Vocal sound is interesting. Especially in the sung variant. We perceive each individual tone, syllable,…
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“I can’t hit that note!”
“Let me try to hit that note again.”
“I think if I just try harder I could hit that note.”
The preceding three statements are not unusual. In fact, I have heard some variant of all three from many, many students over the past 16 years. When I first started teaching, I would redirect these comments by introducing exercises to address the root cause of the offending note (although honestly sometimes there was nothing wrong with the note). These days, while I will eventually get to the exercises, I begin by addressing this idea that we control pitch overtly at all.
In other words, what makes you think that you (as in your intellect) can physically control the pitch you are singing?
I am not trying to say that we don’t have any input into what pitches we are singing. I am saying that we do not directly open and close the vocal cords as they produce pitch. In fact, I am pretty sure there are parts of your brain that would be horrified about releasing control of your airway, your frontline defense against choking, to something as fickle as average human thinking.
So how does it actually work?
I am so glad you asked.
First of all, did your brain even “hear” the pitch?
You need to have heard the pitch or have a sense memory of it for your auditory cortex to have any chance of sending the right message to the motor cortex and the primary and secondary somatosensory cortex (Neural Control of Singing, Zarate, pg 4). The motor cortex does most of the heavy lifting in producing learned vocalizations but some vocal sounds are not yet on file and must be processed through the somatosensory cortex. There will not be a test. But seriously, does this sound like something you can just do by tightening or loosening muscles?
Of course not.
Now, some notes really are too high or too low for individual voices but today I am most concerned with the production of pitches within the possible range of your voice. And within that range, one must both be able to process what pitch is required and also be able to coordinate the dual tracks of input in the brain to replicate it.
The most likely reasons one fails to “hit” the note are the failure to correctly hear and/or recall the note or the failure to coordinate that sound into the appropriate muscle movement. Both of these can be remedied through the application of vocal training. Importantly, this means that you are not failing to “hit” a note. You are not able to directly affect any pitch, you are just not applying the proper neural impulse at that moment either because of a technical hiccup or because you haven’t built that technique yet.
To complicate matters, sometimes you can’t even hear when you are singing flat, sharp or in tune depending on how your auditory cortex is processing at that moment. This is important. It means that pitch is not your job. It means that pitch is not the point. And if the pitch isn’t the point perhaps there is much more room for breath, and alignment, and an open airway and vocal tract.
Perhaps, it means that we can be a little more forgiving and stop the violence. No more hitting notes.
Perhaps then, pitch will take care of itself.
I hope you found this helpful and would love to hear your thoughts or experiences in voice use. As always leave a comment here or contact me at email@example.com.
Gina Razón is the principal voice specialist at GROW Voice LLC, a full-service voice and speech studio in Boston’s Back Bay. She has over 16 years of experience both as a teacher of voice and speech, and a voraciously curious voice user. Gina has worked professionally as a classical singer for over a decade and more recently as professional public speaker. For more information on the studio or to book Gina visit www.growvoice.com.