There was a time where pianos were commonplace in homes and it was just “normal” to sing. Families would gather around and make music with joy in their hearts. Back in the day, my grandparents used to sing around the house, sing to the radio, sing at the dinner table. They were not concert-goers, music elitists, couldn’t read music, and had no musical training. It was just part of our culture back then to sing. My paternal grandfather harmonized really well. My maternal grandfather was more of a crooner. Neither of them probably ever sang a song by themselves, in a performance, or on a stage. They just sang for fun.
Back then, glee clubs were popular and community choruses were HUGE in size and quantity. Singing was a cool activity to bring people together.
Our singing culture now
Well….GONE are the days where singing is part of our regular culture. Singing has switched from an active part of our culture to an elitist activity.
Today, we live in the world of “American Idol”, where everyone is labeled as GOOD or BAD: Either worthy of sharing their voice, or given the right to remain silent.
This has DESTROYED singing as a means of every day expression.
Our society declares people as “TONE DEAF” at the drop of a hat, and these people stop singing for the rest of our lives. These poor victims now become passive. As a result, we’ve created a culture filled with non-singers.
We are the choir directors. Now Enter……..the “tone deaf” singer
With the remaining few students who CHOOSE to sing, what do we do when they arrive unable to match pitch? Our enrollment is already low and we feel the dire need to keep everyone, but this student appears to be “tone deaf”. The student is clearly going to bring down every rehearsal.
Well…there is good news and bad news.
The good news is that there is a solution. The bad news it that there is no quick-fix.
When faced with a student who is unable to match pitch, we must do two things:
1. We must first believe the singer IS NOT “tone deaf”
It is EXTREMELY unlikely that your singer is tone-deaf. I’ve been directing a self-selected high school choral program for well over 20 years and I’ve never had a tone-deaf singer. I also taught kindergarten general music, a middle school self-selected chorus, and a senior citizen’s choir for more than a decade and have yet to come across a tone deaf singer. Amusia, the scientific diagnosis for being tone-deaf, is claimed by some to stricken as much as 4% of our population. From my experience, I believe this is total nonsense. Like any other skill in this world, singing comes naturally to some people over others. Some deficiencies require more work to overcome than others but in the end, everyone can learn to match pitch. I believe this so strongly that I created an online course for choir directors that is entitled: How To Teach Anyone To Match Pitch!
2. We must start with the premise that their ear is NOT the issue
The ear is almost NEVER their problem. It is usually their lack of technique or coordination that is the cause for not matching pitch. In fact, their ear could be an ASSET, not a detriment, even with a singer who appears to be “tone deaf.”
What is our moral responsibility as choral directors regarding “tone deaf” singers?
Most students don’t take private singing lessons. It is more likely that a choral director will have the opportunity to help more singers than a voice teacher. This is not intended to insult voice teachers who can have a huge impact on individual singers. The bottom line is that a choral director is impacting multiples of singers, probably more singers in one rehearsal than a private voice teacher can impact in an entire week. As a result, we have a real responsibility here. We must understand that we may be the “make or break” singing experience for a singer.
With that said, here are the three things we must do when faced with a struggling singer:
1. We must believe it is our responsibility to keep singing alive in our culture
Choirs should not be elitist. We should be providing high-quality singing opportunities for all people that wish to sing. If we run a middle school or high school choral program, we must find a way to help both the strongest and the weakest singers to improve. As mentioned earlier, I place all students, regardless of talent, in the same ensemble; I believe this gives the weakest singers role models and empowers the strongest singers to become vocal leaders. Regardless of your approach, I believe it is your obligation to motivate and help ALL students who wish to sing. My program is self-selected. Yes, anyone can join, but we rehearse and sound like a select ensemble because our expectations are high for each individual.
2. We must not let “American Idol” be the barometer for who should be allowed to sing
Joining a choir should not feel like a judge and jury. We should welcome everyone who wishes to sing. This doesn’t mean we should settle for poor singing or set low expectations for our singers.
Our job is to help every singer to improve, not to cater only to the talented few. If we value progress more than talent, all singers will have the potential to grow exponentially. When all individual singers gain the desire to improve, our choirs will gain unlimited potential.
3. We should be ready, willing, and able to teach ANYONE to match pitch
Yes, ANYONE can learn to match pitch. I can teach anyone to match pitch and so can you. If you don’t know how to, I’ve written several blog posts on this topic. Here are two listed below:
“Tone Deaf” is an Excuse……not a Diagnosis – blog post
My online course teaches a 7-step process to teach every singer to match pitch. It consists of 12 videos and also provides several useful handouts, including my pitch-matching rubric. This course explains how to work with a singer who is inconsistent in rehearsals, and how to handle a singer who truly does struggle with their ear. As a result of you taking this course, your struggling singers will move from being perceived as tone deaf to becoming students who can learn to sing.
The Tone Deaf Test:
If you are unsure of whether your singer truly is tone deaf, give them this simple tone deaf test:
Final words about being tone deaf in choir
I believe everyone can learn to match pitch and it is our job to make this happen. We must accept responsibility for this job. Not every person who walks into our classroom will find a life-long passion in singing, but it’s our job to bring out the very best in everyone. We should serve both as a motivator and as a vocal technician. We have the ability to create a culture that loves to sing. While not every singer will fall in love with our program, it should never be because they were “tone deaf”.
It is our responsibility to guide each and every singer who enters our door to find their voice!