Marty Heresniak, B.M., M.M
79 Hudson Heights
|The Studio||Teaching the Singing Impaired|
|Lessons & Classes||Marketing the Private Studio|
|What's New||Horse Hockey and Hogwash!|
Learning to Manipulate|
the Physiology of Stress
|Writings||A New Way of Listening to Vowels|
|Carl Gutekunst||Are We Forgetting Something?|
We stood at attention as she moved
with a kind of Groucho shuffle
down our line, her trained music
teacher's ear passing by
our ten- and eleven-year-old mouths
open to some song now forgotten.
And as she held her momentary
pause in front of me, I peered
from the corner of my eye
to hers, and knew the truth
I had suspected.
In the following days,
as certain of our peers
disappeared at appointed hours
for the Chorus, something in me
was already closing shop.
Indeed, to this day
I still clam up
for the national anthem
in crowded stadiums, draw
disapproving alumni stares
as I smile the length of school songs,
and even hum and clap
through "Happy Birthday," creating
a diversion – all lest I send
the collective pitch
careening headlong into dissonance.
It's only in the choice acoustics
of shower and sealed car
that I can finally give voice
to that heart deep within me
that is pure, tonally perfect, music.
But when the water stops running
and the radio's off, I can remember
that day in class,
when I knew for the first time
that mine would be a world of words
without melody, where refrain
means do not join,
where I'm ready to sing
in a key no one has ever heard..1
Non-matching singers are so common in primary grades that this author learned to refer to them as bluebirds, based on the belief that the common North American bluebird, while pretty, just doesn't sing well. A well-trained music educator has strategies to help such children, but how does the singing teacher help the adult off-key singer?
Much of the voice teaching profession prepares students for professional careers, working with only the most accomplished of musicians in higher education. But to whom can the bluebird turn if not to the best of the profession? Private studio teachers may have inquiries from bluebirds who want to be able to sing "Happy Birthday" in tune at an office party. Collegiate voice teachers may have referrals from solfeggio teachers who just can't get instrumentalist bluebirds to sing in tune.
"In the past, people who lack pitch discrimination ability have been a clinical enigma. We have, without real clinical evidence, blamed their inability to match pitch on poor hearing, nerve disorders, something in the brain, etc."3 The voice teacher may consider himself inadequate, feeling he "can work with breathing, phonation, and articulation, as well as the mental and emotional aspects of singing, but he has little else in his teaching repertory that will address the often puzzling problem of pitch."4 Recent research and broader thinking by voice professionals have brought many new possibilities to the table. By understanding probable causes and possible solutions, a knowledgeable professional can help bluebirds join the singing flock.
Sergius Kagen stated "the kind of musical ear necessary for a singer can be best defined as a natural ability to imagine accurately (that is, hear mentally) pitches or musical sounds and to reproduce the imagined pitches by whistling, humming, or singing. A person may have a good ability to imagine pitches without having the complementary coordination which would enable him to reproduce them accurately with his own sound producing apparatus. Not infrequently one encounters such a lack of complementary coordination even among musicians."5 This author agrees with Kagen's basic statements, but greatly disagrees with his subsequent conclusion that "those who lack this complementary coordination will ... have too difficult a time in trying to learn how to sing to make it worth their while."6
What is worthwhile? If a student is seeking help to join in with a singing culture, is not that enough reason for the singing pedagogue to assist? What is vocal technique if not a process of developing the coordination of students' sound producing apparati? You see, my early training was wrong: sialia sialis, the common Eastern Bluebird, does sing.7 So, too, most bluebird students can learn to match pitch. Bluebirds may not make a go of it as professional singers, but, in the words of Fats Waller, "One never know, do one?" Some of my bluebirds have.
CAUSES OF POOR PITCH MATCHING
The many processes involved in singing on pitch are not necessarily obvious to those for whom it comes easily. Non-matching behaviors, while sounding quite the same, can occur due to varying reasons. Knowing which problem is hampering which process is the first step in working to a solution. My attempt here is to present the many possibilities: obvious, scientific, and esoteric, as well as those from left field.
Too often a teacher or researcher will find a favorite reasoning and stick to it, applying what he believes to all bluebird encounters whilst missing other obvious or hidden causes. I have heard everything from "pitch problems come from inadequate breath" to a recent avowal that bluebirds' poor pitch matching can be traced to psychological sources related to "problems with their fathers". Some pitch problems do come from inadequate breath, and, to be fair, new research confirms that the problem may come from the father, but only if the father passed along a genetic predisposition to musical deficits. No one reason applies to all.
"The term tone-deafness and the associated medical term amusia have unfortunately been applied somewhat loosely by medical practitioners, educators, laypersons, and psychologists to a broad range of evident and supposed musical deficits."8 "Preliminary research suggests that at least some of those individuals who are labeled as tone deaf lack the cognitive structures necessary to anticipate musical tonality and harmony; or lack internal self-referencing tonal schema within which to understand, process, and remember musical material."9
Consider the steps. A singer must hear accurately, determine the source pitch, compare the source pitch to an internal map of high-low, produce a pitch vocally, hear the produced pitch, and compare the produced pitch to the internal map and to the source pitch. Neuropsychologist Daniel Levitin suggests fourteen specific areas of deficit which, alone or in combination, can impair pitch-matching ability.10 Within and between all these processes, problems can occur.
