers do a fabulous job of teaching kids to sing, there are still some who just can’t do it. It’s not anyone’s fault…it’s just what it is.
I’ve been to countless workshops on the boys changing voice. They all had wonderful things to offer and I use many of them. There are many physiological reasons for the boys voice change that I won’t go in to here. Please check out the list of books at the end of this article if you want to further dive into that aspect.
Over the years I’ve created my own hybrid method of working with these unpredictable voices using everything I’ve learned from workshops and the experience I’ve gained working with my students. I have also found that this works great with girls, too! At the beginning of the school year, this is one of the first warm-up exercises I use with the whole choir. It’s rather magical.
This method came from my good friend Dr. Steven Curtis, retired choral professor from Oklahoma University.
For any student that has trouble matching pitch, have them talk to you until you find their speaking pitch on the piano. Use that pitch as a starting point. Have them sing ‘ah’ on do-re-mi-re-do. Dr. Curtis explains that if a boy (or girl) is having trouble matching pitch, they will have a much better chance of matching 3 pitches instead of a typical 5 (do-re-me-fa-so-fa-me-re-do) that we would use as a standard vocal warm-up. I use ‘ah’ because I can hear them better and I can hear when their voice changes into their upper register or (for boys) pops and cracks or just plain disappears. Have them sing this moving up by half steps until they run out of notes and do the same descending by half steps. This gives you their current range.
Now the real work begins. In my classroom we are very comfortable (even with girls present) talking with the boys about what pitches they can or cannot sing. (this is a subject for an entire different blog post). I explain to any student having trouble matching pitch that they must use the daily warm ups as a chance to broaden their range. I am careful to include the 3-note warm-up for quite a while until I feel most of my students are matching more and more pitches. Sometimes I will ask an individual section to do a warm-up so I can check their progress. I will also have students come individually to work with them and their unique vocal issues.
True story #1: I had a 7th grade girl that constantly sang way too low. Sometimes an octave lower that the music was written. I had her come in before school and discovered that her elementary teacher had told her not to sing. GRRRRRRRRR! This girl loved to sing but no one took the time to help her. Within 5 minutes of a few warm-ups and a quick reminder of how to produce a good sound, she was singing on pitch. She had no actual vocal problems, just a lack of instruction.
True story #2: Last year I had an autistic girl who sang in the stratosphere no matter what I did. I had her begin coming in once a week for a “lesson” (15 minutes). I started her with the 3 note warm up and discovered she could match pitch by herself. We started singing simple songs like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and I would change the key each time we repeated it and she could match pitch. One of her vocal problems was tension. I would constantly tell her to relax and her pitch matching improved immensely. So we made a signal between her and me to help her remember to relax during a rehearsal or performance. Part of her issue though was the need for repetition. Most autistic students need lots of repetition for everything they do. By the time we were ready to perform for the concert she had learned the music well and could sing on pitch most of the time. It was so fun to watch!
True story #3: I had a young man join choir for the first time in 7th grade. He had a bit of an advantage because he had been in orchestra since 4th grade and already had a strong idea of performing in-tune). He literally had 5 notes he could match. I took him through the process I mentioned above and told him if he wanted more notes (larger range) he was going to have to work for it. I explained that he should never sing anything that was painful but it was OK to stretch his range each time we warmed-up. Daily, I could see the look of concentration on his face as we did warm-ups. It was delightful to watch! By the end of the year, he had increased his range to over an octave. I was so proud of him!
Can every student match pitch? I believe they can. It takes work from you, the teacher, as well as the student. It won’t happen overnight and sometimes it might take longer than you have them as students. Put in the work. It’s worth the effort!
Check out the following resources for voice building:
JoAnn Struck has begun her 33rd year of teaching music in the public schools. She has taught music for K-12th grade and has spent the last 25ish years teaching middle school choir at Capps Middle School in the Putnam City School District in Oklahoma City, OK. She earned her B.M.E from Southern Nazarene University and her M.A in Choral Conducting from the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She continues to question her sanity but truly loves teaching middle school. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org