Vocalists, like cellists and trombone players, have instruments that can produce infinite gradations of pitch – unlike pianos and guitars, which produce exact pitches according to their tuning. In order to sing in tune, singers must rely on muscle memory, “in-the-zone” hearing, and an accurate mental concept of where pitches live.
Sometimes a flat or sharp note can be used for emotional or artistic effect, but you want any notes you sing out of tune to be intentional choices, not accidents. Following are a few techniques for how to sing on pitch.
Land Gently on the Pitch
Sometimes we sing off pitch when landing on a particular note because we land on it too hard, too fast, or with too much tension. Here is one of a few techniques for Landing Gently, called Ghost on the Stairs:
First, emphasize the problem: Imagine a heavy basketball bouncing down a stairway. Sing the difficult phrase as if your voice is that basketball bouncing down (or up) the stairway of the notes in the phrase. Try to land hard on each note – you will probably overshoot pitch.
Now, do the opposite. Pretend your voice is a ghost floating gently around the stairway. Sing the difficult phrase by floating gently from note to note, rather than bouncing. You may need to slow down fast phrases – that’s fine!
Now, find the happy medium between the two, where your pitch lands gently but accurately on each note.
Avoid Overshooting High Notes
Singing high notes can be particularly tricky – especially when they’re short! They are easy to overshoot since they are psychologically far away and you have little time to get there. Three quick ways to sing more in tune are:
Hear the pitch in your mind first, before singing it. With practice, you can learn to do this even while singing the preceding notes.
If the note isn’t staccato, slide up to it so that you have a chance to calibrate your ears with your vocal cords.
In practice, sing the note by itself (be sure not to strain). Notice where you feel the pitch. Does it feel like it’s behind your eyes? In your nose? In the top of your head? Mark this location so that you have a physical reference for where to aim when singing this note.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat to Ingrain Vocal Cord Muscle Memory
This approach is especially helpful for fast pitch transitions, such as quick vocal embellishments like vocal riffs, vocal licks, and vocal trills. Quick embellishments don’t allow time for pitch adjustment based on hearing, so using muscle memory to ingrain the feel of the intervals will allow you to let your body take over and sing the intervals easily based on familiar feel.
Like most techniques, this approach is most effective done over several short practice sessions than in one or two long practice sessions. Don’t try to make too much progress on a single day – just push to the tempo that’s currently just past your limits. If you do this for just a few focused minutes every day or every other day, your brain will integrate your progress at night and you’ll find that the next day, you have improved. Soon you will find that you have a number of vocal embellishments that you can sing effortlessly because your muscles and body know exactly how they feel.
Listen to the Pitch
If you have trouble exactly matching pitches of longer duration, you may be singing your preconceived notion of the note rather than actually matching the frequency of the note being played. You may need to learn to listen and feel the pitch more accurately.
Here is one technique for developing better “ear hearing” and “body feeling” for pitch:
• Play a sustained note on any instrument. Sing that pitch, matching it as closely as possible.
• Slowly adjust your pitch slightly upward and downward. Listen to the unpleasant rhythmic beat that occurs when the frequency of the pitch you are singing does not exactly match the frequency of the pitch you are playing.
• Return to match the pitch. Notice the physical sensation. You will probably feel a sense of relaxation, of being “home” or “settled”.
(c) 2009 Adrienne Osborn