Medical literature from over a century ago referred to the idea that individual musical abilities are localized in different and independent brain centers.11 More recent research confirms that "the general information from ... clinical observations is that music involves specific but different interconnected domains in the central nervous system and that music perception is not homogenous."12 The emerging picture is that musical ability - and, one must infer, musical disability - is composed of separable, perhaps even independent, faculties.13
Much of the literature regarding poor pitch-matching involves neurological and cognitive deficiencies, which would make one think that the voice teacher would approach bluebird students with a deck stacked against success. Yet, the causes of poor pitch-matching vary almost with every bluebird. How many bluebirds process music well yet are unable to produce voice in such a way so as to match their voice to the desired tone? In nearly thirty years of teaching this author has found that most bluebirds are reparable through intervention of a good voice professional.
Only an estimated one in thirty individuals - 3.3% - suffer from some sort of musical processing deficit,14 and less than 1% of the population suffers from amusia or true tone deafness.15 Are pitch matching failures a matter of perception, processing, memory, production, or of some combination?16,17 The voice teacher must know. The underlying causes of poor pitch-matching may be organic (neurological, audiological, or medical), cognitive (developmental or, again, neurological), functional, or any combination thereof. This discussion will treat each individual cause separately: teachers in the field will find combinations of causes more the norm.
If the underlying cause is organic, there is little chance a singing teacher can help fix the problem. If the underlying cause is cognitive, the singing teacher or other knowledgeable professional educator can help with careful training of the deficient cognitive link. If the underlying cause is functional, the solutions lie wholly within the purview of the singing teacher.
Physician Richard J. Bing notes that "timbre and rhythm activate different neural networks, and so do sight-reading and keyboard performance."18 Listening, reading music, recognizing tonal pitch, melodic memory, and pitch comparisons all use different cortical areas. "The classical way to study the relationship between music perception and its localization is through a neurological deficit, resulting from brain lesions or from the surgeon's knife."19 This classical technique, alas, is not available to the average voice teacher. Nor are the newer techniques of EEG or MRI scans staples of the voice pedagogy equipment roster. The singing teacher can, however, conduct a series of simple tests to determine if organic problems may be the root cause. A discussion of testing procedures comes at the end of this paper.
NEUROLOGICAL causes predominate the research literature about bluebird behaviors. AMUSIA is the general term for all musical deficiencies, considered a "loss of the power to understand or to execute music; a defect in regard to music, analogous to aphasia in regard to speech. It presents types and varieties analogous to the types of speech disorders."20
Recent research is exploding the generalized subject into more specific disciplines. McGill University's Daniel Levitin and Isabel Peretz of l'Université de Montréal ride the crest of this new wave. Peretz and colleagues consider amusia a congenital developmental disability21 whilst Levitin concerns himself with the neuropsychology of auditory pattern processing and pattern memory, and an understanding of how music is organized in the brain.22
Amusia is fascinating in that it deals with tones in a musical context, not just tones in an auditory context. "A truly (auditory) tone-deaf person ... would most likely speak in a monotone and be unaware of inflection in speech,"23 yet Peretz finds amusiacs can hear the difference - and, one must assume, produce the difference - of spoken tonal patterns, rising for questions and falling for statements.24
Amusia can occur as a disability from birth, or can develop as the result of a brain trauma, like the neurological symptoms that ended Ravel's career. At first aphasic but still able to function musically, Ravel's disease later led to loss of ability to read, write, or play music. His "illness was the selective impairment of function underlying the translation of musical representation from one modality to another, such as from visual to motor or auditory: none of these modalities were separately impaired."25
In dealing with amusia, one will encounter other related neurological and psychiatric terms, some of which are noted here. There can be interconnections between the various deficiencies, but each can exist alone. Aphasia is the inability to use/understand spoken/written language while Agraphia refers to the inability to write and Alexia the inability to understand written speech. Agnosia is the inability to recognize objects and Anosognosia the subject's refusal to acknowledge sensory or motor defects. This author is unfamiliar with terms that may apply to an inability to recognize recurrent melodic contours, an inability to distinguish different timbres, or an inability to maintain musical or linguistic rhythm.
The singing teacher cannot correct a neurologically based amusia nor the related neurological deficiencies.
AUDIOLOGICAL problems are the other organic links in a line of possible causes for poor pitch matching in singing. The bluebird may not be hearing the source pitch to which he should match, or may not be hearing his own voice. Singers rely on auditory and proprioceptive (from receptors in subcutaneous sources - muscles, tendons, and joints) feedback and then process the information to determine where to sing and whether one is singing correctly on pitch. In some cases the bluebird is receiving miscues from the actual operation of the ears or from one of other systems.
Hearing loss may be hereditary of non-hereditary, and either form may be congenital or acquired. Hearing loss can be categorized in three basic types: conductive, sensorineural, or central. In cases of conductive hearing loss, sound waves are not transmitted effectively to the inner ear because of some interference in the external canal, the ear drum, the ossicular chain, the middle-ear cavity, the oval window, the round window, or the eustachian tube. Sensorineural hearing loss suggests that two separate areas may be affected. The term 'sensory' hearing loss is applied when the damage is localized in the inner ear. Useful synonyms are 'cochlear' or 'inner-ear' hearing loss. 'Neural' hearing loss is the correct term to use when the damage is to the auditory nerve proper, anywhere between its fibers at the base of the hair cells and the auditory nuclei. Other common names for this type of loss are 'nerve deafness' and 'retro-cochlear hearing loss'. In Central Hearing Loss the damage is situated in the central nervous system at some point between the auditory nuclei in the medulla oblongata and the cortex.26
In the simplest of audiologically based problems, general hearing loss can lead to a singer being unable to make the necessary comparisons between the external pitch to be matched and the pitch being sung. One of the author's recent students has considerable hearing loss in both ears, but has found pitch-matching success by wearing a foam earplug in his "better" ear, which seems to turn that ear 'inward' to monitor his own voice.
