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The "New Voice Type" coming to our choruses

As a public school music teacher for 35 years, I had  my share of students who had diffuculties matching pitches...usually we could make things work through small group lessons.   However, in the past 3 years I have noticed that more and more students are coming to chorus at Alfred State College with vocal challenges which I really never saw 'back in the day'.   I have spoken to other directors who have notice the same problem and I have seen it begin to show up in Vocal Solo Competitions.  The pop/belter voice is more prolific now and it has created singers who cannot sing in tune, who often sing only one volume--loud and who cannot hear that they are 'off'.   "Voices" members select their music for each semester--presently, we are doing "Lacrymosa" by Mozart and "CHoose Something Like a Star" by R. Thompson in addition to some other show and pop pieces.   The men, in particular, have extreme difficulty getting in tune---they are surprised when I comment because they cannot hear it.  Pop music and show tunes have often been challenging in the choral setting, but since we left behind the 'old' musicals in favor of Disney musicals, "Wicked", "Les Miz", etc., we seemed to have stopped teaching a solid, classical vocal technique which would give them more flexibility.     I have decided to have them all download a tuner app which allows them to see when they are matching single pitches and use that as part of warmups.   But I have used up my bag of successful tricks and could use some suggestions.   Anyone??
Linda Staiger,
Alfred State College "VOices".
Replies (20): Threaded | Chronological
on March 3, 2014 11:25am
What I have found is that the style of music isn't the issue, rather the approach the student uses to sing that style is the root of many issues.  If the student is self taught, then they are likely mimicking the sound of what they hear on the radio without knowing the proper technique to acquire that sound.  The result is an overabundance of tension to "squeeze" out notes and an imbalance in register development because the student is attempting to use chest voice instead of mix (or even head voice) to sing higher pitches.  Telling them to reduce tension doesn't help because they aren't aware there's tension there because it's how they've always sung.
Jeannette LoVetri teaches a registration based methodology called Somatic Voicework(tm) that addresses this issue beautifully.  Students need to know how to sing in both their head and chest registers in order to learn to mix the two appropriately to create the aesthetic desired without injury.  You can read more about Jeannie and her method at  I use her method with my private students as well as when I coach ensembles, regardless or the musical style/genre of the repertoire.
Her method can be used in a choral setting as well.  I sing in a Sweet Adelines chorus -- my director & I attended Jeannie's program at Shenandoah University (Contemporary Commercial Music Institute) last summer and brought her methodology back to our ensemble.  We worked with our singers both corporately and individually to ensure that every singer could demonstrate pitches in head, chest & mixed registration and then spent time addressing trouble spots for sections in terms of register unification.  The rest has been astounding.  Nearly all of our intonation issues have been resolved in both old & new repertoire and when we do run into a trouble spot, all my director has to do is ask the section which register they think they should be utilizing for the passage and the singer dragging down the pitch gets what they need to make the adjustment necessary to fix the section issue.
Jennifer Newman
Applauded by an audience of 4
on March 3, 2014 12:55pm
First thought -
Privately record someone singing the part correctly, record one of your pitch problem singers singing the same part incorrectly, then play both of them back for the singer in question. In order not to embarass the singer, I would suggest playing them back in a private meeting. If they still can't hear the problem, you may then want to play a portion back, possibly mixed in with recordings of other singers, and allow the group to confirm the pitch problem.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on March 4, 2014 5:48am
Linda:  I am not sure if this is an answer for you, but in working with children and adolescent voices, I have definitely heard an issue brought on by singing in a pop style/repertoire which aggravates good vocalism and by extension, I believe listening. The problem stems from singing material that has a very limited range and more-often-than-not, a range that is compressed to roughly A below middle C and up to an octave above, occasionally the C above middle C. This limited and lower range is sung in a belting tone which has at least three drawbacks: 1) forcing the vocal production 2) no development of the upper register 3) more difficult to hear your own vocal production such as pitch and balance.  When asked to sing in a higher regester or a head voice, these children and adolescents discover an unknown territory and sound as if they have two separate voices with little if any connection between the two registers. Confiedence in the head register is totally lacking never miind any abiltity to navigate between the two reigisters. One would expect this to be a challenging skill for any emerging singer; however, when one register has usurped the vocal duties almost entirely, the singer is at the mercy of a single quality and regester which lends just about no strength for expansion of the voice and a mindset that believes this is all that singing amounts to. If we as teachers of voice do not help the younger singers discover and develop their full range, then we will reap the harvest of limited ranges, abused vocal mechanisms and no awareness of what so many of these young singers are capable of doing. Pop repertoire has its place in the curriculum, however, great care and training with widespread selection of reperoire must be the key to total choral and solo training.
