What is "pitchy"?
Can you say "colloquialism"? I suppose it is faster to say "pitchy" than being explicit and telling a singer on which notes they were sharp or flat and by how many cents. We're not talking about pennies here. A note, like a dollar, has a hundred cents. You can be as much as 50 cents sharp or flat. Many people will hear 20 cents either way but fewer will hear 5 or 10 cents off the pitch.
How do we "fix" this problem? We first have to discover why the problem is there. Is the singer not hearing and executing intervals well? Are they not hearing the accompaniment and do they possibly need melodic or harmonic ear training?
Singing is a hearing art. There is an art to hearing, recognizing and knowing what you have heard, being able to "sing it back" to someone and even to be able to correctly write down what you have heard.
I heard examples of a local teacher's singing on her website and was saddened to hear that she obviously does NOT know that she is "pitchy". What's worse is she is sometimes sharp and sometimes flat. Most people will sing off the pitch either consistently flat or consistently sharp. Oftentimes this is a symptom of a transition problem. When the pitch is sometimes sharp, sometimes flat, it can be a multifactorial problem and is much harder to correct. It means that melodic intervals are not known and understood at a conceptual level AND that the basic understanding of how melody relates to accompaniment has never been grasped. Other problems that can contribute to singing pitchy can be hearing damage or even brain damage. If this singing teacher cannot hear this in herself, then how is she going to help her students to sing in tune? She was off 20 or more cents in several instances. She has a fairly consistent tone quality but the intonation is murderous in the recording studio. You can't hide it and engineers usually don't enjoy spending hours correcting the pitch. I heard an engineer tell a singer, "Come back when you learn to sing in tune." Believe me, you do NOT want to ever be told that. It's better to have that under control before ever stepping into a recording studio.
Doing professional audio editing and recording engineering can help one to recognize the amount that the pitch is off. I can certainly say that playing the trombone for decades also hasn't hurt my pitch perception.
I help students with some simple exercises and also some very complex ones. We do this in small increments and by the time we get to the complicated exercises, they seem pretty easy. The ones who practice diligently sing extremely well in tune. Look for some examples coming up soon on this website.
There is no substitute for melodic and harmonic ear training. Singers should be able to sing all types of tetrachords, modes, arpeggiated chords and every possible interval if they ever expect to work professionally. It is not possible to be too good of a musician, is it? A lack of musicianship and a lack of concept of style can be real career killers. Nothing can take the place of excellent musicianship and a solid conceptual understanding of music theory.
How many times have you been told to "Sing from your diaphragm"? I know I heard it for many many years. If you hear the same thing over and over, does that make it true? How long did people think that the earth is flat? Did you know that here is STILL a "Flat Earth Society"? I asked eight doctors, who explained the actual function and structure of the diaphragm. They all said the same thing!
Physicians know what the diaphragm looks like, what it is and how it works. It makes you wonder why most singing teachers have never asked a doctor how the diaphragm functions. Why haven't they? They trusted their teachers who also were never taught simple anatomy.
Did you know you cannot feel it? Did you know that it contracts downward and PULLS in the air? Did you know that it is a muscle? Did you know that you do not "sing from it"? ASK YOUR DOCTOR. FIND OUT THE TRUTH! The diaphragm is RELAXED when you exhale. Abdominal muscles are responsible for forced expiration, not the diaphragm.
In the meantime, it is good to know that your lungs are in your chest and air goes into them and not into your abdomen. If you do not allow your chest to expand as you inhale, you will not be able to fully inhale. Yes, your abdomen will move outward as the diaphragm descends and pushes down on all the organs below it, but unless you want a distended "belly", it may not be a good idea to push it out as you inhale. Also, raising your shoulders won't give you extra breathing space and it actually does the opposite.
If you want great results rather than agreement with the odd, gimicky, and sometimes useless or even harmful advice some people give, stick to the basics. Ask your doctor. I asked mine (actually several) and I got the same answers from them all.
Are you ready for this? Breathing problems aren't even the issue with most singers anyway. If this is news, then you might do research with the experts. Singing correctly is actually simple. What must be overcome is the habits which have been interfering with singing well. This does take training and the singer has to practice to form new habits which make it all come together.
Some vocal coaches might say, "You don't have to know any of that to be a vocal coach." The truth is that you don't have to know anything at all to call yourself a vocal coach. How effective you are, is proportionate to what you know and what you can do. A vocal coach can choose to know nothing about anatomy, physics, musical style, or whatever else. A vocal coach can also choose to expand his or her knowledge, which will enable him or her to be more helpful to the clients.
I thought it was a good idea to consult with true experts, such as physicians. I studied arranging with working professionals. I drew the plans for the mixing room at NBC Burbank, where The Tonight Show was filmed. I have been tested on my knowledge of acoustics and passed the test.
If you are a vocal coach (or a singing teacher) and you are in it just for the money, maybe it's time to make a choice: learn what you need to know to do your best work or leave the profession and make room for those who truly care about singers and about singing as an art. Some of the questions are "trick questions" , but they are based on outdated and/or incorrect "myths" regarding anatomy, muscle function, and physics.
1. Where is the hyoid bone?
2. Which muscles, connected to the larynx, contract when you yawn? How can you exercise them?
3. Which muscles pull the larynx up, when you swallow?
4. What is the function of the oblique arytenoid muscles? How can you exercise them?
5. When the diaphragm contracts, does it ascend or descend?
6. Name the muscles of "forced expiration".
7. Why are the vocal folds no longer called vocal cords?
8. Is it possible to "place your sound" and what muscles would be involved in that?
9. Define "falsetto".
10. Is head voice a tone quality or vocal range ?
11. Why is chest voice called "chest voice"?
12. What causes a break, or crack, in the voice?
13. What do you do to sing from the diaphragm?
14. How do you feel where your diaphragm is?
15. What muscles are used to open the throat?
16. Draw the anterior view of the larynx, showing the thyroid cartilage, the hyoglossus muscle, the cricoid cartilage, the sterno-thyroid and sterno-hyoid muscles, and the hyoid bone.