OCTAVE CLOUDING: Some singers may have trouble hearing their own voices if the note they are to match is sounding in the same octave - witness the practice of some choral accompanists to give pitches for a section with an accompanying octave of the pitch to be sung. These singers have difficulty discriminating between their own voices and a source pitch at the same frequency, even if the timbral qualities are quite different. Since there is some dampening of the auditory nerve during voicing, there may be a selective frequency damping that prevents these singers from having simultaneous hearing and in-tune voicing of the same pitch.
POOR AURAL ACUITY: It is a rather rare occurrence, but there are some subjects whose auditory systems are unable to distinguish pitch whether musical or not. An audiologist colleague described this as if hearing were an eye chart. These subjects can distinguish the difference between E and O or between Q and H, but run into problems telling the smaller differences between E H N and F or O C Q and G. Widely disparate pitches can be determined. Closely related pitches (sometimes up to within a fifth apart) cannot be discerned These are the subjects who are truly tone deaf, displaying very monotone speech patterns. Associated research in linguistics deals with tonal languages (Chinese, Thai) and bluebird-like behaviors.
Peretz states amusiacs can't dance,27 reflecting the neurological inability to process music. Subjects with an aural acuity deficit may love music and be the first on the dance floor, focusing on the rhythmic complexities while totally missing the concept of melody.
DIMINISHED FREQUENCY SELECTIVITY: With a new test developed during the last decade, clinicians at the Vanderbilt Balance and Hearing Center determined "normally functioning [cochlea] hair cells appear to be essential for frequency selectivity (the ability to make fine distinctions between frequencies of sounds). When outer hair cells are structurally damaged or nonfunctional, the cochlea is 'poorly tuned'."28 For the single patient mentioned in the study, an audiogram "revealed no more than a mild hearing loss, and speech audiometry showed excellent word recognition performance"29 yet their more refined test "confirmed outer hair cell damage and, secondarily, poor ability to discern pitch."30 The subject's history could point to either underlying genetics or to damage from loud environmental sounds as possible causes of the deficiency.31 It has always been held that “once these hair cells have been destroyed, their function cannot be restored by any known form of medical or surgical treatment,32“ however, recent research with guinea pig cochleas shows hope for development of gene therapy which may restore hair cell damage.33 Further study on sample of greater scope might help determine whether exposure to workplace environmental sounds (rock bands to Wagnerian orchestras) could lead to loss of pitch discrimination over time.
DIPLACUSIS: Perception of more than one pitch when only one pitch is sounding is diplacusis. While hearing two pitches simultaneously with one ear (monaural diplacusis) does exist, hearing a slightly different pitch with two ears (binaural diplacusis) is far more common and can be a significant cause of out-of-tune singing. 34 "Most people have a little diplacusis for some parts of the frequency scale most of the time but unless the condition becomes rather considerable ... they are unaware of the inequalities."35 Hearing loss can be accompanied by a drop of pitch sensation in that ear, often accompanied by tinnitus. An otologist can best answer questions regarding treatment of diplacusis. Would a hearing aid bring the hearing back up to pitch or merely make the wrong pitch louder? Some suggest blocking off one ear36 or the other. If the in-tune ear is open, will this cause a bluebird to match the external pitch, or to hear the voice more clearly through the blocked bad ear?
The voice teacher cannot help students repair organic audiological problems, although careful choice of repertory and alteration of lesson procedures may help an octave clouder develop pitch matching ability.
MEDICAL problems can cause individual or systemic problems in laryngeal function which can lead to bluebird behaviors. When the actions of the larynx are reduced or inhibited, pitch matching might be likewise inhibited or reduced - the organic medical problem is the underlying cause of the functional problem. Heman-Ackah and Sataloff give an excellent introduction to nerve disorders, muscle disorders, and joint disorders that can lead to laryngeal hypomobility while not specifically tying these medical problems to pitch matching disability.37
GASTROESOPHAGEAL REFLUX: "Reflux is the regurgitation of stomach acid into the arytenoid area of the vocal folds. This regurgitation often results in making the arytenoids red, swollen, and in many cases, heavy and less capable of normal response to typical breath and muscle management. In some otolaryngological circles, it is believed that this condition is instrumental in causing certain singers to sing under pitch."38 The causes of reflux are varied, but whatever the cause, the result for singers can be a change in function at the laryngeal level.
Cleveland studied six singers who developed flatting pitch problems. Note that this is not a typical bluebird in the sense describe elsewhere in this text, that is, someone who has never succeeded in singing in tune. Cleveland's subjects were all accomplished singers who went sour or were in tune one week and flat the next. "A common thread in the history of these six singers was that they had begun to sing flat for no apparent reason and had thus far been unable to find the cause. Each was found to have gastric reflux .. accompanied by a diagnosis of severe allergic sensitivity. ... Over a period of time the pitch problems all of the singers cleared as a results of (1) pharmacological management, (2) subsequent management of the allergy symptoms through allergy injections, and (3) continued vocal study."39 Relapses of pitch problems occurred only in one, and only when stress brought about recurrence of reflux.
"Singing flat not only may be an undesirable trait in a singer; it also quite possibly may be a symptom which needs medical attention for the health of the individual, not simply for the correction of a singing fault."40
OTOTOXICITY: "Another major cause of hearing impairment is ototoxic drugs. These are medications which, as one of their side effects, cause damage to hair cells in the inner ear and produce a sensorineural hearing impairment. The most widely used ototoxic drug is aspirin which produces a transient, reversible hearing impairment. However, if a person is exposed to noise or is losing hearing from some other cause while he is ingesting aspirin, the interactive effects of these substances and agents may produce considerable irreversible hearing impairment."41
Medical problems leading to bluebird behavior, like neurological and auditory problems, are outside the province of the voice teacher. A bluebird can, however, be a fine reason to develop a working relationship with local medical professionals.
