There are 4 tangible steps that can be taken to develop EVERY singer’s ear, and in turn, develop their singing voice.
When student’s cannot match pitch or cannot sing in tune, one of two things (or both things) are the cause: lack of vocal technique and/or lack of aural skills. If we can find the time to work with our singers AND have a tangible process to develop each singer and their ear, then EVERY singer will be able to thrive.
Vocal technique and Aural Training cannot be isolated
A student who cannot match pitch likely has issues at some level with both vocal technique and aural skills. They may or may not hear that they are wrong; even if they can hear they are singing the wrong pitch or an out of tune pitch, they are unable to correct it. They may sing in tune in one area of their voice but not in another. They may match pitch well in one limited area of their voice when minimal technique is required.
Both the singer and the teacher must believe there is a step-by-step process that brings every singer, even the ones who appear “tone-deaf”, to the next level.
Developing the ear must work hand-in-hand with developing vocal technique. Even the strongest singers that I’ve had in my program have had “holes” in both their aural training skills and their vocal technique; a singer with perfect pitch or a refined soloist, for example, may still struggle with singing a scale perfectly in tune.
The step-by-step system that I’m going to explain applies to ALL singers in our program, not just our weakest singers. All students can and will improve when a clear step-by-step plan is in place. When they have reached the top level on all 4 rubrics, they will have met a set foundation that will allow them to hold their part effectively and be able to hear diatonic notated music in their head. (provided they can accurately read and understand the notated pitches and rhythms)
Here are the 4 skills needed for Developing Every Singer’s Ear
- Matching pitch throughout entire vocal range
- Singing a major, diatonic scale in tune
- Singing simple alternating solfege pattern
- Mastering the Aural Training Sheet
While the first 3 skills may be partially innate in a good number of students, many lack the mastery of these skills. Similar to the aural training sheet (which will be explained later), these are not “all or nothing” skills. Just because a student appears to match pitch doesn’t mean they’ve mastered this skill. The same goes for how accurately they sing a scale.
I’ve broken each of those three skills (matching pitch, singing a scale, simple alternating solfege pattern) down into 5 steps with a rubric to evaluate the progress of each skill. The pitch-matching rubric is quite elaborate with detailed skills on each step to bring a student who appears “tone-deaf” all the way up to becoming a competent singer.
If you can speak, you can sing. Just by finding the pitches that a singer currently uses to speak, we can access a singer’s voice. From this entry point, we must build tangible steps such as increasing their range in both directions and pivoting into other vocal registers. My 5-step rubric will help all singers to gain confidence through tangible growth. For more detailed information, check out my blog post: “Tone Deaf” is an Excuse…….not a Diagnosis
Here is an example of level one of the 5-level rubric:
|Singer can differentiate a low pitch from a high pitch when
hearing two different notes played on the piano
|Singer’s pitch can be matched on the piano.
(They sing and we match it)
|Singer can ascend by at least two steps above their chosen pitch
with the piano guiding them. (Do, Re, Mi, Re, Do) *
|Singer can descend by at least two steps above their chosen pitch with the piano guiding them. (Mi, Re, Do) *|
*If the singer can’t move off of their ‘Do’ to reach a third above, it’s usually due to a lack of breath support, and we need to ensure they are supporting their sound by having them cough (with their hands just below their sternum) and feel their solar plexus pop out, followed by staccato sounds on a spoken pitch and then one specific pitch.
Each task in Level 1 is listed positively; it explains what a singer can do. If they cannot yet compete that task, it should be left blank (there is a check box when they successfully complete each task). When a singer can complete all of the Level 1 tasks, they will be ready to move onto Level 2. They are permitted to attempt tasks that are one level higher, but they must master all tasks at each Level before being promoted onto the following level.
As you will see, Level 2 offers more tangible, positive steps toward growth:
|Singer can differentiate which pitch is higher or lower when the
same note in different octaves is played on the piano.
|Singer can match pitch in a limited range of approximately a fifth, beginning at their chosen pitch, with the piano guiding them.|
|Singer can perform a small sigh with limited range,
possibly missing some pitches along the way.
They can essentially start on a mid-range pitch, and slide up, and
The range of the sigh/slide may be as small as a 5th.
Levels 3, 4, and 5 follow with the same level of detail. Every level brings small victories to both the student and the teacher!
We all understand that a student who cannot match pitch will be unable to sing a scale in tune. But what about the singer who appears to match pitch? Can each student sing a scale in tune, starting and ending on the exact same “do” with every pitch in tune? Can they sing a major, diatonic scale in tune throughout their entire vocal range, including through their vocal break – both ascending and descending?
How singers navigate a scale in their lower, middle, and upper range has a lot to do with both the development of their ear and their vocal technique.
I’ve created a five-step rubric for my singers in order to assess and track their progress. It sets tangible goals along with things for them to practice each step of the way. Click here for a link to my scale-singing rubric.
Here is level 1 of the 5 levels:
|Singer can sing 3-5 consecutive scale tones in a row either
ascending or descending in the most comfortable part of their
We match their pitch on the piano and then bring them up or
down by 3-5 pitches. It is suggested that they continue to work on pitch-matching as well, as there are likely some technique issues
that are occurring.
Each of the 5 levels are clear, positive, and tangible.
