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Improving Performance: Vocals and Pitch

Here’s another adaptation from the “Polishing Your Performance” series of posts I wrote in 2010 for The Developing Artist. This one deals with vocals and singing on pitch. I was reminded of the importance of this just this week when I sat in on a vocal recording session with a local musical artist. I was impressed by the fact that he was very meticulous about making sure his vocals were on pitch throughout the song, and was more likely to sing another take than let the audio engineer “fix” it with auto-tune. It was apparent that this guy (a respected veteran of the local music scene) understood the importance of getting the pitch right. The article below has more to do with live performance than recording, but the principles remain the same.


Pitch is one of those things that is only really noticed by the audience when it’s not right.  Rarely will you get a compliment that goes, “Wow, you sure sang on pitch tonight!”  However, if you are consistently going sharp or flat during the song, it will definitely get you noticed–and for the wrong reasons.

In my experience, there are three main causes for singing off-key, and two are either curable or preventable:

  1. Not being able to hear yourself and/or the music (which usually makes you sing sharp); or
  2. Not getting enough breath support in your vocal (which makes you sing flat); or
  3. You are tone deaf (which is a sign you’re in the wrong profession).

During a live performance (perhaps less so during recording), it’s easy to get lost in the moment and the energy of the song, especially when the crowd is responding to you.  It’s easy in that moment to allow pitch to take a back seat; believe me, I’ve been there.  But even if the crowd is forgiving in those moments (and particularly your die-hard fans), consistent pitch problems will hold you and your band back from reaching a larger audience.  A bit of pitchiness is expected from amateurs; it is not expected from the pros. That means, to put it bluntly, if you are lazy with your pitch, you’ll be seen as an amateur.  It won’t necessarily stop you dead in your tracks, but you won’t be viewed as ready for the next level unless you step it up in this area.

So what can you do to work on pitch?  Here are some things that will help:

  • Hire a vocal coach, or get vocal lessons.  This might sound a bit condescending, but it isn’t intended that way. Some of the best professional vocalists around (even opera singers) still use vocal coaches to help them stay at the top of their game. Having consistent input from a good vocal instructor is never a bad idea.
  • Warm up your voice before singing. Your voice is an instrument–a combination stringed instrument and wind instrument.  Your vocal chords vibrate when air passes over them. Treat your voice like you would a violin, a saxophone or a clarinet, and take the extra time to do some warm-up vocal exercises. Warming up helps your pitch and gives your voice more flexibility and stamina during a peformance.
  • Sing from the bottom of your lungs, not at the top of your lungs.  Most pitchiness comes from a lack of air passing over the vocal chords. You can tell if you’re breathing correctly by standing in front of a mirror and taking a deep breath.  If your shoulders go up, you’re only using the top portion of your lungs, and you’re not getting enough air.  If your abdominal region inflates, you’re using your diaphragm to fill your lungs, and you’ll have more breath support when you sing.
  • Make sure you have a good monitor mix. As much as possible, make sure you can hear the music, and have your own vocals hot enough in the mix so you don’t have to strain to hear yourself sing. The better you can hear yourself, the less you will strain to be heard, and the better your pitch will be.
  • Don’t expend your voice in the passion of the moment. Passion is great, but controlled passion is better. If you scream out your vocals in the first five minutes of the set, you won’t have anything left for the other 55 minutes, and you’ll have a harder time with pitch.  Pace yourself, and learn techniques that give your voice more stamina.  The best rock singers know how to belt it out for 2 hours or more without straining.  It can be done.
  • Listen to recordings of yourself.  This can be excruciating at times, but it really is the best way to find your weak spots.  When you hear yourself going sharp or flat, try to remember what you were hearing and feeling in that moment, and try to correct it.
  • Don’t settle for less.  If you’re not getting the pitch correctly on a section, work on it until you have it right.  This isn’t a place to cut corners.  Push for excellence, and don’t settle for just okay.

As a point of balance, you don’t have to be the most polished vocalist in the world in order to give a powerful performance. On occasion, an audience will even prefer to hear just a little imperfection from you, especially if it adds to the emotion of the song–and remember, some of the best-selling vocalists can hardly sing!  But the Bob Dylans in this world have other qualities that endear them to audiences, so if you’re going to cut corners on this one, you dang well better have something else to bring to the table that compensates for your apparent tone-deafness.  Most people who don’t deliver good vocals don’t sell records.  Thankfully, if you’re a singer, singing on pitch is something that you can definitely improve with practice.  Therefore, you really have no excuse not to do it.

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About the Author


Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

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