Gary Fisher
Burlington Civic Chorale
Applauded by an audience of 2
on March 4, 2014 7:30am
Adding to the problem is the fact the most, if not all, recorded music today is digitally altered. Many of the current pop-singers do not sing as well live as they do on their recordings, because their recordings have been "fixed." (I had to resist the strong urge to name a few popular singers here...) So the recordings the students are imitating are not even actual representations of how that specific singer really sings.
I do a TON of recording of my groups because they do not hear themselves accurately. After having them stand in a circle so that they are singing to each other to hopefully hear all the parts (which helps somewhat), I record them on my iPhone and then plug it into speakers. And then I say "what do you hear?" followed by "how can we fix that?" More often than not, they hear exactly what I'm hearing (intonation issues, tone quality, etc) But when I ask them how to fix it, they usually take ownership of it. (And, they're usually repeating exactly what I had already tried to tell them! Sometimes, it takes someone else's voice...)
Good luck!
Emily McDuffee
Director of Choirs
Southport High School, Indianapolis, IN
Applauded by an audience of 4
on March 8, 2014 6:15am
What recording app do you use? I am planning to do that with my iPod. I've bought a bluetooth speaker for that very purpose, but am having trouble finding a good enough (doesn't have to be great) recording app.
on March 4, 2014 11:08am
One more recent factor may be the extreme white noise content in much recent popular music.  Lady Gaga, for instance, has some good material, but it's overweighted by a great deal of noise from digital percussion: making the vocal overtones impossible to hear, and thus, making young people think it doesn't matter where the pitch may be. 
Applauded by an audience of 3
on March 4, 2014 12:18pm
This subject has been on my mind for the last five years or so.  I teach class voice, and most of the young women who come in have no head voice, and a breathy, unfocussed tone.   I have gotten used to that, but what got my attention was getting the choral parts to a recently written musical (big name you would recognize).   The women's parts were all in the chest voice belt range, and men were all written in the treble clef.  It was all in the high baritone range, or even higher.  No bass part to speak of.   This semester in my open audition concert choir, I have a booming and wonderful tenor and bass section, but the women have no confidence and no strength.  Somehow, I think this is all related.   Speaking chorally, we are going to have rescue Ophelia. 