If there is no organic, neurological, audiological, or medical problem, the bluebird behavior may be due to how the sound, once received, is processed. Daniel Levitin believes that tone deafness can be repaired, that it is "not so much a failure of perception, but a failure of coding that can be repaired with focused, short-term training. 42 Thus, if there is not a structural defect in the brain, the brain may be taught to process musical information.
SINGING VIRGINS: Sometimes a subject can reach adulthood and never have learned to match pitch with the voice. Perhaps the subject was a primary-grade bluebird whose elementary music educator was not familiar with the techniques which can bring bluebirds into the singing flock. Perhaps the subject somehow slipped through the cracks or had a school system in which music was slighted or omitted. If the subject has reached adulthood without developing the cognitive programming to match pitch, it may be necessary, in essence, to take him back to that point at which the programming should have been developed.
The classic technique to teach pitch matching is to give the subject his first experience in what if feels like to be in tune. "When a child sings, but sings low and does not match the anticipated pitch, the teacher and class should match the child's pitch and sing the song in that key. This will often begin a procedure that brings success with the gradual raising of the pitch by singing the song in successively higher keys over a period of time."43 This technique works equally as well in the private voice studio as in the kindergarten.
One must also consider the environment in which the bluebird was fledged. Are the parents bluebirds? Learning nursery tunes from someone who is singing completely out-of-tune will train one to sing out-of-tune. Is there a piano involved? Is it in tune? With whom is the bluebird accustomed to singing? If the singing leader is of the opposite sex from the student, there may be some confusion of how to sing at an octave from the source pitch. There may be little more necessary than offering encouragement, simple explanations, and a safely in-tune environment for the to learn to match pitch.
MEMORY DEFICIT: There is some evidence that certain bluebirds may have no problem hearing and no problem singing, but somehow are unable to master the short-term memory to remember a melody or random pitch patterns. It is not at all unusual to encounter a student who has trouble remembering the words to a popular song, or the melody to the bridge of a jazz tune or the lyrics to a strophic art song. So, too, some may have poor memory for pitch or pitch patterns. This author has recently had a student who could distinguish same/different in notes a half-step apart played connectedly on piano, yet the same student was unable to distinguish the same intervals correctly during the same session when there was a 1-2 second delay between the first and second notes.
The concepts of melodic contour and direction may be unavailable to some bluebirds: in essence, they may understand the "words" of music, but be unable to follow "grammar" and "syntax". It is possible that some bluebird behaviors result from "an inability to use 'relational language'."44 McGill's Levitin is testing a theory that musical expertise may be based on the experts having better linguistic labels for their perceptions, and, therefore, being better at communicating what they hear.45 The converse may also be true: if a student can recognize only single letters and not groupings, he will never learn to read words - just as the student who cannot retain a pattern of notes will not sing in tune.
Some voice teachers may have had the experience of having to learn choreography for a song. The song itself was learned in what seemed like mere moments, but the dancing comes slower. At the same time, they may have noticed the dancers in the cast who learned the choreography in two or three runs-through but who struggle day after day to remember the lyrics and melody. Different people learn in different ways. Singers often have too left feet. Bluebirds can take longer to get a melody into working memory. For some, a broad grounding in musical language - whether written music, sol-fa identifications, or the kinesthetic-visual reinforcement of keyboard facility - can be the key to providing the memory cues to cure bluebird behavior.
MAPLESS: Another memory-related deficit leading to bluebird behavior is maplessness. Levitin refers to deficits in self-referencing: "some people may possess an ability to distinguish two tones as being different from one another, but an inability to tell which tone is higher or lower."46 Still other students may be unable to distinguish how far a pitch moves in musical space. Like becoming disoriented in an urban grid of streets, mapless bluebirds can lose their way in the frequency and temporal axes of music. The mapless may sing approximately in tune, but have a note or two out of place. Usual suspects are a sharpened fa, a lowered ti, and an occasional sour sol. Mapless bluebirds may also have no sense of how far they leap when they sing intervals - the song just goes up or down, accuracy is optional. Often the mapless are those who have always treated singing as a sing-along activity, rather than have it stand alone. Those who always sing with the radio or stereo often do not build their own internal musical reference map. In recent years the proliferation of portable personal music sources, from the original Walkman generation through MP3 players and iPods, has seemed to spawn more bluebirds of the mapless subspecies. Or perhaps the technology has merely made more bluebirds think they can sing in tune. As with those with a memory deficit, teaching the basics of a musical language can help mapless bluebirds build the internal self-referencing they require to maintain in-tune singing.
In a special case, some mapless bluebirds are more victims of a cultural difference than musical deficit. Kazez erroneously proposes "melody deafness" for those unable to sing or identify simple western melodies even though capable of pitch discrimination, especially in those with limited exposure to Western music.47 This author's experience with students from the Indian subcontinent is that most are far more attuned to pitch than the average western student, sometimes singing subtle and delicate shadings of pitch in morning, afternoon, and evening ragas that fall `between the cracks' of the tempered keyboard. The out-of-tune singing of these students is often due not to their not discriminating pitch well, but to their tuning system being slightly out-of-synch with the western diatonic scale. Students from other cultures (Middle Eastern, eastern European) will, likewise, have some alternatively self-referenced tunings.
