How to Sing in Tune
There are 6 top reasons singers go flat. Each one of these can be worked on -says Jaime Babbitt
Here’s a little peek through the window of the life of a voice coach. A singer asks:
“Someone told me I sounded a bit flat in my last performance. I am MORTIFIED. What do I do, Jaime???!!!”
First thing: Is this ‘someone’ a reliable source? Civilians (my term for non-musicians) can definitely know bad pitch when they hear it, but often their ears are not as discerning as ours.
However, if the person is a: band-mate, soundperson, fellow musician/singer (without any hidden agendas like competitiveness or a ‘complicated’ relationship status when it comes to you…), you can listen to them but you must ask yourself:
Is it true? Be honest.
You see, as a vocalist, you need to be trusted to know whether or not you were pitchy. Yes, I know: there are lights in your face and the monitors weren’t good and you’re getting a cold and you knocked over your water and dropped your pick and the guy/girl you really like was there and…
Okay, listen up. There are no excuses. You have one job: singing and not sucking.
I’m going to be hard on you because…someone has to be. Not only do you have to become your own vocal producer every time you open your mouth, you also have to become your own Antares Auto-Tune Pro plug-in.
And you need to know what ‘flat’ and ‘sharp’ sound like inside your own head, why it happens and how to fix it. This means training yourself hard. Like an athlete.
We’ll talk about singing ‘sharp’ down the road but for now, let’s go to:
The Reasons Singers Go Flat
There are myriad reasons why singers go flat, or are consistently under the pitches.
I can’t possibly cover them all but here are my top 6:
- Their voices are tired/not warmed up
- They’re not getting off the consonants and onto the vowels quickly enough
- They’re swooping and sliding up to words and/or vowels
- There isn’t proper support and placement
- The song/notes/runs are too high for them
- They can’t hear themselves
So to insure you don’t fall flat, the first thing to do is make sure you’re warmed up properly. You don’t have a warm-up? Get one from a trusted professional, i.e., take some lessons.
Don’t just find some yutz on YouTube and sing along. You don’t know what you’re doing and they’re on videotape and have never heard you or met you, and probably never will.
The one warm-up I love besides my own is Arnold McCuller’s VocalEase 2.
Easy, helpful and from someone who’s been James Taylor’s background singer for over 30 years so he’s in the trenches.
Getting off the consonants
Well, listen to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson doing “Man In The Mirror”, starting at about 2:00
This is a fast moving song for sure, but notice how he does not linger on the consonants, nor does he slide up to the vowels. He gets off the consonants and allows the vowel to carry each word. “IIII’m talkin’ bout the maaaan…”
Swooping and sliding
It can be done with a slower song, too, like Alicia Keys’ song “Fallin’”…start listening around :50
Notice that Alicia is definitely playing with sliding notes a bunch while not fallin’ consistently flat (see what I did there?).
Also notice that I chose two songs that were recorded before Auto-Tune took over the planet, so some imperfect, human elements of these two artists’ voices remain audible. And, thus, I say to you: remain human while striving for your great pitch.
You don’t want to be confused with a robot. Robots don’t have souls and can’t eat chocolate.
Proper support and placement
Singers have to understand that the way they breathe will make or break their ability to sing with consistently great pitch. And when I say “placement”, I mean: are you resonating fully with all the space available to you, like your raised soft palate and the openness of the back of the pharynx (throat)?
Or…are you singing into your back molars, darkening and squishing down the sound?
Or…are you putting your ‘OO’ and ‘EE’ vowels on your front teeth, dampening the resonance? These last two things…my clients know not to do.
Notes too high
And singers, please make sure you take the time to find the right song keys for you. No, cover singers: you do not have to sing it in the same key as the original singer.
I don’t care if your guitar player gives you crap about it; you get to decide, and you have my permission to tell him or her that that’s what capos are for.
Now, if you’re super close to being comfortable in the original key, by all means, gently give it a shot but if you’re doing original songs, you’re the boss.
Can’t hear yourself?
And know that unless you’re working with in-ears in a fairly pro situation, your stage mix is always going to be a crapshoot. So, do yourself a favor and get good at shooting craps, or whatever the right analogy is.
A good trick is to record yourself while singing with earplugs in and see how accurate your pitch is. Hunker down and pay attention to your muscle memory so you can ‘feel’ when you’re hitting the right notes.
Hey, if Mandy Harvey can do it, so can you. Listen to her story, and she sings around 4:25:
Keep recording yourself and get a sense of your progress. If you’ve addressed the points here and are still flattening notes, do not panic. You can learn to improve your pitch. You are not necessarily a lost cause.
Here’s the 7th point: ear training is awesome and all y’all should get you some.
Take a class, find videos, study sight singing and sing intervals at home by playing them and then singing them on your piano (or your handy free piano app).
Won’t it feel good when singing flat will be waaaay in the past?
You bet it will.
Now go have some chocolate.
Jaime was a Musical Director, coaching voice and performance for Disney and wrote “Working With Your Voice: The Career Guide to Becoming a Professional Singer” (Alfred Publishing). As a session singer, she ‘jingled’ for Coke, Pillsbury, Folgers, Chevrolet, and hundreds more. She’s sung on thousands of live gigs (covers and original music) and toured for years with Leon Russell and Sam Moore. Jaime sang BGVs live and digitally with George Strait, Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Webb, Miley & Billy Ray Cyrus, Johnny Mathis, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Willie Nelson and others. She performed off-Broadway in “Search: Paul Clayton”, toured nationally with “Old Jews Telling Jokes” and presently coaches students in voice, performance, beginner guitar/piano, studio singing, songwriting and auditioning in NY, CT, LA, Nashville and virtually. For bookings: www.workingwithyourvoice.com