Applauded by an audience of 4
on March 5, 2014 6:31am
While not a teacher of chorus at any educational level, I am amused and somewhat bemused by the first response to the initial post.  Indeed, if a student is self-taught, they're likely to pick up bad habits - or at least it's unlikely they'll necessarily pick up good ones.  However, if the students are NOT self-taught - i.e., if they've had some sort of training either privately or at schools prior to arriving at the new teacher - tag, the teachers are "it."  Teachers across the board have to take up the cudgel of the "hard learning" of proper technique, proper placement, proper breathing, etc., etc., etc. - all the "dull and boring stuff" that are so necessary to doing it "right" for a long-lived ability to sing.  Most everything that has been said, generally speaking, has been at least unobjectionable, if not downright common-sensical - but we've avoided the fundamental issue.  If the student comes to you without training, guess who?  Blame the industry if you must (and there's loads of blame to apportion there), blame even the society if you must (we ALL can be the next Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift or whomever - my son's experience with little girl voice students who want to be one of those is amusing and appalling in equal measure, but God forbid that you have to go home and PRACTICE what you want to sing, because the last time we checked an autotuner wasn't going to be provided for you each time you opened your mouth!) - but folks, we cannot avoid "history" (to appropriate Abraham Lincoln).  What are WE doing to provide these kids, self-taught or not, with the proper skills?  How much bending and accommodating have WE done to give them "what they want" (the number of previous posts in other instances about students whining "Why can't we do some more COOL music, instead of this stuff?" (meaning Palestrina or Mozart or Brahms or Thompson or anyone like them) and on which we waste incredible and unnecessary amounts of angst, instead of looking them in the eye and saying, "Because if you do this 'stuff' the rest is easy") or what their parents want?  Yes, I understand; the parents take on the administrators whose spines in too many instances have the consistency of jelly - but do WE care enough, in the church and in the schoolroom, to insist on at least a minimum standard?  Yes, I know; it's a job; it pays the bills.  Is that all?
Applauded by an audience of 7
on March 5, 2014 9:09am
The kind of voice you describe, in women, can result from relentless chest voice singing (untrained) while ignoring the head voice. When women with this kind of problem come to my studio, I give them lots of light exercises in head voice. The sound is breathy, but fills in with time. Many of them do not like the sound, of course, but I explain that these exercises will lead to a balanced voice that sounds good in all registers. Just to be clear, I have no problem with belting, but you have to be properly trained to do it well, and you have to develop your head voice as part of the process.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 5, 2014 12:59pm
I have enjoyed reading everyone's responses and will take a moment or two to just share some things I do every day, since I teach very impressionable (meaning they listen to a lot of pop music) students, primarily 13 and 14 year old singers, in elective (read: non-auditioned) choruses.
1. When we begin the semester, I tell them that this is a skill-based elective, and that in order to pass, they must do the following:  listen, follow directions, stay focused, be self-aware (that's  biggie), and make the commitment to improve daily.  They must also realize it is a performing organization, and as such, will have pubic performances twice at a minimum during the term.
2. Always, I have inexperienced singers in my choruses.  This may mean no private lessons, or could mean they didn't know they can't sing, or don't WANT to sing, etc.
3. Always, I have VERY experienced singers in these groups. They are expected to be good examples -- leaders, not bosses.
4. I tell my singers the first day that they do not ever have to sing alone unless they choose to do so.  I can hear 4 separate voices in a group vocal range check or assessment.
5. I often have several singers hold a MUTE card and stand back from the chorus and listen instead of sing.  It is a revelation to them what is going on that they do not notice from inside the chorus.
6. I often divide the group up into small groups and give them a song to rehearse on their own and present for an assessment.
7. I use self- and peer- assessment weekly.
8. We spend the day after a performance doing a plus/delta chart, then we set goals for our next concert. All "deltas" must be specific, and must NOT name names (i.e., Johnny sang a C instead of a C#).
9. I started an auditioned small ensemble outside of school (but they must be enrolled in chorus to audition).  I get great work from this group, and they form the foundation of my chorus classes.
10. As for the performing of pop music, I don't do it.  I like it, but I don't teach it. This is because most arrangements of pop tunes are different from "the way it sounds on the CD or on radio", and I don't want to fight that battle.
11. My private theory is that we are dealing with much of this "sound" and attitude because of the percentage of the time that singers are "plugged into" electronic devices. They think that when they are singing along, what they hear is themselves.  It isn't.
12. I also regularly show DVD's of concerts and provide a grid of things to listen and watch for...positive and negative.  This facilitates great discussion and usually results in improvement in performance.
In conclusion, I told my choruses that this is an experience that has to do with the collective action of the group...that each individual must develop the ways to sing in such a way that our performance is "as one".  Posture, Pitch, Rhythm, Focus (of attention), Vowel formation, Consonant clarity, Dynamics, and Common Goals.