TRANSPOSERS: One of the most fascinating bluebird types is one that often seems impossible at first mention. These are often fine musicians who cannot match pitch with the voice. They are usually extremely talented instrumentalists with years of playing experience - in fact the more experience they have with their instrument the more acute their bluebird behavior may be. Some instruments transpose: saxophones, clarinets, trumpets, french horns. Those who play transposing instruments will see a written pitch, yet the concert pitch which comes from their instrument will differ by a second, third, fifth, or sixth. There are those who become so wedded to the concept of difference between written and concert pitch that they carry that difference into singing, where written and concert pitch are the same. This author has encountered a transposer only once in his career, but a colleague who has taught solfeggio in a major music school for over thirty years assures me that she has a transposer at least once each academic year.48
THE CONFUSED: For the singer who matches pitch as a matter of course, the idea that someone could confuse pitch with another perception or sensation is difficult at best. Yet confusions are quite common causes of bluebird behaviors and all can be trained away without much difficulty.
Sometimes the bluebird has a voice very unlike the norm. The tessitura of the typical American voice was once Eb to Eb. In today's world, the preponderance of popular singers, male and female, sing in the same A to A octave, the women pushing down, and men straining up. In singing along, much of the population never uses half of its genetically-coded comfort zone range and forces for half of what it does sing. Some singers are unable to sing in that "pop" range comfortably and will fail in forcing their voices up or down, resulting in out-of-tune singing. A simple octave jump would correct the problem, but singing an octave away from others in the room would make one stand out. These octave confusers may rather sing out of tune or not at all than to stand out an octave away from the crowd.
Some bluebirds may confuse their kinesthetic perceptions with their aural awareness. Many hyperadduct the vocal folds, thinking singing is somehow more work than speech. When asked to change a pitch these non-singers will hyperadduct even more, and sing the same pitch louder, confusing this response with the vocal fold stretching which would give the desired results. (see 'HYPERADDUCTORS' under FUNCTIONAL CAUSES).
Kinesthetic/aural confusion can also be true of singers who push their voices out of a mid-range tessitura. The feeling of tension in their singing can become so ingrained that they attempt to push that tension throughout the range. The voice teacher can help in teaching a more efficient, tension-free vocalism in the mid-range, then taking the new concept of singing out into the range. Some of these singers will, at first, achieve a lighter production and start to sing in tune, but will complain the singing doesn't `feel' right, and try to put back the neck, tongue, and/or throat tension the teacher had worked so hard to eliminate. Still others will relapse to the old, familiar kinesthetic feel when challenged in other matters - say harmonizing or sight-reading a new piece - and will re-establish their tension as something more trustworthy than their auditory perception.
Still other students will confuse pitch and vowels. If singing on a single vowel, they may sing generally in tune but will make sudden stops after beginning a phrase on a new vowel, only to begin the phrase again in a new key. Could it be that, as the vowel changes, these singers confuse the perception/sensation of a change in the vowel-determining formant harmonics with the fundamental pitch and thus think they have changed their sung pitch? Perhaps they are hearing the format as a distinct pitch or are just highly attuned to the harmonic overtones of a pitch. This author is unable to appreciate organ recitals since he tends to hear, predominately, the high acoustic overtones produced, sometimes to the point of blocking out the melodies and harmonies intended. When heard in recording, where the high overtones are filtered out, the organ music makes more sense. There is some further evidence of this confusion of harmonics in the fact that some students have trouble singing in tune with an acoustic piano (many harmonics) but can match pitch with an electronic piano (more limited overtones).49
Yet other bluebirds become confused by the buzz of resultant vibrations in the bone structure which, for them, is more perceptible than the pitch. Since buzz can move about due to changes in vowels, consonants, resonance, nasal congestion, or other changes in the shape in the vocal tract, this particular confusion can be difficult to pin down. These and other confused students may be candidates for listening training using sound stimulation to exercise the ears' function and to learn to distinguish between auditory and bone-conduction sensations.50
Except for cases of severe memory deficit which may indicate a self-referencing or retention learning disability, most cognitive causes of bluebird behavior are correctable with informed and patient retraining by the voice professional.
By far the most common causes for poor pitch matching fall completely within the singing teacher's realm. Most all of the functional causes for bluebird behaviors are due to extraneous tensions: extrinsic or intrinsic to the larynx. Most of these are habitual and can sometimes have been brought on by psychological undercurrents. In some research "voice production tests suggested a strong association between untuneful singing and voice production difficulties, and thus raised the consideration that monotones might be tone-dumb rather than, or as well as, tone-deaf."51
KEY MORPHS: Daniel Levitin mentions encountering persons he describes as "erratic transposers".52 These are people who "start singing a song in the right key and with the right pitches, but transpose the melody at various places after they've begun."53 Like Levitin, this author has encountered many key morphs over the years (I don't call them transposers so as to avoid confusion with the instrumentalists who confuse written and concert pitch), however, I have not found them totally erratic in their transpositions.
A key morph will begin a song, and then, at some point, it seems, decide it is getting too near the extreme of his range and morph the key up or down to avoid the extreme. If the melody moves toward the extreme again, he may morph the key yet again. Morphs can change key as easily as a more accomplished singer will change octaves to avoid too extreme a range.
A key morph may, actually, have a highly developed sense of pitch. When confronted, they can often say where in the melody they made their pitch accommodations. Indeed, a key morph can be rather astoundingly accurate, starting in one key, changing several times as the melody moves up or down, and then beginning a second, similar phrase precisely in the original key. The key morph overrules all musical context, choosing, instead to stay away from what he perceives will be an uncomfortable area of his vocal range. High intensity doses of healthy vocal technique will usually solve the wandering of key morphs, although the voice teacher may need to put up with a few months of out-of-tune singing of narrow range songs.
