don’t let your kids be pitchy

English: YOKOSUKA, Japan (Jan. 14, 2008) The c...

You’re at a public function.  The kids climb, waddle, jump onto stage.  They are so darn cute.  You want to turn into Aunt Dottie and pinch their cheeks.  So cute.  The accompaniment begins. Little hands begin to mirror the hands of the adult sitting on the floor in front of them.  Super cute.

And then they open their mouths.

Oh. Good. Grief.

How is it possible for 17 kids to sing in 19 keys?  Why don’t I recognize this song anymore?  Why has that one kid turned into a Tyrannosaurus Rex?Tyrannosaurus rex, Palais de la Découverte, Paris

Y’all, kids should generally be able to sing.  I don’t mean they should all be deciding which record deal they’ll take.  I mean the ability to match pitch should be more common.

Time-Out for the Musically Clueless:  Matching pitch means making your voice create a sound at the required frequency, or pitch.  Almost everybody can tell when somebody else is singing too high or too low, but many people these days can’t tell when they themselves are off.  Each note of a melody is like a target that’s hung at a certain height on the wall.  The sound of your voice is like an arrow. The farther away from the center of the target your arrow lands, the worse you sound.

I’m stunned at how many kids can’t match pitch coming into Kindergarten at the elementary school where I taught.  I really hope this isn’t the case everywhere.  Few people truly lack the physical and mental requirements to learn this basic skill.  My eleven month old can match the contour of my vocal play, and if you’re a parent, you’ve likely noticed these type of developments in your own kids.  Every culture in the world throughout history has had music, and it’s normal for singing to be a part of daily life. Yet, as I listened to kids audition for choirs and solo spots over the years, I wanted to jump up and down when I found one who could match every pitch of “Happy Birthday.”

What gives?

Much of contemporary culture relates to music differently now and it seems to be stealing this natural developmental process away from even the youngest of us.  Here are just two of the things you can do to help the little musicians in your life:

1)       Sing in a key that works for them.  We’re way more comfortable singing low, but kids (especially the very young) have a limited range of notes that work for them.  When you sing too low for them, they sound like dinosaurs because they can’t get to the notes.

This graphic might help you if you’ve got just a bit of background.

2)      Give a bazillion opportunities for listening, for singing, and for improvising.   Challenge them to mimic your silly voices.  (You might want to set a timer on that one.) Let them make up songs for you.  Encourage them by singing along to your own favorites in the car, and tell them how much you like to hear their voice.  They’re building a musical vocabulary, and they need a chance to practice it.  Did I say bazillion?  Eh, make it an even megathillion.  In short, we’re not singing enough.

I can appreciate the momentary cuteness of the 19 simultaneous keys, but hear me when I say that there’s more.  They’ll miss out on quite a bit without this foundational skill of matching pitch, because they’ll never know the joy of joining their voice with others in simple unison.  They’ll certainly never experience the joy of singing in true harmony.

I believe we’re inherently musical, and it’s a travesty to see us reserve singing for specialists.


how to find new music

This is what happens when I ask my Twitter friends for music suggestions:

I spent 15 seconds typing in a question, and I get back 11 suggestions that sum up a far more varied, yet personalized answer than I think Siri or Google or certainly Jeeves could ever give me.

Jeff, Cintia, and I were members of a praise & worship team called Kadasha more than a decade ago.

Rob taught Ben and I about leading worship and gave us the chance to do so when we were mere babes at UNC.  (Rob was a mere babe back then, too. Right, Rob? Heck, we’re all still spring chickens.)

Brian and I sang in an a cappella group.  Seriously fun, frequently “pitchy” a la Randy Jackson times.  By the way, have you seen The Sing-Off on NBC?  You should just so you can listen to Ben Folds judge.

So I’ve performed with each of these people, thus I knew they had great taste and wouldn’t waste my time.  I haven’t performed with Crystal, but she manages her husband’s band, so I figured she spends plenty of time with music.  We met through a Hello Mornings webcast chat and now I follow her on Twitter.

