This series of articles is written with the beginner and intermediate level performer in mind. It is also written primarily for musicians that play instruments and sing during their performance. However, with a little imagination these principles can be applied to public speaking, teaching or reading poetry. These suggestions are by no means original. Many of them come from more seasoned performers of music and other arts who I cite whenever possible.
Sing on Pitch!!
Folks, if I can do it, anyone can. When I sang at my first open mic in 1982, very few of the words I sang even remotely resembled a pitch that was in any way related to the chord I was playing on my guitar. I knew my pitch was bad and listening to some recordings of my early performances confirmed that. Only a tiny percent of the population can sing on pitch. But this skill is believed by a majority of scientists to be learnable – as opposed to being genetically determined. So, how does one learn to sing on pitch?
I was lucky to find an excellent voice teacher in 1991 when I began recording my first CD. In my six months of lessons, I learned a wide variety of elements of effective singing, including fullness, brightness, inflection, breath control, enunciation, vowel shaping and more. While some singers can get away with less than perfect pitch because of the nature of their music or other outstanding qualities to their singing – Right On, Gerry! – for most singers, the most important element of singing is the ability to do so relatively close to being on pitch. And one method of improving your pitch that won’t cost you a penny is listening.
Listen to your instrument
Whether it is a piano or stringed instrument or something else, when it comes to learning pitch it is very important to work with an instrument that is well tuned. Play the notes of a chord one at a time. Play them a few times just listening. Play them slowly and let the notes ring. Try to hone in on the essential tone or fundamental frequency of each note. Then play the notes a few more times while singing along. Listen carefully to see if your voice is on the same pitch as the instrument. You can experiment by gradually raising and lowering the pitch of your singing to hear what it sounds like to sing flat or sharp and to find that one spot where your voice seems to lock in with the instrument. Get familiar with the feeling of singing in that locked in spot. It feels almost as if the instrument is a part of your voice – as if your voice is making the string or key sound the way it does. That’s singing on pitch. You can also try this with major and minor scales.
This technique makes a huge difference when you try it with the melody of a song you are learning or composing. One of the songs I practiced with my voice teacher had a section where a series of 10 syllables descended from the pitch of D to C. I unknowingly was singing each progressive syllable about one ninth of a tone lower and hence sounded awful to anyone with refined ears. My teacher asked me which notes I was trying to sing and I had no idea. I had written the song five years earlier and did not really know the melody. This is like a parent who, after 20 or 30 years, doesn’t really know their children. And the simple solution is to listen. By simply listening to the chord progression, I realized that every note was either a D, C# or C.
When a performer is learning a new song, especially one they themselves wrote – even if they are part of the small percentage that innately recognizes a melody right away – it can help to figure out each note of the melody on a guitar or piano and sing along to them as described above. Listen carefully to the notes that make the nicest melody line. I surprise myself many times doing this because I find the song itself dictating the notes it wants sung. And I often end up with melodies quite different than I had originally imagined. This technique helps to develop the writer’s skill of composing melodies and the performer’s skill of singing on pitch. It further helps the singer recognize and develop some of the other elements of singing mentioned above.
Does it help to sing along with recorded music?
Yes and No. Learning cover tunes to perform or just to learn some techniques of other singers is a great way to develop your own style. I love singing along to Frank Sinatra, Art Garfunkle and even Gary Pucket, even though I don’t even begin to have a similar style to any of them. But, I learn a lot about phrasing and vowel shaping and breathing from them. On the other hand, it can be hard to tell if you are singing on pitch when you are singing in unison with someone else. So go ahead and do it, but know its benefits and drawbacks.