Have you ever asked a student to sing part of a piece, and realized to your horror that they could not even accurately sing the pitch of a note played on the piano? You might have wondered why they are even bothering to learn an instrument! How well can they possibly appreciate the music they are playing if they can’t even match a single pitch?
It’s all too easy to become a good piano player with a lousy ear. Unlike orchestral players, we never have to tune our own instrument. Unlike a singer or string player, we don’t need to adjust our pitch as we play.
Should piano students be able to match pitch? What does it matter, anyway? Well, there’s the wee fact that we piano teachers are teaching an aural art. What would we think of a painter who could not see minute gradations in color? We would hope he specialized in black and white paintings (of keyboards, perhaps?).
Many of the greatest piano pedagogues such as Bartók recognized the importance of training the ear from the beginning. Before a student can develop the root skill of singing and recognizing intervals, he must be able to match pitch.
Fortunately, teaching someone to match pitch usually doesn’t take much time. Here are some insider tips on teaching a student to match pitch, courtesy of voice instructor D. Brian Lee:
- If you can’t find your student’s vocal range by testing it (which may be difficult since they can’t match a pitch!), have them speak a simple sentence several times. If necessary, have them draw out the vowels as they speak – “My naaaame iiis Daaaaan” – to make it easier to find their range.
- It may be easier for your student to first match the pitch of another human voice. (Matching the piano is harder due to its complex overtones.) So close the fallboard for a moment, and start by singing a pitch in their range for them to match.
- If the student doesn’t know how to adjust their singing to match a note, teach them a “siren” glissando up and down (a standard vocal exercise). Have them use this technique to make the small adjustments that may be necessary to exactly match a pitch. Demonstrate as needed.
- As they get better at matching your voice, have them start matching the piano.
- When they’re ready, choose one pitch as the tonic (e.g. D), and have them match other diatonic notes, such as E and F# (going up), or C# and B (going down).
I think it can be helpful to have students close their eyes during this exercise. When the brain takes a break from processing visual information, it has more processing power for hearing.