I thoroughly enjoyed looking up all these suggestions today, and I fully intend to use this research method again when my ears are bored. So what if you’re not on Twitter?  How should you find new music?  I suggest asking the same question to your friends… but in person. [gasp]

yogurt on a fork and sundry inspirations


You see that?  That is what you do when you get home with yogurt for your baby and realize that the expiration date is 12 hours away.  You stick a [plastic baby] fork in it [and then put it in the freezer.]  It’s done, baby.

tea party

And you see that?  That’s what happens when you’re unshakably determined not to bring the Disney princess tea cart back in the house that’s sitting on the back porch in the yard sale pile and a very imaginative 6 year old girl feels that her tea party would be much improved if it were mobile.  You stick some casters in a cardboard box and call it a day.  (Then you call yourself stubborn for not getting the doggone tea cart off the back porch.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately (and apparently so have a lot of others… check out The Nester’s post.)  It’s deeply satisfying to have a creative moment, because creating is part of who we are as humans.  We’re made in likeness of The Creator.  Humans even get to be part of creating… humans.  Isn’t that crazy?!  Anyway.  Crazy.

I sense a series coming on here about creativity, so I’m not going to spill all my bloggy beans in one post. Today I only want to take you inside one amazing, frozen moment in my classroom about two months ago.

I had a class of five boys.  (Remember? I teach at an alternative high school.  Small class size rocks.)  We spent about 20 minutes on most days working on drumming skills using congas.


Photo by vxla on Flickr

Ah, yes.  Those things.

Never having taught at this school, I was a bit nervous to introduce this portion of our instrumental class.  I certainly did not want to tick off my hallmates or downstairs neighbors with incessant, loud, really bad drumming.  I checked with my peers.  Sure, they all said. That won’t be a problem.  I have planning during that block anyway.  I even heard a few Great!  I think some of those guys will really respond to the drums.  “So they’re interested in emotional rehabilitation through drumming, too!” I naively thought.  (I might want to be a music therapist when I grow up, by the way.)

About a month in to our daily drumming sessions, one of the staff met me in the hallway and said, “I noticed your guys finally changed up the rhythm.  That’s cool.”

I wish I’d taken that course in undergrad called Backhanded Compliments 101, because I think she just dished one out.

Since I’m not sure if you’re a music educator, I won’t bore you with the methods I used or the particular objectives I had in mind.  What’s important is that the guys were responsible for listening for empty space and filling it in with their own creation.  Some of them weren’t really comfortable with that.  For a long time, we ended up gravitating toward the same tempo with the same, slightly syncopated base rhythm.  No matter how we started off, someone pulled us to that comfortable place.

And then one day, someone got tired of the comfortable place.

During one exercise, I tell kids to listen (duh,) loop (repeat a simple idea over and over,) and lay out (occasionally just stop playing.)  This student, whom we’ll call James, just stopped playing.  I thought he was quitting for the day, because that was his general mode of operation. Our boredom with the rhythm morphed into a tiny tension as we wondered if there would be yet another showdown between Mrs. Lutz and James.

It turns out that he was actually following my suggestion and laying out so that he could listen, because he dropped the most pleasing, unexpected little chain of sounds in the middle of that musical space.  It felt like watching somebody cleanly jump in between the double dutch ropes after 25 kids had gotten smacked with them.  We straightened in our chairs and shifted the congas on our feet.  (Conga stands? We don’t need no stinkin’ stands.)  Our eyes went to his hands, and naturally, those students less comfortable bringing new ideas to the table were glad to try out his.  They couldn’t help but be drawn down the new path, because James gave it energy and commitment when he offered up his new idea.  Pretty soon, he had us pushing the tempo. Once we felt the new groove, other kids had new ideas that now seemed so obvious, even though they’d felt dry for ideas for almost a month.

This moment isn’t just about drumming or music or high school boys in an alternative school.

  • Sometimes boredom is the mother of creativity.
  • The listen-loop-lay out idea is wisdom in action.
  • It’s normal to feel a little anxiety right before the change happens.
  • Bad ideas will fail, but sometimes so will good ideas offered without commitment and energy.
  • One new idea often leads to another.

And you know that yogurt popsicle I showed you?  That turned into my favorite ten minutes of the following day.  All three of my kids and I sat on the kitchen floor and and laughed and ate together. I will definitely be doing that again, if ever I find myself with yogurt on the brink of being unsafe to consume.  And that mobile tea party?  She played with it for at least 8 minutes.  I don’t care, because it just felt good to try something new.