To the beat of their own drum: teaching kids to match pitch

The day my first group of guitar students learned to play their first chord progression, I sang along while they played in order to show them that they weren’t just playing chords on a sheet, but they were actually accompanying me. They were playing a song! Some of the other students in the classroom excitedly rushed over and began singing their own songs to the accompaniment. As thrilled as I was to see my guitar students beaming as their peers surrounded them to check out their skills, a problem quickly became apparent to me. The kids that were singing were not singing in the same key, nor were they singing to tempo. They apparently didn’t know that when you sing with an accompanying instrument, there are rules for how to sing.

The reality that I came face to face with in that moment is that the majority of our students have only ever sang to the beat of a drum. In fact, if you attend most churches in rural areas, a drum with a cow hide covering is the only instrument accompanying the singers. Of course, in that setting, you can choose whatever key you want and everyone follows. There are some churches that have acquired a keyboard, but the keyboardists typically only know how to play a certain chord progression in a certain key, and the singers haven’t been trained to sing in the same key, so you’ll often find that the musician and the singers are on totally different keys. It never stops them though. Everyone just keeps doing what they’re doing.

Things were no different when I first played guitar in the vocal class. I played a simple two chord progression and asked each singer to sing a melody. We went all the way around the circle without me giving any feedback, and not a single student sang in the right key– even the ones who were considered to be more experienced! Again, this was something that I realized they needed to be taught. So, teach them we did.

Now, regardless of my experience in choral groups and worship teams, I had never taught anyone to match pitch, so needless to say, I felt extremely out of my element. In the beginning I tried a lot of things that failed– mostly playing the same note over and over and asking the students to sing it, hoping that by tenth time they would be able to match it. But as time has gone on, we’ve implemented some strategies that seem to be helping. Here’s a short list of what we’ve done:

  • Vocal groups: After determining each student’s general vocal range, I placed them in vocal groups (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). Now, whenever they come into the classroom or they stand on stage to sing, they stand in their vocal groups. They didn’t realize that changing where they stood could help them stay focused on the note they are to sing since everyone around them is singing the same note.
  • Cover one ear: Though it’s a bad habit to have when you’re singing on stage, especially if you have monitors, it’s great for practice because it allows you to hear the note you’re supposed to hit, and it helps you to hear your voice better. Sometimes when I did one on ones with students I would have them cover one ear and put their other ear near the keyboard speaker so they could hum until their voice blended with the keyboard.
  • Sing the note for them: I’m not sure why, but students who have never sang with instruments before have a hard time matching pitch to a note on a keyboard. If I play the note and ask them to sing it, they struggle, but if I play the note, sing it, and then ask them to sing, suddenly it clicks. After a while I can cut out the middle man and they can still maintain the note.
  • Root notes: Whenever I accompany the students on keyboard or guitar, I always make sure to play the chord and then stop and emphasize the root note or the note they are to sing first. After we’ve identified it, I play the chord again so they can find the note themselves. When you stop and think about it, without knowledge of root notes, the kids are hearing 3-6 notes played at once. How are they supposed to know which one is their start note?
  • Modulation challenge: The chord progression I mentioned earlier that most keyboardists play is well known because it fits the majority of praise songs people in rural churches sing. The songs are mostly all in the same progression, just a slightly different melody. Because the students are familiar with the tune, I will play the chord progression at the beginning of each class, but I change the key every time. Then I challenge them to “find me” and sing the song in the right key.

As you can see from our most recent videos of the kids singing, there are some students that have begun to catch the concept of matching pitch and some that still need some work. Even so, as a whole, the students have all really grown and what we see now couldn’t make us more proud. The courage of the kids to try everything I throw at them is admirable and is proving to be very beneficial to their growth as vocalists. They’re working on video projects this session, so you will get to see the final results very soon!

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