What does “pitchy” mean, and what should you be doing if you receive that critique? Here, Gambrills, MD voice teacher Shannon F. shares her tips…
“You’re a little pitchy.” Ok, Paula Abdul. We get it. Singing in tune is important. For some, good intonation comes naturally. For others, it’s a struggle. But just because you’re a little sharp or flat now doesn’t mean you’re doomed to singing out of tune forever! In fact, I’ve had many students’ intonation improve in just one week of focused practice. Here are some steps you can take to improve your pitch:
Examine your breathing
Take note of your breathing and physical condition. Most pitch issues stem from a physical issue of some kind. A likely cause is lack of breath support. Start using your diaphragm and understanding your vocal mechanism, and your pitch will almost certainly improve. Doing a simple “shh” or “sss” breath exercise with your rib cage expanded will get your diaphragm up and running and ready to support your singing voice. Here’s a great video on breath support by vocal coach and singer Felicia Ricci:
There are other physical boundaries that can get in the way, too. I’ll let you in on a secret: I had a very rough time singing in tune before I was treated for chronic sinusitis. My ears worked fine, my breath was supported, but because my sinuses were clogged and I was always ill, I could not stop my pitches from falling flat. Now that I’m all better, singing in tune is much easier and I am able to use the resonant space in my sinus cavities properly. Other health issues such as ear infections or even acid reflux can result in vocal problems. Take care of your body and, if necessary, see an otolaryngologist or a gastroenterologist for help.
Identify your personal pitch issues
Recording yourself or taking voice lessons is the only way to know for sure that you’re singing out of tune. Any laptop, smartphone, or sound recorder will do. Sing a song that you’re comfortable with and listen back for any intonation issues. If you can’t tell whether you’re sharp or flat, find the note you’re looking for and play it on a keyboard or sing it into a tuner to check. You don’t have to own a piano to do this; any mobile keyboard app/tuner will do, or you can Google “virtual piano.” After identifying isolated pitch issues, take note of any trends. Are you usually flat when you have to make a big leap from a lower note to a higher one? Are you sharp when you’re singing a descending line? Are you only out of tune when you start a song?
Exercises like slides, arpeggios, and scales are all helpful when identifying and working out intonation issues because all of those things exist in actual songs. Make sure you are using proper breath support and sing with a track or piano to keep yourself in check. Another aspect of singing practice that is sometimes set aside is ear training. If you know what a minor seventh sounds like, your chances of hitting a leap of a minor seventh are much higher. Understanding chords and, in turn, identifying the chord tone that you need to sing is also vital.
Be kind to yourself
Many people shudder when they hear someone sing out of tune, or when they hear their own singing voice, but let’s get one thing straight: nothing bad happens if you or anyone else sings a note, or even a whole song, out of tune! It’s not the end of the world if you have one “pitchy” practice session or performance. Have you ever heard of a tragedy occurring because of Jane Doe’s severely out-of-tune rendition of “99 Red Balloons”? Me neither. Imperfections are a part of life, a part of learning, and definitely a part of singing. Plus, lack of confidence can seriously affect pitch! If you are afraid to start a song because of how you might sound, it’s a sure bet that your premonitions will come true. If you know you’ve got it because you worked on it, you’re golden. Identifying your problem and working on your singing will send you in the right direction, guaranteed.
Shannon F. teaches audition prep, music theory, and singing in Gambrills, MD. She studied music at George Mason University and University of North Texas, and has been teaching students since 2007. Learn more about Shannon here!
Photo by B-Mona