There are a few different reasons why people have trouble singing on key. We usually assume it is because they are not “hearing” or “listening” to the music well enough to copy. Teachers will generally assume this is an ear-training issue. While I don’t totally disagree, I want to draw your attention to a couple of more points.
Singing is no different than playing an instrument….the instrument just happens to be your voice. Your voice is made up two vocal cords (vocal folds) that must come together (adduct) to varying degrees in order to make pitch. The higher you go in pitch, the more adducted your cords must be, and they need to be able to hold that closure while singing. Every person is genetically predisposed from birth to have a unique set of vocal folds. Some are thicker than average, some are thinner. Some are longer than average, some are shorter. Some are more flexible than average, and some aren’t very flexible at all.
The vocal folds grow and change as a child ages and grows into adulthood. Genetically we can be cursed with a “poor” set of vocal cords from birth. Also, during childhood a great many things can affect the voice……like continuous cough, asthma, and frequent shouting or speaking loudly. These abuses can cause the folds to swell and create the inability to “adduct” fully and properly. Also, poor speech habits can have drastic effects on the singing voice. If words are produced with improper vowel and consonant formation, (which can also be a issue of poor breathing habits), then the singing voice can be doubly doomed. Unfortunately, these problems can be interconnected, because if genetically you have poor vocal cords then speaking properly is obviously going to be difficult which in turn affects your singing.
It is common for me to see young boys and girls (any age from 4 and up) with an unusually low or raspy voice, or with poor speech habits, who have trouble matching pitch above their speaking voice pitch. This is because it is much more “effort” for them to zip their vocal cords properly than the average little boy or girl with a normal speaking range. These little low voices have trouble singing on key because they need to be able to hold the cords together to sing at a higher pitch than they are speaking. To some of these little guys, they have never experienced the sensation of holding their vocal cords together because the effort is either too difficult, or too unusual in that they have never easily experienced vocal cord closure.
If you are wondering if this is a problem for your child, you can simply try the following examples to get good vocal cord closure. Can she make a fire siren sound? Can he meow in his high voice? Can she “scream” without using extensive force? These guidelines will let you know how well they are able to adduct their vocal cords.
The bottom line is that it is more “effort” for these little ones to match pitch. They need more encouragement and more experience doing it correctly. The more they sing higher or talk higher, or imitate higher sounds, then the vocal cords with start to engage in this muscular activity. It’s very important to get these little ones who have low or abused vocal cords started with high sounds/noises as young as possible. The older the child gets then he/she thinks he can’t sing on key and stops trying to match pitch all together. They don’t necessarily lose their love for singing, however! They will still go around singing, but unfortunately everyone around them will notice that they are not in key. The vocal cords end up only being engaged at their speech level (the pitches near their talking voice) and they never experience the sensation of their vocal cords zipping up.
Have you experienced anything that rings true with above? Do you have questions or comments? Why not drop me a line. Susan