We’ve all heard it. That moment when the featured singer is just about to belt the most emotional moment in a song and she sings it with such emotion and power but she is off pitch. It kills the momentum, it makes the audience cringe and it ruins the beauty of the expected chord. Even worse, the singer continues to sing not realizing she is off and even though she finds her way back to the melody, something has been stolen from what was mostly an amazing performance.
There are many reasons why this can happen. For a singer, pitch and rhythm must be in line with the song they are performing…you could parallel it with cooking a recipe. If your baking soda has lost its chemical reaction properties, your cake will not rise properly. Same thing with music, if the singer’s pitch is off, it makes the entire performance fall flat. It is hard to ignore!
As a singer myself, I have had my share of questionable pitch moments. When it occurred, I took the time to reflect on why it happened and learned from the mistake. Now, I know how to hit the right pitch when singing and I am careful to plan ahead to provide my best performance possible with each and every gig.
What is Pitch?
Technically, pitch is the “quality of a sound governed by the rate of vibrations producing it”. In terms of singing, the components of your voice box vibrate at specific speeds to create tones. If those speeds don’t match the instruments’ tones, whether electronic or acoustic, obviously the tones won’t sound the same. Looking at it this way, one can appreciate the amount of precision that is necessary to arrive on pitch.
How Can I Be Sure to Arrive on Pitch?
Now that you understand a little about what pitch is, aligning your ears and voice with it will make more sense.
Run a Sound Check
Being able to hear yourself as well as your supporting instruments is vital. Before my performances, I always run a sound check to make sure I will be able to hear myself and hear the instrumentalists. I often run through the louder songs so I know, when the volume rises, I’ll still be able to hear myself. In doing this I make sure my ears and voice are aligned with the surrounding tones. This is one step in making sure I’ll hit the right notes.
Ear training – Few Practice Tips
Ear training is key. If you are not hearing the tones, your voice will have a hard time matching them. Additionally, if you cannot hear your own voice, you won’t know when you are matching the necessary tones. Ear training is just what it sounds like and you can improve your pitch by training your voice to match what your ears hear.
You can start by playing a single note on a piano or guitar, listen to it, hear it in your head and then try vocalizing an “ah” with the same pitch. Cup your hands around your ears and listen to your voice. Sing above the intended note and below it and then settle into the desired tone.
You may have to play and hold the sustain pedal on the keyboard to give you time to match it. Alternatively, you could have someone else listening to help you identify when you are matching the pitches and when you might be slightly off. Try several different notes and also try moving from one note to the next while matching the tones.
It is all about the vibrations. Even the smallest adjustment in your voice can bring you in tune or out of tune. This ear training practice is essential to ensure you will hit the right pitch.
Relaxing Is Vital to Hitting Your Notes
Another very important technique for all singers is their ability to stay relaxed even when singing a powerful song. If you watch a professional opera singer, you’ll notice they have the ability to produce an even, graceful, powerful tone without an ounce of tensing up. Somehow that sound just flows out of them. Staying relaxed allows your vocal producing components to work properly.
If you tense up in your neck or your shoulders, you compromise the muscles in your throat. That tension in your neck affects the vibrations emanating from your voice box and can cause you to sing off-pitch. Facial tension prevents your mouth from creating the ideal shape for a nurtured tone.
Tension throughout your body affects your breath control in your diaphragm and lungs. It also burns through some of the energy your body needs to produce a beautiful tone. Focus on keeping your entire body relaxed for a tension free neck area, relaxed facial muscles and plenty of strength for breath control.
My Breathing Exercise and Routine Before Each Performance
Utilize a deep breathing exercise before you sing to focus your muscles and mind on relaxing. Before my performances I run through the following:
- Stand with my feet shoulder distance apart
- Close my eyes
- Raise my shoulders then drop them down focusing on my shoulder blades pulling down and back and my chest out.
- Breathe in through my nose deep into my belly for a count of five.
- Exhale through my mouth with a hiss for a count of ten.
- Repeat five times visualizing the inhalations expanding my entire body and reaching all the way to my toes.
When I am finished with this exercise, I feel focused, relaxed and energized…ready to sing.
Is Poor Posture Affecting Your Pitch?
In conjunction with relaxing, good posture will support you singing on pitch. Hitting the right note requires correct breath support. If you cannot take a deep breath because you are sitting in a position that doesn’t allow your diaphragm and lungs to expand, your exhale will not have the necessary support to produce your desired tone.
You might start out with a solid note but you will run out of air and your pitch will be affected.