One of the quotes I expect them to live by is: "Develop the Humility to Match Your Ability" - Lynda Boltz.
Best wishes to all of you out there bravely making music!  Act like you love it, because you do. That attitude is contagious!
Lynda Boltz, M.M, NBCT
Vocal Music Educator, Durant Road Middle School
Wake County Schools
Raleigh NC
Applauded by an audience of 10
on March 8, 2014 8:08am
Lynda, I LOVE your ideas. I want to disagree on one point. Your #10. I DO use choral arrangements of pop music throughout the year along with other music. I tell my students that this is a CHORAL arrangement so it IS different from what they hear on the radio. I tell them that we are NOT BEYONCE, so we don't have to sing it like her (for example.) We work and emphasize our good tone, proper vowels, clean and clear diciton (attacks and releases), proper phrasing and so on, within the scope of this music, just like anything else we sing.  I've not had any repercussions from my kids.
Just a thought.
on March 10, 2014 9:15am
Debbie - This issue (Lynda's #10) has been hashed over in other postings on ChoralNet.  The problem is finding quality choral arrangements of pop material which, if we're honest and as you say, do NOT sound like what the kids have heard on iTunes or on their iPhones or whatever - but THAT'S what they want to hear themselves doing.  They do not have the ability (yet!) to discriminate the technical requirements and differences between a choral arrangement and a solo arrangement.  Therefore, I have to agree with Lynda that you have to make a choice:  if you do decide to do an arrangement of a pop tune, it had better be a high-quality one, or else don't bother - and as I posted earlier, if we do the hard "stuff," they'll have both the training and the discriminating taste to appreciate what is happening.
on March 6, 2014 4:08am
I tip that I think I read on Allegra Martin's blog ( was to compile a listening list of contemporary pop singers who do make effective use of the head range (e.g. Sarah McLachlan, Annie Lennox) as a way of helping young women engage imaginatively with the sound world and helps them understand the point of the techniques.
(Apologies if I have misattributed the was a couple of years back I saw it...)
Applauded by an audience of 2
on March 7, 2014 5:39am
Thanks very much to all of you who have taken the time to post here.   I believe that, for the most part, these students are using what they 'taught themselves' rather than what their choral teachers have taught.   The constant 'plugging in' using ipods, etc and singing is very definitely a problem--much more so than back in the day before these little marvels became so popular---I find it intriguing that they seem to not know they are way off when singing along with ear buds....I can hear myself singing and can easily compare my sound with that which I am hearing on the headphones so perhaps I need to design an exercise for them using the earbuds.   Then there are the falsetto and upper registers to deal with....    One of the troubling things is that they are surprised when I tell them they are underpitch and they had no idea.....I really wish I had pushed the issue more by bringing in recordings of men and boychoirs so all could get used to what is a beautiful sound.    Blessings to all of you, and many, many thanks.   Linda
on March 7, 2014 6:26am
This season, American Idol is dealing with the same problem. See if the kids have noticed all the time the judges spend on telling the contestants they're singing sharp. Did your kids hear that, too? If they don't watch, maybe they should. The winner will be a singer who's in tune. 
Applauded by an audience of 3
on March 8, 2014 12:36pm
A couple of thoughts:
One reason people tend to sing sharp is that they can't differentiate their voice from the rest of the singers, and unconsciously sing sharp in order to hear themselves. This is especially true when singing with ear buds or headphones. This is why you see singers with one ear piece moved off of their ear in recording situations. Also with younger voices, they may not have a very rich voice, with lots of overtones and formants - and it's always easier to hear the higher tones and try to match them than just listening to the fundamental. I might try grouping your singers not by section, but in groups of one of each, so that the singers are trying to create a unified sound/chord, instead of trying to match the same pitch.
I also recommend checking out Jeanette Lovetri - I studied with her for a number of years and apprenticed teaching voice with her. She worked with trying to rehabilitate a lot of Broadway singers' voices, who belted too much. However, I've been reviewing musicals lately, and have noticed a new trend: now that many productions are miking everyone, taking away the need to belt, girls especially are singing with no chest voice, but all in head.