HYPER-ADDUCTORS: In this author's experience, more bluebirds are unable to match pitch due to too much tension in the adductor musculature of the larynx than from any other single cause. Often this comes from never having experienced the feelings of flow phonation, but can come, just as often, from an attempt to overcome a naturally quiet tone by pushing through to success. It is an unfortunate fact that much of what one hears in popular, music theatre, country, and even some classical singing makes beginning singers think that extra tension in the voice producing mechanism is a positive thing. "No Pain, No Gain" is an aberrant philosophy for singing.
Hyper-adductive behaviors tend to inhibit the stretching pitch-altering actions of the cricothyroid muscle. Falsetto singing disengages the adductors and allows free movement of the cricothyroid. Using falsetto is often recommended as a means of vocal training and has recently been proposed as a method of training bluebirds54
For some hyper-adducting bluebirds, the extraneous tension goes beyond singing and manifests itself in all vocal behaviors, from shouting to the quietest whisper. This author has long called this tone the "wannahit" sound - as demonstrated in the recorded comedy of Cheech and Chong in the stoner days of the early 1970s - "Hey Man, wannahit?55" A marijuana's smoker's vocal patterning while using the larynx as a valve to keep smoke in the lungs is a classic example of hyper-adductive behavior. For this latter group (chronic hyper-adductors, not marijuana smokers) a therapeutic speech pathology approach to retraining the voice production mechanism can be necessary.56,57
EXTRINSIC LARYNGEAL TENSION: Singers who hold too much tension in areas surrounding the larynx can have trouble allowing sufficient freedom for the intrinsic laryngeal muscles to make the accommodations necessary for accurate pitch changes. A collapsed cervical section of the spine can cause a head jutting forward, exerting pull on the larynx. A tight or dropped jaw can translate through the tongue, geniohyoid, and digastric muscles to the hyoid bone to the larynx.58 A larynx pulled down for a dark or 'covered' sound can be inhibited by the unnatural position. Inhalations raising the clavicles and shoulders - often a habitual response for students with asthma - can trigger a fight-or-flight panic reflex. The internal function of the larynx may not be too far from the desired norm, but the neighboring outside tensions can be inhibiting what would otherwise work freely.
BREATHLESSNESS: The pitch matching problems of many bluebird singers can be traced to insufficient breath energy. At first consideration, one might think that the length and thickness of the vocal folds are the determining factors for pitch, but breath pressure does also play some role. "An increase in breath pressure is always automatically accompanied by an increase in resistance to the breath on the part of the vocal cords."59
Ingo Titze brings to mind a rubber band ukelele and a New Year's Eve noisemaker, both of which change frequency of vibration with an increase of vibration source pressure. "The human vocal folds fall into the category of the noisemaker and the rubber band ukelele in that the fundamental frequency is amplitude dependent. The elastic properties (tension or effective stiffness of the tissue) change dynamically with a given cycle of vibration. When maximum opening of the glottis is reached, the tissue is maximally tense. This increasing tension with increasing amplitude results in more rapid closure, and hence an increased fundamental frequency."59 To continue this scientific view, "if the auditory reference is temporarily lost or distorted, lack of support (in the form of a slightly reduced subglottic pressure) can reduce the pitch, even though the laryngeal control is normal. Too much support, on the other hand, resulting from anxiety or simply trying too hard, may drive the pitch upward."61
Some bluebirds may have a medical condition hampering full breath function. Asthma is more and more common in today's world of ongoing atmospheric pollution and environmental allergens. Even such disparate conditions as scoliosis and duodenal hernias can have great effect on breath capacity. The voice teacher should be aware of the possibilities and seek make himself aware of the bluebird's particular problems. However, even those without an underlying medical cause can display insufficient breath leading to bluebird behaviors.
Singers with deficient sub-glottal pressure may end up holding at the glottis to allow pressure to build up behind the closure. This is a hyper-adductive behavior is very much like that already discussed and likewise inhibits the stretching, pitch-altering actions of the cricothyroid muscle, but for a different underlying reason. The more these singers seek to increase their sound, the tighter the closure can become. This 'body-lazy' singing is analogous to watering a garden with too short a hose: if the flow is insufficient the farthest parts of the garden will not be watered. Tightening down on the nozzle will increase the pressure, but will also decrease the flow to a mere random mist. It is better for the gardener to go back to the faucet to increase flow. Once taught to increase diaphragmatic support (faucet flow) the bluebird singer can open the glottal constriction (nozzle) and achieve both flow and accuracy. These body-lazy breathless bluebird singers often display vocal fry as their habitual, conversational speech pattern.
Some singers are faced with a genetic mismatch. Their larynges are built for producing huge sounds, but their torsos can be small and unable to provide the breath capacity or pressure to run large vocal instrument. Some singers facing this stacked-against-them situation have no pitch problem and can overcome the odds through intense total body training to build the breath mechanisms. For some, the instrument/breath equipment mismatch leads to classic bluebird symptoms.
Another variety of breathlessness is a panicked singer. If the lower torso is not working as it should for breath maintenance, the singer can subconsciously sense the need to maintain breath and hyper-adduct the larynx to achieve a hold. The panic reflex usually begins with the onset of inhalation with a raising of the shoulders, a tightness in the neck and jaw, a clavicular inhalation, and a partial closure of the larynx even as the breath is going in. The tendency to panic can be so habitual that the student cannot even think of singing without the panic mechanism becoming engaged and, by corollary, never allow a relaxed abdominal breath to occur. This panic tightness so near the larynx, like the extrinsic laryngeal tension mentioned above, can hinder the operation of the pitch mechanisms.