Furthermore, if your shoulders are slumped over, your lung capacity will be less. If your shoulders are lifted towards your ears, your neck is not relaxing causing tension in your vocal muscles. If your arms are crossed in front of you, they are putting pressure on your chest and not allowing your lungs to expand to their full extent. All of these posture related items can affect the notes you sing.
I often have my students try singing while sitting down rather slumped in a chair. Then, I have them stand and sing with the correct posture. It becomes very obvious how much easier it is to sing standing tall and how much better it sounds. You will find if you practice singing standing tall with your shoulders back and down and your arms relaxed at your side, it will be easier to sing and easier to hit the pitches you are reaching for.
Finding the Right Key
It should come as no surprise that not everyone sings well in the same key. However, many singers try to sing in ranges that do not fit their voice and end up straining their voice and singing off-key. To avoid this, you need to find the right key that suits your range. It should feel comfortable, maybe you need to reach for a few notes but most of the notes should be reachable without pushing or straining. If you find that you are singing a song and you cannot reach the higher or lower notes, change the key. Sometimes just one note away of key change, for example, from D Major to C Major, can make all the difference. It is worth the time it takes to change the key for your voice to do its best. Think of it in terms of finding the perfect fit in something you wear. If it fits well, you look great and you feel wonderful. If the song is in the correct key for your voice, you reach all the notes with ease and avoid singing off pitch.
Must I Always Warm Up?
Just like a runner stretches before a run, you need to stretch your vocal chords before singing at full strength. Warming up helps blood and oxygen flow to the necessary areas while also prepping your mind and body for focused singing. Belting out a tune before your system is ready can produce a strained and off-pitch tone. It is also not good for your vocal chords. If you take the time to prepare, you will have the tools ready to sing on pitch.
Voice Warm-up Exercises
You should plan on at least 15 minutes of warming up before diving into a song. Start with simple, five-note scales up and down on ah, ay, ee and oh. Or, try the “siren” exercise: start on a low note and gradually slide up to your highest note and then back down (just like the sound of a siren!). Lip buzzes are also good for getting your breath support warmed up and getting the blood flow focused on your mouth and lips. Just vibrate your lips together while producing a note for three to five seconds. It does tickle a little but it works!
Once you take the time to prepare your voice for singing, you will be better prepared to hit those pitches.
How to Deal With Lack of Confidence
Confidence is definitely an asset that comes with practice and experience. I can honestly say I still get nervous before every show, however, because I am confident about my singing, my nervousness does not stop me from doing the best I can.
If you lack confidence, it will affect your voice. You will not sing with a strong tone. Your nerves will drain some of the energy you need for singing. And, you most likely won’t be standing tall with proper breath support. All of these issues can affect your tone and pitch.
The best way to overcome this concern is to practice. Know your song inside out by analyzing the lyrics, the notes, where to take a breath, when to speed up or slow down and when to increase or decrease volume. You can memorize your lyrics by reciting them without singing. Once you feel you know the song well, try singing without the sheet music.
Internalizing every detail of the notes, timing, lyrics, and dynamics allow you to focus on how you want to express the song. Next, practice singing in front of someone you trust. Ask them to be supportive but honest. You want them to critique you but gently.
After listening to their comments, sing it again for them. This is how you build confidence. Little steps that allow your belief in yourself to grow steadily will help bring out your best, confident voice ~ clear, pure and on pitch.
Yelling Instead of Singing
Yelling is not singing. Try yelling “Hey, you!” then try singing the same. Notice the difference in where the sound comes from? If you are yelling instead of singing, the sound is being produced more in the front of your mouth and uses up a lot more air then controlled singing.
You’ve probably witnessed singers yelling with veins pulsing in their necks. They are out of breath and really doing a disservice to their vocal chords. Additionally, if you are yelling, it is very difficult to hear if you are in tune. You can still sing as loud as you need but do it with breath control and relaxed facial muscles. This way you’ll be able to hear yourself and stay in pitch.
Visualizing Your Pitch
The last technique for those pitch-wavering moments is visualization. If you have a note that you can’t seem to hit-perhaps it is high in your range without a transition note leading into it-try visualizing your voice hitting that note from above. Instead of reaching up towards it, see your voice landing down on it.
You won’t actually be singing the note above it, but this exercise allows you to approach the note as if you were descending to it. I have used this technique and am always happily surprised at how successful it is!
Singing should bring you joy. It should help you express emotions and connect with your audience. If singing off-key is taking away some of that joy and disconnecting you from your audience, it’s time to focus on improving your pitch with the above techniques. Stick with it and get that joy back because now you know how to hit the right pitch when singing!