Imagine if learning to matching pitch was treated like learning basic math:
We certainly believe everyone can learn addition and subtraction. In fact, our public schools require that all students learn how to add and subtract.
If a student struggles to understand the concept of basic math, how is this handled? It’s likely the school will provide extra help. The student remains in class, but also receives individualized training until they have caught up to the other students.
Do we give up on a student who can’t add or subtract? Never. We continue to find approaches that reach them.
So why don’t we don’t we treat the skill of matching pitch the same way?
Why do some of us believe some students will never learn how to match pitch?
Why do we give up on some of our singers?
Is it because:
- unlike math, singing is not a requirement?
- we either don’t want to take the time or don’t have the time to help students who are struggling?
- we haven’t yet mastered the skill to teach every student to match pitch?
Is matching pitch as important as learning basic math?
Let’s start with a premise that may be shocking: I believe both skills are not necessary to function in life.
A calculator can perform any equation without the user having knowledge of how to solve the equation on their own. Every phone has a calculator. Even Alexa and Siri will answer simple math questions.
Matching pitch is also an unnecessary skill for virtually any profession in life, other than being a musician. You will never need the skill in order to survive or to earn a living.
If neither is necessary, why is basic math and matching pitch important?
Basic math is important because we shouldn’t rely on technology to do the job of our brain. We need to understand how and why things function. There are so many more advanced concepts that are based on these fundamentals.
Matching pitch is important because it is the foundation for all music-making. It opens us up to making connections with others through music, our universal language. It allows us to vocally contribute for and with others in a meaningful way.
Some may feel that just “singing”, regardless of pitch, is fine. I believe something as simple as “Happy Birthday” will have a far more meaningful effect when everyone who matches pitch sings together. Singing Christmas Carols around the piano, or joining a community choir or joining a religiously-affiliated choir can also be of great impact to many adults looking to connect to others.
While most people don’t aspire to become professional singers, I would argue that everyone wishes they could match pitch.
Our job as choral directors
I can’t tell you the number of adults I’ve encountered who have declared themselves “tone-deaf”; they tell me about some music teacher in their past that called them “tone-deaf”, asked them to mouth the words, or asked them to drop out of chorus. Our current choir members deserve a better experience. I think it is our civic duty to ensure they all successfully learn to match pitch.
We must treat matching pitch like basic math. Everyone is expected to be able to match pitch. If they cannot match pitch, we must help them individually. They must continue to participate in the rehearsal, but we must find ways both outside and inside of the rehearsal to help them to achieve this life-long skill.
I understand that many choral directors experience progress with struggling singers in a one-on-one setting but then don’t see that success transfer into the choral rehearsal; I address it in by blog post, How To Navigate Struggling Singers in A Chorus Rehearsal, as well as in my online course, How To Teach Anyone To Match Pitch!
Do you know how to teach ANYONE to match pitch?
I truly believe that if you do know how to get anyone to match pitch, you will choose to get every student to do this.
If you have students who you cannot get to match pitch, you may believe these singers are the exception; you may believe that they suffer from amusia (being tone-deaf). Before writing these singers off, please consider the possibility that you may not be addressing some of the potential roadblocks a struggling singer may be facing. The skill of matching pitch is comprised of several more specific underlying skills; most singers inherently have a lot of these skills. In the case of a singer who is unable to match pitch, these specific skills needs to be developed.
This is no different than math. Imagine one child not knowing how to read numbers and being asked to add. You would assume all students in kindergarten know their numbers, but some may not. You may assume that students at that age can correctly count forwards and backwards; they may not be able to. They may not be able to properly count using their fingers. These are example of skills that are necessary before a student can properly be able to add and subtract. While most students at a particular age are ready to absorb addition and subtraction, some need help with the underlying skills first.
When it comes to matching pitch, the underlying skills involve both the ear and vocal technique. Many teachers are unsure what to do when a singer cannot match pitch or has such a limited area in which they are able to match pitch.
Basic Math or Matching Pitch: Which is More Important?
My answer is: you be the judge
Calculators perform every function I will ever need. I can hire someone to calculate anything that is more advanced. I hire an accountant, architect, etc.
Matching pitch, on the other hand, cannot be delegated to others. Happy birthday will be sung at parties. Waiters at T.G.I. Fridays and other chains will come over and “serenade” guests on their birthday. “Take Me Out To The Ball” will be sung by thousands of patrons at baseball games. Christmas and holiday carols will be sung throughout communities. Religious services will expect entire congregations to sing together.
Singing is a societal expectation and yet we have placed no value or expectation on the quality-level of participation. On top of that, participation by many is met with anxiety and embarrassment.
If matching pitch was an expectation from kindergarten on, just like basic math, we would change the course of societal singing, and create more human connection in our world.