You might be surprised what you will hear if you ask your students to sing “do, mi, sol” followed by “do, re, mi”. Some students will respond by singing these two patterns beautifully in tune, one after another. Many will likely sing them surprisingly out of tune. But what may be most surprising is how many will struggle mightily in differentiating these two basic patterns, even after a call and response. Students who cannot differentiate step-wise motion from skipping will be unsuccessful in retaining their choral part and processing music at an acceptable level.
If we can agree that being able to differentiate the most fundamental step-wise and skipping pattern is important, asking each student to sing this one after another won’t take very long. While singing those two patterns might seem like an “all-or-nothing” skill, this is far from true. You may find students who can’t sing “do, mi, sol” at all. You may find students who can sing each pattern on their own after hearing them sung first, but they cannot sing them one after another. You may find students who can sing them after hearing them but cannot produce them on their own. You may find students who can sing these patterns but cannot sing the “mi” or “sol” in tune.
There are successive skills in this process. I’ve create a rubric for my students and ensure every student reaches level 4 or 5 within several months of being in my program. Click here for a link to my simple alternating solfege pattern rubric.
This exercise is the culmination of the first three steps. It is far more difficult and requires students to have earned at least 4 out of 5 on each of the three previous skill.
The link to the blog that explains this exercise in depth is here.
Below is a simple explanation of the purpose of the exercise:
When students move from ear-training directly into sight-singing, they frequently get stuck. Many issues may arise, such as their lack of ability to quickly identify notes on the staff and understanding rhythm, but the most common major issue is developing and accessing their ear.
Students may be able to produce many isolated intervals and yet somehow when music is placed in front of them, they cannot find those same pitches. Why does this happen? It’s simple: because they are processing too many new things at once.
Self Assessment Rubrics for your students: rehearsal participation & concert participation – when they own their participation, they tend to become more engaged!
Introducing “The Best Ear-Training” exercise:
This exercise uses the written-out solfege syllables. The 7 diatonic solfege syllables are placed randomly in a line that is 13 syllables long, beginning and ending with “do.”
Here is an example:
click here to download an entire sheet of exercises
The purpose of this exercise is to teach students how to follow with their eyes, develop their ear, and access their ear while eye-tracking, but not getting bogged down with note-reading. Note-reading skills need to be developed independently from the development of aural skills; when both skills are worked on separately, they become far more useful together. (This is where the Sight-Singing Developmental Rubric comes into play).
The ultimate goal, mastery of this exercise, is for students to sing one line from beginning to end perfectly to a steady pulse. It is highly unlikely a new singer, or a singer performing this for the first time will be able to do this.
How to administer/assess the “Best Aural Training Exercise”:
Assign any of the lines (or new lines that you create) to the student and ask them to sing each of the 13 pitches. This does not need to initially happen to a steady pulse. The only time a steady pulse should be required is once students consistently sing every exercise perfectly.
Many singers will get lost immediately after beginning the exercise. When this happens, ask them to sing “do”. If they cannot sing “do”, give them “do” and have them start over again. Every time they get lost and cannot find the correct pitch, have them go back to “do”. Once at “do”, have them sing a scale aloud up to the correct pitch. If it is clear the singer cannot successfully find any pitches, they need to go back to singing a scale in tune (and using the scale rubric).
How to assess their performance using the rubric
Students are assessed out of 5 points. I’ve created a positively-framed rubric that can be shared between a teacher and student that helps students to move from one level to the next. Below is a summary of each step/score:
- Student has not mastered the scale yet and cannot perform any aspect of the exercise. In this case, they must work on developing their skill of singing a scale in tune.
- Student needs to hear “do” constantly in order to find the pitches.
Each pitch is found by singing the scale aloud from “do” to the correct pitch.
- Student has locked “do” in their head but needs to sing a scale from
“do” up to the correct pitch each time they cannot find the pitch. They usually cannot recognize when they are singing the wrong syllable.
- Student has “do” locked in their head and gets most pitches correctly. When they cannot find the correct pitch, they are usually only one step off and recognize their error. In these instances, they can return to “do” in their head and sing a scale internally until they reach the correct pitch.
- Student can sing every pitch correctly and can sing an exercise to a
What the Score Represents: It’s implication
5 out of 5 represents mastery of this skill. This means the student has truly developed this aural training skill at a level where their ear has become an asset to their sight-singing. Not only that, completing skill level 5 assures they are beyond capable of holding their part well in a choir.
4 out of 5 is “passing”, which means they possess enough ear-training skill to be able to be successful at sight-singing. Of course, this presupposes they can decode pitches on a staff at a fast pace as well as rhythm (both assessed in the Sight-Singing Developmental Rubric). When earning this score, it is quite likely the student holds their vocal part well.
3 out of 5 means a student may struggle to find pitches when sight-singing, even if they have a firm grasp of reading pitches and rhythms. Since they still have “do” locked into place, some singers can hold their parts decently in a choir but it usually takes them longer to retain and lock in than students who score higher.
2 out of 5 and below means the student should be focused on the prior 3 skills (pitch-matching, singing a scale, and simple alternating solfege patterns) instead of or in addition to this exercise. They will likely experience little to no success with sight-singing if they frequently lose “do”. These singers are unlikely to hold their choral part on their own.
Each of the four individual aural training skills have five clear steps toward mastery. All four rubrics along with the aural training sheet are available in The Ultimate Aural Training Assessment & Development Bundle. This is a system that I have been using with my 100+ students each and every year for the past decade. This blog post gives you all the basics that you need to train your students but should you want more guided details where you and your students have a tangible way of measuring growth, these rubrics are tried and true.