“I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard time and again from singers throughout my career as a vocal coach. It’s also usually untrue. The reality is that there are several reasons that a given individual may have challenges while working to stay on pitch. Collaborating with a voice teacher to determine your pitch profile–and what to do about it–may be just the key to dropping some tunes in that bucket after all.
Based on my experience, there are five pitch profiles. They’re outlined below, with tips and tricks for working through each one. Of course, the critical first step to take in the process is to work with a qualified voice teacher or vocal coach who can help identify your specific challenges. Here are the five profiles.
1. Tends toward singing flat.
If your tendency is to sing flat, you’re consistently singing below the frequencies you’re attempting to reach. As with the other profiles, the possible causes of under-pitch singing are numerous. Some common causes include oversinging (often coupled with taking in too much air), vowel choices that are too dark for the style of the song, and placement that’s in need of adjustment. If you’re aware that you consistently tend toward singing flat, try lightening and brightening your tone and vowel choices as a first remedy. You might also consider imagining the notes as slightly higher in frequency than what your ear seems to be telling you.
2. Tends toward singing sharp.
In my experience, a propensity to sing sharp is perhaps the rarest of the profiles. If you’re sharp most of the time, it means you’re overshooting the frequencies of the pitches you’re aiming for. Sharp-singing tendencies can sometimes be a little more difficult to correct, because figuring out the cause can prove somewhat tricky. Frequently, this can be a matter of overexcited energy, for example when a loss of breath control gets the best of a performer in nervous situations. More often, though, it’s a matter of auditory perception. In the latter case, a specially tailored ear training regimen may be the answer.
3. Tends toward “pitchy-ness.”
In the singing world, we generally use the term “pitchy” to describe a performance that was sometimes on pitch, sometimes flat, and sometimes sharp, but always within relatively close proximity to the desired notes. This profile is one of the more common ones, and a solid regimen of ear training–and lots of patience on the part of both student and coach–can often yield good results. Sometimes, performers with a predilection for pitchy-ness require a little more individual coaching on each song they encounter, to ensure that their vowels and placement are zeroing in on the center of each pitch, as opposed to hanging out in the general vicinities of those pitches.
4. Tends toward unpredictability.
This is probably the most challenging pitch profile to address because it can often take quite a bit of time to diagnose the reasons behind the performer’s unpredictability. Think of this profile as a mashup of the other four, but without a common thread that seems to suggest when a performer might sing sharp, flat, pitchy, or on pitch. With a great deal of dedication, determination, and private instruction, however, positive results can often be attained. Folks who consistently tend toward unpredictability of pitch typically require individualized attention on every song they perform, in addition to a commitment to years of ear training. But for those who are especially passionate and dedicated, the hard work can often pay off.
5. Sings on Pitch.
For the on pitch vocalist, little pitch matching intervention is required. Of course, regular coaching and repertoire work is still important in order to maintain a healthy, sustainable voice and to ensure consistency. Remember, no one sings at the exact frequency of every pitch 100% of the time. So even a performer who doesn’t face the challenge of tending toward one of the other four profiles should still maintain a solid ear training regimen.
“Perfect pitch” is a term that’s often used by those outside the professional music world to indicate their opinion that someone has a great voice. In reality, though, “perfect pitch” is used within music circles to indicate the ability to identify a specific pitch (for example, “The refrigerator’s hum is a B-flat”) simply by hearing it. Remember: no one sings perfectly all the time. But with a lot of elbow grease, patience, and dedicated training, many people have successfully achieved their goals.
So if pitches feel like curveballs to you, remember that with a lot of work and coaching they might not always seem to come out of left field.
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