Tone Deaf or Untrained?

A singer and choral director friend of mine observed on my last blog that people who think they are ‘tone deaf’ are often not.  She said, “They’re tone dumb”.  There is a medical condition that causes an inability to match pitch. That is called amusia, for those of you who would like to know.

Most of the singers that I have worked with who have come to me with a difficulty in matching pitch simply had not had the experience or training needed in order to match pitch correctly.  My father, who I never coached as a professional, used to get a sore rib when he’d sing next to me.  He’d sing some of the melody correctly, and other parts he’d wander off on his own.  I’d elbow him in the ribs.  Well, 15 years later, I went back to church with them on a visit, and wouldn’t you know that for one of the prayers they sang every week, he sang the whole thing on pitch.  And his voice was pretty good!

Another male singer came to me because he had a hole in his range.  He could sing accurately as a baritone, but when he went for the high notes it either flopped into falsetto or turned out a third off, like he was harmonizing with an inaudible melody. We started to work slowly into that zone with a simple humming exercise – building accuracy, strength, and stamina.  His range increased, his ability to hear improved, and his Karaoke performances become even more notable!  Sure enough after 4 months of vocal sessions with me, he auditioned for a lead role in the local community theater, and was cast!

This brings me to one of my most rewarding student/teacher experiences to date. The young man who came in to audition for the role of Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors had an extensive theater resume. He was adorable, in that teen boy-becoming-man way.  He had the emotional feeling of Seymour down even at the audition, and the way he said, “Meatloaf and wahtah”, in his acquired Jersey accent, made me crack up.  We knew he was our Seymour.  But he didn’t list singing experience.  And he didn’t arrive with sheet music.  On call-backs, we asked him to sing “Grow for Me”.  His voice wasn’t sure that it wanted to sing in the same key that we were in.  He had the melody right; just a little off.

We thanked all of the hopeful performers, and sat down to cast the show.

“I think he’s our Seymour, but can you teach him to sing?”  The director asked.

I took a deep breath and centered myself.  Could I?  Would all the tools that I have at my disposal be enough to take him from where he was that night to where he’d need to be on opening?  What would it take?  What contribution could I be?  My inner wisdom was my guide. It said yes.

“Yes, if he’s willing to come for 2 coachings a week.”

The director made the call, and Seymour accepted the conditions that went with his being cast in the role. I later learned that Little Shop is one of his favorite musicals, and that he knows all the songs by heart. I started teasing him about doing a one-man-show version.

We started on Halloween, actually.  The day was magically symbolic – the death of this young man as someone who didn’t know how to sing, and the start of an amazing journey.

I coached the staff and cast members that I needed them to trust me, to suspend their disbelief, and be open to the possibility. They were all happy to do so.  Limitations, judgments, and negative thoughts were not allowed. I talked with his mother (who was, admittedly, nervous) and assured her that he was doing great, which opened her up to the possibilities.  That was one of the keys to our success; when she’d walk in to the studio at the end of his sessions, he’d fall back into the cage of his old habits.  After that conversation with mom, things opened up immensely for him.

The voice is a delicate thing. You can’t ask it to say what you would like if it has things to say on its own. His voice would get ‘stuck’ on a pitch…  we’d tone. Toning is an opportunity for the voice to be where it is, to be a little flat or ‘pitchy’, metallic or scratchy.  You do the physical thing – ask for the pitch, drop the jaw, engage the abdominal muscles, and surrender the outcome. I taught him to listen for the note, then slide up or down to match if he was off.  He’s incorporated that into his performance tools, when I’m not there to cue him to go up or down. His ability to listen and hear the note before he sings it has improved enormously.

Making the transition from using his throat to sing to using his whole instrument has been remarkable.  We incorporated the ‘yawn space’ – the lifted soft palette and cheeks – this rounded out his tone and took us from a square wave to a clear, open tone, even a little vibrato!  I gave him vocalise (the fancy word for vocal exercises) to do that would coordinate his making sound with using his abdominal and intercostal muscles.  He began warming up his voice on a near daily basis.  He began using his body to support the sound, not trying to get the little tiny vocal cords to produce it all.

I will always remember the first day that his tone opened up from the effort of concentration to floating on his body (what you might know as ‘support’.)  All the sudden there was this beautiful tone, this melodic line that brought tears up in my eyes.  Whoa!  Do that in the performances, kid, and you’ll have the audience in tears, too!  His co-star, Audrey, told me the same thing after the first run-thru (we’re 2 weeks from opening).  She’d never heard one of his ‘soliloquy’ sections before. And when he tenderly sang the words, she sat there in the house, jaw loose, teary eyed.  Sure, sometimes he’s a little bit inaccurate, but it goes with our skewed perspective set and our version of the role.  When he stays in that tender-hearted place that our Seymour comes from, he nails it.

Seymour isn’t supposed to be an operatic tenor or a dulcet-toned crooner…  Rick Moranis played the bumbling florist’s assistant in the movie version, and I enjoyed hearing what he did with “Grow for Me”.  When “Suddenly Seymour” came along, I was really disappointed.  As a vocal professional, I can tell when they overdub a voice.   With a few months of lessons with a really excellent voice teacher, you can make great progress. Our Seymour carries the day on his own, from his own amazing dedication and effort – fueled by his desire.

“I’ve always wanted to sing like this,”  the young man tells me at his lessons.  His mother tells me that he’s constantly singing around the house.  I acknowledge her for supporting and encouraging him into the performing arts. He’s a talented comedic actor. He is now building his singing skills.

Bolstered by his success and the support of the cast and crew, he has a whole new avenue of expression ahead of him.  I encouraged him to join his school choir, so that he could gain more experience learning music and matching pitch.  We were talking the other day, sharing the experiences of shows that we’ve seen produced on Broadway or on tour.  I shared that I saw Les Miserables on Broadway in the 1980’s.  “Oh, I’d love to see Les Mis on Broadway!”  “How about being in it?” I gently asked.  His face changed. “Three months ago I never would have even thought of that.  Now…  YEAH!”

I was listening to the Original Broadway soundtrack in the car last weekend, and I kept thinking, “NO! That’s not Seymour’s voice!”  For now, this young Seymour’s my man.

Another musical director without these tools might have written him off.  They would have missed out on an amazing opportunity. But not me.  Not only have I learned more about how a developing voice works, I have gotten to know a dedicated, talented, richly endowed soul. Working with our Seymour has shown me just how powerful and effective my approach to coaching the whole singer are.  It has proven that someone who is willing to put in the time can learn to sing on pitch.  Having the right teacher, of course, makes all the difference!

So if you’ve bought the lie that you can’t sing, would you be willing to destroy that?  Thank you.  I invite you to consider the possibilities.  Click here to schedule a FREE discovery session with me.