The "Johnny Can't Read" syndrome is applicable here. Some bluebirds have been unable to match pitch for so long that they have become convinced that they never will. When approaching a leap or the far end of a scale, they will often just give up, assuming they won't sing in tune, and, thus, not sing in tune.
"There is a strong possibility that some people acquire the label 'tone deaf' if, even though they are capable of processing musical information in a normal way, other people simply don't like the sound of their voices."62 Think Bob Dylan.
TESTING FOR CAUSE
There is a chain of processes which must occur for a singer to match pitch. A break anywhere along the chain can result in a non-matching outcome. The first step in knowing whether the voice teacher can help a singer learn to match pitch is to know where the break lies.
Rather than "You can't match pitch, I can't help you," a knowledgeable teacher can approach a bluebird with "You have trouble matching pitch, let's see if we can figure out why." A series of tests can examine individual links in the chain. Some tests will confirm possibilities or rule them out. None of these tests is meant to give definitive answers, but to guide a teacher in exploration. I do not offer "if A, therefore B" but more a case of "if X, could be Y (or Z)." Remember, most bluebird behaviors do not result from single causes, but from some combination of factors.
Daniel Levitin offers a series of tests to measure ability along fourteen different links in the process chain.63 I am gratified to find a researcher arriving at a similar result in parallel work. Levitin's tests are geared towards cognitive and neurological disciplines, and his order of testing differs, but we have many testing strategies in common. Some of his steps are incorporated here. Some steps listed here are original.
Each of these testing strategies is rather simple, but taken together they can direct a teacher to probable shortcomings and therefore possible solutions. Succeeding in passing a specific small testing item is helpful, but often the failure and how a student fails can be more important in revealing underlying reasons and basic causes.
When first encountering a bluebird, determine if the singer is a musician in another discipline. The fact that he makes music in another form will quickly rule out amusia. If a musician, has the bluebird matched pitch in the past or is the poor pitch matching a new problem?
A good ear that has gone sour indicates a change in hearing, sound processing, or voice function. By checking for indications of other changes in neurological or audiological function, the teacher can determine whether the brain or ears are suspect. If neurological and audiological causes do not seem likely, laryngeal malfunction would remain a possibility. Cases of late-onset bluebird behavior seem to point to referral to a medical professional in neurology, audiology, or otolaryngology. A voice teacher cannot, of course, make a medical diagnosis, but could help the student work through a decision process to determine which specialty might be appropriate.
If the bluebird is a musical neophyte, determine why you are seeing him. If he is seeking to sing by his own accord, you might safely assume he is not an amusiac. Someone who cannot grasp the concept of music likely would not want to learn to sing. If the subject is being brought to you by other than his own volition, you might inquire about likes in music. If there is little response to music, amusia could be a possibility.
Actual bluebird-teacher musical interaction begins with simple tests for discrimination of musical qualities. With visual cues removed (student facing away from keyboard), test ability to determine same or different in pitch, rhythm, and timbre. Close, octave, and fifth pitch relationships; short two-, three-, and four-note patterns; four-beat rhythm tapping; and changes in timbre (as available on electronic keyboards) can show baseline aural and cognitive abilities.
Similar tests for pitch direction discernment follow. If a student fails in simple high/low discernment, the teacher can further determine if pitch change is evident in speech patterns. While this will further enlighten as to the particular disability at hand, any student unable to discern high/low differences in pitch would best be referred for audiological screening.
Once ability to discriminate same/different and high/low is established, the teacher may test for diatonic context. Can the bluebird hear when a note doesn't fit in a melodic context? When familiar song has wrong notes? Play a tune the student will recognize easily and to which words are available. Over several playings ask the student to note when wrong notes (if any) are played. One time, ask the student to call out mistakes. Another time ask the student to remember on which word the wrong note was played (which can clue to possible memory deficiencies to be tested next).
Memory testing can determine if the bluebirds hear whether notes and contour are the same or different when a melody is replayed. This memory ability is an obvious requirement for being able to sing. If the musical memory testing fails, alternative testing can help determine if there is a short-term memory retention problem.
If the bluebird is able to pass all the tests to this point - and a good 80%-90% of the bluebirds I see seem to be able to - auditory, processing and memory functions might be assumed to be functioning. Thus, there is a very good chance the poor pitch matching can be repaired. Depending on the results of further testing, the teacher can help to build what Daniel Levitin calls 'an internal self-referencing schema' for the mapless, or can delve directly into remedying the particular deficits of voice production that may be inhibiting successful pitch matching.
At this point it is time for the bluebird to begin to sing. By asking the subject to sing a simple tune a cappella, the teacher can determine where and how the bluebird fails in matching pitch or staying in tune. Changing key on the singer, both up and down, can show if pitch problems are specific to particular portions of the range. Adding a simple accompaniment to the song can help determine if the singer needs an outside source of tonality. Slight changes in the singing and accompaniment style can point up diverse possible reasons behind the bluebird behavior.
Confused? Try following the ideas on the flowchart.
For the great majority of out-of-tune singers who consider crossing the voice studio threshold, the singing teacher is exactly the right person to help correct the problem. The problems of the singing virgin, the mapless, the transposer, and the confused are purely cognitive and can most often be remedied by attentive training with a music education professional. Hyper-adduction, extrinsic laryngeal tensions, and lack of breath are all behaviors with which the singing teacher is familiar and for which that teacher should have remedial strategies. In bluebirds these dysfunctional behaviors are taken to an extreme. Extreme teaching talent is in order, along with extreme patience. The results, however, are well worth the work.
