Pitch Problems

(Right from the start I would specify that this post has nothing to do with tone deafness or severe pitch deficiencies)

It is very interesting to note that almost every singer I have ever worked with so far has problems singing in tune to some extent.  I would also say that 99.99% of them have absolutely outstanding pitch when it comes to hearing pitch accuracy in general.

One of my singers asked me to post something about this, so here it goes.

First of all, singing with pitch accuracy is a fundamental technical achievement.  It is not a beginner stage.  This may be counterintuitive to some who do not understand the problems inherent in learning full voiced operatic singing.  Perfection of pitch is not absolutely essential in order to have a career, obviously, but the better you are at it, and the better career you will likely have.  In other words, you should work like crazy at developing this skill.

Having a good ear does not ensure you sing in tune.   This is somewhat of a surprising thing to singers.  Most of the time, when I point out that a student/singer is off, they can’t hear it.  How is that possible when they can hear even minuscule deviations of pitch in others?  This has less to do with pitch and more to do with multi-tasking and attention.

When we sing, we have at least 20 things to tacitly monitor, and at least 5-10 that we kind of actively monitor, right?  Support, laryngeal positioning and relaxation, tongue relaxation, depth of sound, edge of sound, opening of the jaw, feeling of flow, etc.   Most of the time our brain is in a hyper-analytic mode as we do this.  We are trying to discern sensations and monitor the internal environment of our body to see if it fits in with the blueprint of correct singing we have established.  The resources of attention are really monopolized by this process.  The issue is compounded if we are still building a blueprint for correct singing.

Our mind streamlines things.  Because there is so much to focus on, the mind creates a range of acceptance for the vocal functions.  Vocal exactness, when conquered, becomes an easy path, not requiring as much concentration in terms of technical functions.  Hence singers who can sing know how “easy” it is, but also how hard it was to build that accuracy.

Some people can’t sing in pitch, meaning the pitch oscillation of their vibrato does not include the desired pitch they think they are singing.  Most singers struggling to program the correct blueprint for singing in tune – hear the desired pitch within the oscillation of their vibrato, and the mind kind of places a check mark in the “pitch box” and moves on to bigger fish to fry.   Just because the pitch you are singing falls within the range of your vibrato oscillation doesn’t mean you are singing in pitch.  This is the crux of the problem.

The tradition is so very good.  Often the singer with this kind of problem will go back and listen to their singing on a recording and not be able to hear the pitch problem, but they will hear it in others.  How is that possible?  This speaks volumes about “l’intenzione” – the mental blueprint of what happens when we sing, our most important element of technique.

The outside listener hears the oscillation of pitches we call vibrato, and their minds kind of do a subconscious calculation to find the median value of the oscillation… what we call pitch center.  If the pitch center defies expectations alarm bells go off and judgments emerge – that singer can’t sing in tune, etc.

How do we fix this problem?  First off, perfect your technique so that the parameters of correctness become more and more exact and require less attention – like riding a bike right?  The more the functions in your singing are exactly programmed, the less you have to think about them.  This takes time.  I do feel bad for young singers when I tell them it takes time to develop as a singer.  I know singers today feel time is always against them.  This process takes time.

When I tell a singer to correct their pitch mid way into a sung note, meaning while they are singing the note, they will almost always try to make the sound brighter.  You see them do weird things with their lips, lift the palate more, break more into a smile, and consequently tighten up.  This instinctively tells us a few things:

1) the singer will automatically think this is about vocal function as a first possibility.  They will start doing all sorts of things to brighten the sound, as if that is going to fix things.  If you ask them to sing as they were before, but just think of the pitch higher, they will often succeed at the 5th or 6th try, and then all of the  sudden they hear the right pitch, and comments like “wow, I had no idea” emerge.

You can see this happening live often with Del Monaco.  He takes a high note, it is flat, and then you see him trumpeting his lips and doing things to try to lift the pitch.

2) Obviously the instinct to try to brighten the sound is an informed one.  The singer that has studied for some time instinctively knows there is a link between being able to sing higher and finding a lighter and bright efficient sound.  There is no doubt that lack of efficiency exacerbates the pitch problem in the passaggio and top notes.  But I tend to think of it differently than others.  You hear often about Head Voice v. Chest Voice, etc. – of course, correct registration is essential to singing with ease.  But there are people who can scream their guts out in pitch.  Why is that?  Because they are focusing on it and they still don’t know anything, so they don’t focus on much.

The more accomplished singer seeks for relaxation.  They often find that relaxation just under the pitch, typically just flat of the pitch center.  This happens until the singer understands that singing is not about relaxation, but rather about functional tension, not strain, but definite work.

