Many of our students, and, truth be told, many of us as well, struggle at least from time to time at singing in tune. There can be any one or more of several factors contributing to the difficulty. It may be poor phonation which makes it more difficult to hear ourselves singing, it could be unwanted tension, poor breath management or other contributors. But none of these is the most significant contributor to our of tune singing. The most likely cause is that we are not working within an established context.
Musical tones in Western musical cultures are understood within a tonal context. Tones in a melody have specidfic tonal functions which are understood by relating them to other tones with the same or different functions. The strongest and most easily recognized function is the tonic. This is the namesake of the scale out of which a melody has been created. All in tune singing starts with a singer always knowing what the tonic is and what it sounds like, regardless of what tone they are singing at any given time. If as a singer I do not have the reference tone of the tonic at the ready at all times, then I am going to have difficulty singing in tune. This is because if I have not established the tonic function, I am forced to rely on note-to-note intervals to find my way, and once I begin singing only by interval, I will be extremely prone to wander.
Using known intervals as a tool to guide my singing is useful and good, but as an only method for staying in tune, it is too unreliable. It is like trying to draw a straight line on a whiteboard without ever looking at the straight border. I may think I’ve drawn a straight line until I step back and look only to discover my “straight line” has meandered, though I did not realize it while I was drawing.
How do we get beyond singing by interval? A good way is to work with arpeggios every day. The first step is to be able to sing tonic, dominant, and subdominant patterns. It is not necessary to learn them in every key as an instrumentalist would. It is only important to learn them in a key that affords a comfortable singing range for the singer. For most, D, E, or F major and minor will work well. If you are working alone, play a chord pattern on a keyboard, wait 1-2 seconds, and then sing the pattern you just played on a neutral syllable. If you are working with a student, sing the pattern, wait 1-2 seconds, then prompt them to sing the pattern back to you on a neutral syllable. Do this with different patterns of only tonic at first, add the dominant when the tonic patterns are secure, then mixing dominant and tonic patterns, and lastly adding in some sub dominant patterns, which are the most difficult to sing accurately. Once these patterns are mastered repeat the whole sequence but this time with tonal syllables.
To proceed after learning patterns with tonal syllables, sing arpeggios followed by singing the tonic tone. Using tonal syllables (not fixed do for this) sing do-mi-so, pause for 1-2 seconds, then sing do. Continue with other tonic arpeggios. Mi-so-mi…do. So-mi-so…do. Do-so-mi..do, etc. Next, sing a dominant arpeggios followed by do. Re-fa-so…do. So-ti-so…do. Ti-so-re…do, etc. After that, do the same with sub-dominant arpeggios. Fa-la-fa…do. La-do-fa…do, etc.
At first, the foregoing exercises should be done with an entire class singing together while the students are learning the tonal patterns. During this phase of instruction, students are gaining confidence as singers and learning how each pattern sounds. After a brief period of using the exercises this way, students can begin to be asked to sing one pattern alone, alternating with whole-class recitation. Gradually, more patterns are sung alone, and the whole class is only asked to sing if some students are still struggling to sing their pattern accurately.
When working with students, it is important to remember that they will not develop as independent singers capable of singing in tune if they are only given opportunities to sing with others. Students who always sing with others will not be given experience to develop the ability to find their own pitches, but will instead be responding and often following what someone else is singing. Only singing alone develops the skills needed to learn to sing in tune. This is also why exclusively rote singing also does not help students learn to sing in tune. There is a difference between imitating (which is what occurs when students “echo” sing) and singing from tonal memory; what Gordon calls “audiating.” Only the latter produces accurate and independent singers. This is the reason for the 1-2 second delay when teaching patterns. It forces students to remember the pattern instead of simply imitating it.
During this time, teachers should also sing whole songs to students. It is good for students to hear entire songs performed for them; either ones they will eventually be themselves singing, or songs that simply afford them the opportunity to hear and become familiar with desired meters, tonalities, rhythms or other features. The teacher can, after singing the entire song, revisit phrases that contain targeted patterns and teach on those, asking students to respond either with singing (repeating the pattern, singing the tonic of the pattern, etc) or a spoken response such as the function of a chord (tonic, dominant, etc.). Integrating teacher singing and teaching with student singing and responding affords an effective teaching technique for a variety of concepts and deepens skills needed to sing in tune.
Practicing in these ways over a period of time will sharpen any singer’s ability to keep track of the tonic while singing any tonal melody. Once this exercise has been mastered with tonic, dominant, and subdominant chords, repeat the process, but finish by singing the dominant tone instead of the tonic, and then by singing the subdominant tone instead of the tonic or dominant. The singer will begin to realize what function they are singing as they sing a tonal melody, and knowing what function they are singing will result singing that is noticeably more in tune.