That song's too low.
And so it often goes when someone tries to pitch a song.
Some use a tuning fork or a pitch pipe. This is great.
And, oh, so very helpful!
But what's to be done when the music is written too high?
For example, while assisting a local colleague with her children's choir (3rd - 6th graders) I observed that one piece (a hand-written arrangement) was written too high for their voices and commented on it.
(I was talking about a measure that was written as the A above the treble staff!?!?!)
Her response was "That's how it was written."
I said it was not in the ideal child voice range.
Her response, "They can sing that."
I guess my face gave away my disagreement. I refrained from saying anymore because students were present and it was not the "time" for that discussion.
She went on to say, "That's what it has to be to go with the instruments."
Inwardly my response was YIKES!
[I might mention that the children's choir sings a cappella and so this connection to an instrument part is a moot point.]
Rehearsal continued - we got past the song in question.
Since my assisting the children's choir is associated with my mentoring this music educator she and I will be talking further about writing appropriately for children's voices in a future mentoring session.
Many times music teachers run into this problem - trying to connect instruments with limited ranges and choices of notes with children's voices.
Unfortunately, if care is not taken, the integrity of the voice part is often sacrificed to accommodate the instruments' capability.
Solutions to this problem:
- Rewrite the vocal part so that it fits the child's vocal range.
- Rewrite the instrument part by transposing it to another key that fits the child's vocal range.
- Sing it a cappella.
- Perform it only on instruments.
- Choose another song to sing.
That's kind of obvious.
Please don't get me wrong! I am not opposed to having instruments accompanying voices. I am opposed to poorly written music that combines the two horrendously.
Something else that might be done, especially if the song is a folk tune or some other song to be sung in unison as a group, is to determine the "comfortable starting pitch," or CSP.
I learned of this while completing my Kodaly certification.
I had noticed that many of the songs in one of the books we used were written in the key of G, which for my alto voice, was oftentimes much too high.
Then I noticed that each song in the book had CSP: ____ written near the title of the song.
This suggested CSP indicated the "best" note on which to start the song so that it fit, in this case, the child's voice.
When I followed this suggestion it was like, "Voila!" ("That's it!")
Suddenly all these years of thinking, "That song was way too high (or low)" was solved with the understanding of CSP.
No CSP indicated? Then look for the range of the song. What is the highest note? What is the lowest note? Then determine to what pitch can you lower or raise the song so that it fits comfortably in the voice?
Now, this pretty much only works with voices in the same range (children's, women's, or men's voices) on a cappella pieces that are either, ideally, in unison or, if necessary, harmony (with parts that do not go too high or too low).
[Note: Add an instrument to the mix and you begin to limit your options. Though this explains why many singers have a preferred key they sing in - they have found their comfortable starting pitch.]
I am reminded of something Ysaye Barnwell (former member of the AMAZING African American a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock) said at a conference I spoke at this summer. She mentioned that the group Sweet Honey did not use anything to set the pitch of their songs and that sometimes when a song was started too low she would just have to "look" at that person questioning "Are you really going to pitch this song that low?"
Ysaye said her voice just kept getting lower and lower over the years because they were pitching the songs lower. (Ysaye could sing bass well enough to challenge any male bass!)
So see, even a professional group of singers struggles with pitch issues.
This means that anyone, amateur or professional, who leads songs needs to be aware of how to pitch a song so that it fits the voices that are singing it.
Pitching a song at one's speaking voice pitch is usually a disaster waiting to happen.
It does take effort to pitch a song correctly.
It does means singing higher than one thinks or wants to naturally sing.
If you try, you will probably find those you are leading will respond more musically to your leading.