Mary Jane Leach
on March 9, 2014 8:51am
Mary Jane, I agree with you about changing pitch in order to hear oneself , but I also think that singing sharp has more to it than that.  Opening up the tone and not forcing can help with that difficulty.  But, what really needs to happen is more emphasis on LISTENING!  Ear buds amd headphones seem to restrict the students from hearing the entire spectrum of sound for lack of the ambience of the surrounding area.  Also, today's digital sound has a clear over use of Bass, which makes it difficult to hear how to tune the upper registers.  
What we need to add to this equation is listening without recording-the real analog sound in addition, of course, to instruction in good vocal technique.  Any amount of excellent technique is not going to be the answer without students begin aware of what they shoud be LISTENING for!  Recording automatically creates the problem of analog to digital conversion, and somewhere in there lies the key to the problem!  So unless you are recording in analog, or you can convert from digital back to analog-it will be difficult to overcome.  Especially, since these students are analog deprived for the most part.
on March 10, 2014 6:51am
Lots of wonderful ideas in this thread.  I want to point out that no one has mentioned how the lack of elementary school vocal training impacts these children.  I know there are many places that have eliminated elementary school vocal music, and have decided that the only 'music' children need is learning to play an instrument in 3rd-5th grade, if they keep any music instruction at all.  Many of the problems discussed here could be minimized if every child had a music class with a VOCAL teacher at least once/week. General/vocal teachers should at least be introducing young children to folk songs in head voice, but also too often, instrumentalists teaching vocal think pop music or jazzed up children's songs are the thing to use.  Young children (K-3) are open to most anything.  Then in 4th/5th and up, many are open to more singing with beautiful sound.
Eloise Porter
Applauded by an audience of 2
on March 11, 2014 7:45am
Lots of good advice here, especially re cultivation of head voice, and I only have a couple of things to add--
First, keep in mind that girls' voices go through a "change" too, even though it's not as dramatic as the boys' voice change--in my experience, it often manifests itself as a complete departure of solid core sound and an increase in breathiness, and the only way to work through it is to just respect that it's happening and understand that the instrument may be small and not project well for a while, whether that "while" is a few months or a couple of years. Healthy singing can and should still happen, the scope is just a little smaller. (I say this as one who has privately taught a lot of high school students AND whose own voice change went through this exact phenomenon; I remember vividly the frustration and impatience as my clear treble soprano dissipated in high school into a realm of breathy nothingness and then in my sophomore year of college abruptly returned as a burgeoning mezzo instrument. Some of it's just the body doing its thing. Idina--or perhaps we should call her Adele Dazeem?--ain't 19 years old.)
Second, and related--I have come to believe that the tendency to sing sharp is often directly related to the growing adult voice attempting to assert itself in a body that hasn't learned to support the larger sound. When I've worked with singers on a twofold process of opening/lifting the soft palate and engaging the ribs and gut, the sharping has usually almost magically disappeared. I can't tell you how many times I've had the following conversation with a young singer after a phrase went sharp: "Okay, did you hear that sharping again a little? Were you thinking about the soft palate that time?" "No, I was concentrating on the notes." "Well, do it again, don't worry about the notes, and be aware of your soft palate lifting." --And then it's fine, perfectly in tune, and vocally much prettier. Usually the notes are right too. (Your mileage may vary, of course. But this approach has become my Chevy Volt.)
It should also be noted that "belting," when done right, is very different from simply bringing the chest voice up higher than is comfortable--it's a specific technique that involves an unequal (chest-dominant, but not chest-exclusive) mixing of registers and change of vocal placement to produce a higher but still chest-y sound. Which, to me, implies that learning healthy use of the head voice is crucial for being able to learn to produce the sound they seem to think they want, but in a healthy way.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 12, 2014 2:14pm
Sigh the tone. :)
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