Category Archives: Singing

How to Sing, Step Two: Listening

Matching pitch is a great beginning, because it requires that there be at least two singers: the model, and the mimic. Sometimes this is a teacher-student relationship, but not always. Sometimes it’s just two kids playing on a playground, or sisters washing dishes together while they figure out how to harmonize with each other. The key to singing with someone else is to match tone and volume as well as pitch. If one singer overpowers another, or one voice is more strident than the other, it stops being fun pretty quickly. Choral directors work hard to create the perfect balance of voices, the perfect blend of choral tone. But it’s really very simple. If you want to sing with someone else and make it a mutually satisfying experience, you only have to follow one rule:

Listen louder than you sing.

Notice how the foundation of good singing has more to do with your ears than your throat? Listening means paying attention to what you hear. If you are trying to sing with someone else, but you only pay attention to your own voice, you probably are not going to be singing in perfect harmony with your partner. Chances are good that you will not even be singing in the right key. However, if you focus your attention more on the other people singing with you and less on your own sound, you will (almost) automatically sing with exactly the right volume, pitch, and tone to fit in with the voices around you.

Why am I so concerned with group singing instead of solo singing? Because I truly believe that the whole purpose of singing is to sing with more than to another. It is one of the fundamental ways we communicate things we cannot say. Besides, it is only when our voices work with other voices that what we sing matters. If you are singing alone, you can be in any key, at any volume, on any pitch, and get away with being less than accurate.

But when we sing together, a strange thing happens. What we do with our own voices suddenly matters to the whole of which we are a part.

If we apply this truth to the church, listening louder than we sing becomes a wonderful metaphor for Christian life in community. Putting my own voice in background, paying attention to what I hear around me, and finding my place in the harmony of Kingdom life together lets me be all of who I am, while reminding me that I am only a part of the greater whole. As we work together for peace, justice, and righteousness, my personal agenda becomes much less important than supporting my brothers and sisters. Love trumps all.

Coming Thursday: Breathing the song…

How to Sing, Step One: Matching Pitch

My step-dad claimed he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. But he loved to listen to music. Whenever my best friend came to our house, he asked her to play “that Show-pan Polly-naze” for him. He only knew one Chopin Polonaise, and though my friend knew several, she would sit at the piano and crank out Opus 40, No. 1 as if it were the only one ever written. And my dad would sit back and smile, nodding slightly, not sure why he liked it but happy to hear it nonetheless.

Put a hymnal in his hands, though, and he would shake his head and smile his toothy grin and say, “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.”

But he could. He just didn’t know how to make the tune that came out of his mouth be the same one everyone else was singing around him. He could sing, and he even had a pleasant bass baritone voice, but he couldn’t match pitch.

Matching pitch is not so much a vocal skill as an aural one. It takes a lot of trial and error for some children to find and reproduce a tone sung to them, but nearly everyone with good hearing can match pitch with a little practice. As a young music teacher, I observed my mentor encouraging kindergarten students with a phrase I often repeated: “I just have to find the right key to help you unlock this door.” The puzzle was finding the right set of pitches for the student to experience success just once, then build on that success. We would start with whoops and hollers, making our voices into roller coasters or parachutes falling from imaginary helicopters, moving on to “nanny-nanny-boo-boo” chants and mimicry.

But sometimes I had to work harder to help a child find and reproduce a specific pitch or melodic pattern. Usually, this meant having the child sing to me, and then echoing with my own voice what I had just heard. As I modeled the process of matching pitch, I was also affirming that the sound the child was making was, in fact, a singing sound. Apparently, no one ever did this for my step-dad. He went through life thinking he couldn’t sing, because no one ever taught him how to match pitch.

Yet, if God sings (Zephaniah 3:17) and we are made in God’s image, doesn’t it stand to reason that each of us can sing, that we were created to sing? The question then becomes, what song are we singing? And who is matching pitch with us?

Now let’s think about your pastor for a moment. “Yeah, well, my pastor can’t sing,” you may be thinking. Consider, however, that your pastor is singing, has been singing, will continue to sing, but the problem may not be one of vocalization. It may be simply that you and your pastor are not matching pitch with each other. Maybe your pastor is trying to lead your church in a direction you don’t want to follow, or your pastor is changing things that you want to stay the same. Maybe your pastor isn’t listening to you. Maybe you listen to your pastor only through the filter of your own song.

What would happen if you stopped for just a moment, to really listen to your pastor’s song?
What would happen if you stopped for just a moment, to really listen to God’s song?

Can you hear a little bit of God’s song as your pastor sings? If they aren’t exactly the same tune, are they at least in harmony with each other?

Can you hum a few bars?