"The transition from the purely physical, biological domain as documented by measurable changes in the brain, to what we call 'music', is a giant step. It is a step which transfigures the disembodied mind from the physical brain. Before that transition, the rules of biology apply. But once the step has been taken, we enter a purely spiritual territory. All the physiological measurements cannot explain what we feel when we listen to great music. Music is disembodied, and musical perception and its emotional impact belong to different worlds. One is measurable, the other indefinable."64 A singing teacher who embraces the challenge of training bluebirds enlarges two worlds, his own and the student's purely spiritual territories.
2 Robert Evans Nye & Vernice Trousdale Nye. Music in the Elementary School. Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice Hall, 1977, p 238.
3 Thomas F. Cleveland and James W. Hall, III, "A New Test for Discerning Pitch Discrimination Ability", The NATS Journal, Volume 51, No. 1, September/October 1994, pp 47-50.
4 Thomas F. Cleveland, "Some New Observations on Pitch Problems," The NATS Journal, Volume 46, January/February 1990, pp 34-35+.
5 Sergius Kagen. On Studying Singing. New York: Dover Publications (reprint of Rinehard & Company edition), 1960, p 8.
6 Kagen, pp. 8-9.
7 Thanks to the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology.
8 Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D., "Tone Deafness: Failures of Musical Anticipation and Self-Reference," International Journal of Computing and Anticipatory Systems, Volume 4, 1999, pp 243-254.
11 Journal of the American Medical Association. 1899.33:231-232.
12 Richard J. Bing, M.D. "Past Truth and Present Poetry, #10. The Neurological Perception of Music," Heart News and Views, The News Bulletin of the International Society for Heart Research. Volume 7, number 2, 1999.
15 Michael Lemonick, "Music on the Brain" Time Reports: Understanding Psychology, June 5, 2000.
17 Timothy D. Griffiths, Adrian Rees, and Gary G. R. Green, "Disorders of Human Complex Sound Processing," Neurocase, 1999, Vol 5, 365-378.
20 James Mark Baldwin, Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, 1901.
21 J. Ayotte, I. Peretz, and K. Hyde, "Congenital amusia: a developmental disability for music." Poster presentation at Society for Neuroscience Annual Congress (New Orleans, November 2000).
22 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, "NSERC Success Stories: Mind over Muse?," Media release: January 18, 2001.
23 Daniel Kazez, "The Myth of Tone Deafness," Music Educator's Journal, April 1985, 46-7.
24 Thomas F. Munte, "Brains Out of Tune," Nature, vol 415, 7 February 2002, 589-90.
26 Robert T. Sataloff, M.D., "Hearing Loss in Singers," The NATS Journal, Volume 47, January-February 1991 pp 35-39.
28 Cleveland and Hall.
29 Cleveland and Hall.
30 Cleveland and Hall.
31 Cleveland and Hall.
32 Maurice H. Miller and Elizabeth L. Allen. "Auditory Hygiene for the Voice Teacher and His Students," The NATS Bulletin, February 1978, pp 39-41.
33 Kohei Kawamoto, Shin-Ichi Ishimoto, Ryosei Minoda, Douglas E. Brough, and Yehoash Raphael, "Math1 Gene Transfer Generates New Cochlear Hair Cells in Mature Guinea Pigs In Vivo," The Journal of Neuroscience, 23(11):4395-4400, June 1, 2003.
34 Leon Culpepper, A Study of the Hearing Impairments in Defective Singers, diss. George Peabody College for Singers, 1961, quoted in Kazez.
37 Yolanda D. Heman-Ackah and Robert T. Sataloff, "Vocal Fold Hypomobility," Journal of Singing, Vol. 58, No. 4, March/April 2002, pp. 321-327.
41 Miller and Allen.
43 Nye & Nye.
48 Mary I. Arlin, Professor, School of Music, Ithaca College. Private Interview with the author, Ithaca, NY, May 2002.
49 NATS Chat, June 2, 2002, transcript at www.nats.org.
50 Paul Madaule, "Listening and Singing," Journal of Singing, Vol. 57, No. 5, May/June 2001, pp.15-20.
51 David R. Joyner, "The Monotone Problem," Journal of Research in Music Education, Volume 17, No. 1, Spring 1969.
54 Toru Yuba, "Is Tone Deafness Really Deafness? (Method for Curing Motor-Related Off-Key Singing)", The Japan Journal of Logopedics and Phoniatrics, Vol, 41, No. 4, 2000.
55 Cheech Marin & Tommy Chong, Where There's Smoke, There's Cheech & Chong: The Cheech and Chong Anthology, Rhino Records, 2CD set, 2002.
56 Jean Westerman Gregg, "What Humming Can Do for You", Column "From Song to Speech", Journal of Singing, Volume 52, No. 5, May/June 1996, pp 37-38
57 Jean Westerman Gregg, Lectures given as part of the NATS Summer Workshop, Teaching the Beginning Voice, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 1997, and NATS Internship Program, Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York, June 2000.
58 Frank H. Netter, Atlas of Human Anatomy, Second Edition, East Hanover, NJ, Novartis, 1997.
59 David James, "Intonation Problems at the Level of the Larynx," The NATS Bulletin, Volume 39, March/April 1983, pp. 14-16+.
60 Ingo Titze, "What Physical Factors are Involved in the Relationship Between Vocal Pitch and Breath Support?" The NATS Bulletin, Volume 37, January/February 1981, p. 37.