17. Draw the top view of the larynx, showing the arytenoid cartilages, the thyroid and cricoid cartilages, and the oblique arytenoid muscles.
18. Why does the lower abdomen expand slightly when you inhale? Does air go in there?
19. When does liquid, that you swallow, make contact with your vocal cords?
20. How can you prevent excessive muscle tension in the neck or the jaw when you sing?
21. How do you improve pitch problems in a singer?
22. What are the notes in a D major 9th chord
23. Name the seven modes of a major scale. Sing them.
24. Sing a Phrygian tetrachord up and down.
25. Establish a starting note (Use A flat.) and, using a major scale, sing the scale steps 6-5-4-3-2-1. The 6 will be the A flat.
26. Sing a Dorian mode, starting on a C.
27. What is a bridge in a song?
28. What is a bridge in the voice?
29. How would you notate (as literally as possible) a swing rhythm for a musician or singer who is unfamiliar with a swing rhythm?
30. Sing a one octave chromatic scale.
31. Sing a pentatonic scale.
32. Sing a whole tone scale.
33. Sing an Aeolian mode.
34. Sing an ascending augmented 4th.
35. Sing an ascending minor 6th.
36. Sing an arpeggiated major seventh chord, ascending.
37. Sing a descending minor 6th.
38. Sing all the major scales in the circle of fifths.
39. Sing the notes of a sus4 chord.
40. Sing the notes of a sus2 chord.
41. What scales are used for embellishments in most R&B and pop music?
42. What is a fry tone?
43. What is the Bogart-Bacall Syndrome?
44. What are the ten most common problems of singers?
45. What is "middle voice"?
46. Should the jaw be opened the same on the "e" as in "bee" as on the "a", as in "bat"?
47. What is the difference between front vowels and back vowels?
48. Which back vowel has the highest tongue position?
49. Which front vowel has the lowest tongue position?
50. How do you determine the cause of intonation problems and solve them?
Who makes up these bizarre phrases? Who does NOT sing from their throat? Your vocal cords (vocal folds) are not in your stomach, they are not in your diaphragm, and not in your back. The vibration takes place initially in your throat. You DO sing from your throat. The sound resonates in different places, depending on the pitch (which has to do with the size of the sound waves). There is a whole science called ACOUSTICS. Isn't it logical that voice teachers should have some understanding and working knowledge of ANATOMY and of ACOUSTICS? You would think so but many concentrate on imaginary imagery based on anything BUT science.
If someone tells you that you are singing from your throat, they might mean that your sound is weak or puny or not loud or thin. What they say and what they want to hear are not really related.
Do you want a big sound? There are many factors that would determine this such as your own size and shape of your resonating parts of your head, your ability to effectively use air, and understanding the acoustics behind vowel formation and using all this to your advantage. If you are an average 16 year old female, you are not going to sing bass without some radical changes. If you are a 200 pound male with a bass range, don't expect to sing the top note on the piano. Probably won't happen. You CAN safely extend your range and even get to where your voice stops cracking but it takes the right exercises in the right sequence at the right time or it probably won't happen. This I know from personal experience as a singer. Thanks to MY teachers for showing me the way and the truth.
F as in friend
H as in hello
K as in kitchen
P as in pony
Q as in quack
S as in silly
T as in took
X as in box
CH as in chuck
SH as in shuck
B as in boy
D as in dog
G as in girl
G as in the 2nd G in garage
(it is like a phonated sh)
J as in juggler
L as in luck
M as in man
N as in none
R as in roar
V as in victory
W as in world
X as in xylophone
Y as in yuck
Z as in zebra
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- Debra Bonner, Professional Vocal Coach in Hollywood, CA
"Place your sound in the mask", he said as he placed his fingers in the shape of a claw over my nose and on either side of it. He was one of the more established older voice teachers in Las Vegas and this is what he said to me right after I stepped off stage, heading for the dressing room. I had no idea what he was talking about. Most people have the same reaction when told to sing from their diaphragm, which is another well known myth. Where were these people spending their time during science class?
Sound travels at 750 miles per hour. That is the same as 1100 feet per second. That is over the length of 3 football fields in a mere second. How do you place your sound in the mask or "up and over"? What do you use to get the sound there? Do we have singing valves or doors to direct the sound into these places? I haven't seen them on any anatomy charts.
What should you do when told to sing from your diaphragm or to place the sound here or there? Well, it's best to not get into a fight. If you have some medical references on hand and have the places marked, you might get someone to take a look at them. The problem is that these things are still taught in schools at every level.
For the longest time it was believed that mixing science with art would destroy the art. Does it make sense to remain ignorant if learning would bring about understanding and actually make one a better artist? Science has been applied to musical instruments with profoundly excellent results. Trumpets, trombones, saxes, even guitars and drums are better sounding than most of the same instruments from the 1940s. Medical science has also come a long way and so has acoustics and physics.
Sound cannot be placed and you cannot even feel your diaphragm. Ask your doctor or get a copy of Gray's Anatomy (the book, not the TV show...but it is interesting, too). Abdominal muscles PUSH out the air and the diaphragm helps PULL in the air, according to Gray's Anatomy. However, most of the time, you won't want to push out too much air too much of the time, unless you like being hoarse or getting vocal nodules.