Recently, a voice teacher in China and I had a great conversation about three specific issues in her studio. In my last piece, I shared my thoughts and suggestions about Phrasing. Here, we’ll look at the second challenge a number of her singers, and so many of us deal with: Pitch. (Next month, we’ll talk about the 3rd P: Preferences and Pressure in Learning.)
Issue #2: Pitch
Pitch, as we all know, is a tricky, tricky issue (and one I talk about at length in The Art of Singing). Not only because it is so noticeable– and discouraging!– when we get it wrong. But also, because drawing attention to it can create more problems than it solves.
To understand why, let’s look at how pitch ‘works’. . . how we actually achieve it. Many of us think, understandably, that we need to focus on our throats when trying to lock it in, as that’s where our vocal cords are located. And this is true; they rest in the larynx, vibrating faster and slower (as well as thinning and thickening a bit) to create the notes we sing.
Yet while the vibration occurs in our throats, we don’t initiate pitch there. How could we? Hard as we try, we have no direct, physical ability to cause the hundreds and even thousands of vibrations– per second!– that result in the notes we sing.
How then do we create and correct notes? If not in our throats, where does pitch originate and how do we manage it?
The answer to both questions is. . . in our ears.
Pitch is above all a function of our listening. When we hear or imagine a note we want to sing, a largely automatic and interdependent engagement process is set in motion without our hands-on help. Our role is to allow that process to initiate and then aurally observe the outcome, making any corrections necessary through the same process of Intention, Allowing and Observation.
For most people, this is a tough concept to grasp. As the result we want– singing– is a physical one, most of us have been taught to try and physically control the process. Yet this often leads to engaging isolated muscular and breath engagements we can control, which interfere with those that yield the results we’re looking for.
Compounding the tension and compartmentalization– as well as our pitch problems– is the way we label notes and language how to best create and correct them. Commands like ‘reach up, aim higher, and brighten our tone’ speak to a vertical notion of ‘up and down’ that not only causes us to lift and strain, but runs contrary to the horizontal vibratory structure of our instruments.
Instead of being hindered by language, use it to your advantage. Set aside notions and talk of ‘high and low’ and think of pitch laterally. Imagine moving from left to right as you move through your range, as you would on a piano. Notice the difference that single mental and linguistic shift makes in your experience of singing.
Another helpful reframing is to think of each note as a wall-sized target that is impossible to miss, rather than a tiny point to narrow in on. Also imagine your singing emerging from all of who you are, rather than from only your mouth. These expanded and expansive ideas relax the body (and mind) and create confidence.
Change your language, change your perception, and you change your experience. As well as your vocal results.
Some of my favorite vocal exercises, as my clients will tell you, sound anything but musical. Speaking, squealing, and making deliberately unattractive sounds are excellent ways to engage the voice without engaging the judgmental aspects of our minds. As a result, we are free to make a host of non-musical sounding, but correct vocalizations, locking in healthy physical habits without the technical brain interfering.
The following exercise is a perfect example. Using only your speaking voice say– as dramatically as you can– “I can’t believe it!” Do it again, this time saying the phrase in a variety of ways: as if you were sad, then angry, and then hysterical. Really exaggerate and draw each one out.
Now, pause and observe– without trying them again– how rangy your engagements were. How did you create those notes, without tension and strain, and move between them? Certainly not by thinking about pitch or doing anything to deliberately hit each ‘high or low’ one. Your body created what you intended. And the results came out exactly as you’d imagined.
So much of the work of singing is done in the mind. Including acknowledging where your mind is of little help (and even a hindrance). This realization– that through intention you can effortlessly move your voice across your range– is a powerful one and will advance your vocal development by leaps and bounds. Let it sink in.
Make your way to a piano, guitar, or other instrument; there are plenty online if you don’t have one handy. Without looking at what you’re playing, hit any note and then say again, “I can’t be-LIEVE it!” intending the second syllable of believe toward the note you’ve played. Keep the sentence spoken and conversational and don’t give yourself time to think; once you’ve finished the sentence, quickly hit another note at random and say the phrase, again intending ‘lieve’ toward the note.
After about 10 times through– at a quick pace without looking at the instrument– pause and reflect. How are you hitting those notes, without consciously analyzing or physically controlling the process? How is this possible?
Again, through your intention. By listening, allowing, observing, and trusting your instrument.
Let’s walk one more step toward the musical. Play a note at random (don’t look), preferably in your speaking range. Taking to heart all we’ve been discussing here, and pause for a moment to really hear the note you’ve played. Not as one you need to sing accurately, but as a pool into which you want to dive. Be curious about it. Listen to it wholly and newly– really hear through to the center of it.
So often, we sing notes we think we want to hear rather than really thinking about and listening to the notes we want to sing. Let the sound in; let it fill you up. Then join it, on a hum or any sound you’d like. Join in the expansiveness of it, the wall-sized presence of it. Let your ear, not your fear, lead you in unifying with it. Feel your body meet the opportunity of engaging and supporting that vibration.
That might sound a little woo-woo. But great singing– and all creativity and flow– live in this realm, rather than in the intellectual.
For some of you, that we are now ‘singing’ will bring the intellect back in, along with the compartmentalization, tension and control it so often employs. Be patient and kind with yourself. Mastering pitch– like living a great life– is about surrender, patience and grace. Try again and take your time. Don’t worry about getting it ‘right’. Concentrate on listening more deeply. And the gift that it is to have a voice, and to be able to use it.
All of these exercises– including those that don’t sound musical– develop and strengthen the very technique we use to sing even the most precise and complex of phrases: Intending or imitating the notes you want to hear. Allowing your instrument to engage. Observing and then imagining the changes you wish for. Trusting your body to create them.
And then, sitting back and marvel at your gorgeous, effortless, and accurate voice.
For more exercises and a comprehensive discussion about Pitch, click here to read The Art of Singing