The tone deaf project

In the Lent Term of 2011 I ran a small project with just two sixth form pupils, really out of personal curiosity: to what extent does tone deafness exist?

The initial plan was to work with one boy and one girl, and each week to video their 15 minute one-to-one lesson. We hoped then to make a documentary to play to the whole school, to demonstrate my (assumed) conclusion that anyone can be taught to sing.

For various reasons, the final element of the project was not completed. But I was able to make some very clear observations, which have since led to much more wide reaching and successful research through The Choir who can’t sing. Specifically, there appear to be three main elements which can get a complete non-singer on the road to genuine success within a matter of minutes. These are:

  • more careful listening
  • good breath support
  • confidence and energy

Having been on British Kodaly Academy course two years ago, I am in no doubt that it is vital to develop the ‘inner hearing’ in every musician. Many people who can’t sing don’t listen very carefully to what they are doing, either because they don’t realise how important it is to listen, or because they don’t believe that they can do it and have given up before they even before they have begun. Critical listening is vital. In each instance, I have simply sung a note to the pupil, and have asked them to imagine, in their head (their inner hearing), the sound which they are about to make, before singing it. In almost every case, they have gone on to sing the note straight back to me. My response, just 30 seconds into the session: “Well, you’ve just sung that note back to me perfectly, so you’re not tone deaf.” Their response: “Really?” [Unspoken response: “You’ve got my attention now, keep going…”]

The second element is the necessity of good breathing, and the concept of supporting the breath. Without this, a singer just doesn’t have the fuel to make the voice work. I often use the analogy of a toothpaste tube; if you squeeze it in the middle the squeeze doesn’t last very long, but if you work up from the base it keeps on going. Or else I suggest that if you were under water, you wouldn’t take a breath just yet! Asking the pupil to keep the sound going for another 5/10 seconds will soon show them where the real work is going on, namely the diaphragm. [It’s more complex than this, but a quick demo gets them thinking, and even question how they’ve been breathing all these years….!]

The crucial element, however, is confidence. Most people who can’t sing have had this reinforced over an extended time period by people telling them that they can’t. And they believe it. In all likelihood, this has stopped them from even trying for years, so they have been prevented from practising the first two elements, leaving them very much behind in their vocal development. But that’s more or less all it is – lack of confidence, coupled with lack of practice.

If I have learned nothing else from this project, it’s this:

Students love to succeed. And if they can find success in every lesson, they will keep coming back for more.

‘Fixing’ non-musicians is perhaps not as difficult as it might seem, but more often than not I fear we just ignore them so that we can concentrate on those who already can. In my (recent) experience, the former can be just as fun and exciting, and arguably more life-changing. Enter The Choir who can’t sing!

7 responses to “The tone deaf project

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