I believe the problem with pitch is awareness – and particularly the ability to be aware of multiple things. The mind will accept a vibrated sound that includes the pitch center, remember that. As long as the pitch excursion of your vibrato includes your pitch center, the mind will tend to accept that sound because there is a lot else it needs to focus on.

How do you fix this problem?  Here are some solutions that will help you.

First you need to start forming a correct mental intention or blueprint for pitch.  You can do this by singing the phrase bothering you in falsetto and in straight tone.  When you sing straight tone the mind will automatically flag pitch inaccuracy. What help is this when you are singing full?  Try to associate in your mind what you did in the straight tone falsetto with your full voice singing.  This may not be automatic, but it will help train you to hear to pitch center in the core of your voice.

Often, when tenors, and other voice types, sing lightly they can go to the pitch center, and then when they add more chest the voice suddenly flattens.  The chest function drags their pitch south.  How do you fix that?  There is only one way to fix it – be aware when it is happening.  If you don’t discern it, you can’t fix it.  If you hear it, you can initiate the right functions that balance chest and head mechanism.  You won’t do this if you don’t hear it.  So clearly, I am talking here to singers who already know a great deal about registration in their voices – balancing chest and head voice.  If you are having difficulties with your passaggio, you need to step back and take things slowly.

Limit your pitch excursion.  There are two elements to vibrato: pitch excursion and frequency, right?  Pitch excursion is how far your pitch varies north and south of the pitch center.  Frequency refers to how often the vibrato cycles per second.  Often singers have a very wide vibrato, not necessarily slow, but wide, even approximating a trill.  This means that the pitch moves away from the center substantially.  This does not mean the vibrato is slow.  The Italian tradition was not one of of wide pitch variation.  In fact, many of the singers from the past were so tight in their excursion that the sound was almost straight.  This is all about functional engagement of the musculature vs.  just plain “relaxing”.  Singing is not about relaxation but rather functional tension.  If you relax too much everything, then you relax the voice out of your throat too.  Ironically, relaxing the pitch excursion so that it gets wider actually will make the voice heavier.  A narrower pitch excursion releases a lot of tension.  So how do you get there?  How do you tighten the pitch excursion?

I believe the tradition tells us clearly the fundamental answer: the answer is correct appoggio.  The link between voice and breath pressure.  When the sound is correctly produced, the breath pressure is not felt directly on the cords even though it is exactly the cords that are resisting it.  The better you are at this appoggio, and the more the sound takes on a laser like ringing quality.  Releasing tensions in the throat and larynx without losing this laser-like quality is NOT going to come overnight.  There is no correct appoggio in this sense without the larynx being relaxed, and this means it has to be low.  But wait, there are many singers, like pop singers and others who have tight vibratos who sing with a high larynx…   Please understand that everything I am talking about is meant to apply SOLELY to a theater voice, not a room or mic’d voice.  It is one thing to sing like a pop-tenor, and another to sing like a legitimate opera singer.

Another great help in this is to sing very fast scales with an exactly focused ringing quality while maintaining a relaxed low larynx.  Try to reduce to a minimum the pressure impulses felt at the cords, even though you may feel them physically.

These two paths – correct appoggio and fast scales done as described will help you tighten the vibrato excursion.    The tight vibrato is MUCH MORE engaged physically than its hyper relaxed version.

These things: creating a correct blueprint for pitch center and tightening up the pitch excursion will help you tremendously to sing in pitch.

One last word, you must take particular care of the descending phrase and of the shorter notes within a phrase. When you sing, lets say an Aflat in the passaggio, and then you descend to notes directly below it, the tendency will be to descend too far.  Learning to sing with the idea (not reality, but rather intention) of constant breath pressure as we go up and down the scale will foster correct appoggio, and will help keeping the correct pitch center.  Don’t get lazy as you descend.  Remember that the phrase is not over until it is over. It is not over after the challenging note.

Faster transition notes between held notes are also throw away notes often in the singer’s mind, and are almost always lacking attention, so they go flat more. There are no throw away notes in a great singer’s mind.  Anyone that has worked at AVA with Chris Macatsoris has learned this most precious lesson.  One of the most important things you can learn is to sing the notes that typically are considered “throw away” notes in the minds of the mediocre singers.  Listen to Callas to see how every note is important.  Go back and listen to your singing, and see if you throw notes away.  If you do, STOP IT.   Its almost guaranteed that if you tend to throw notes away, you also sing them out of tune.

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