Troubles with Singing

2011Symposium_1_2One element that is important to accurate singing is beginning on the right pitch. I was reminded of this recently while I was scoring a solo singing assessment I had just given my second grade students. Students were given a prerecorded cue of the last four beats of the song being sung, and the last note of the cue was also the first pitch of the song the children were to sing. Children who started on a different pitch often maintained the tonal center generated by the first note they sang. For these children, their singing was accurate on the basis of their starting pitch, but it was inaccurate in that they were singing from a different pitch than the one they were given, and in a different key than the one that could accurately be audiated from the cue. This indicates that children quickly and accurately audiate a key from the first few note they sing, and just as quickly forget the key that we establish for them with an introductory tonal pattern or cue.

When I reflected on this, I decided to try to improve their accuracy at starting on the right pitch by singing different tonal patterns for them, and then having them sing just the last note. Many of the students wanted to sing the entire pattern back, perhaps because that is what they are used to doing from other classes. It was interesting, though, that initially they were able to sing the entire pattern, including the last note, more accurately than they were able to sing just the last note, and it was even more interesting that many of the students repeatedly sang the dominant pitch as the final note, regardless of what the last note was. The prominence of the dominant in our audiated images of music we hear is documented in research, but that it would powerful enough to override memory of the actual last pitch they heard surprised me. Eventually, with about five minutes of practice, most were able to reliably sing the last note of each pattern I sang.

What followed in this class was also interesting. We have been practicing “MLK” by U2. I like teaching this song because it is a quiet song in the upper singing range and so affords good practice on using a light head voice. Intonation up to this day had been only fair. Now, having just done the previously described exercise of singing last notes in tonal patterns, and without any further rehearsal of “MLK,” the intonation immediately was noticeably better. Perhaps singing last notes of tonal patterns engaged them in audiating to a greater extent than singing whole patterns, or doing a more standard vocal warm-up. Singing just the last note required them to hear the whole pattern but extract only part of it, and that additional processing may have provided good practice at audiating and generally thinking musically. This sounds like a good topic for research.  It also suggests that the musical equivalent to critical thinking may be in parsing tonal patterns, and using the patterns as auditory objects to not just be remembered but manipulated.

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