Tone Deafness
  • I have been at my current position for over a year now...I inherited a very small choir. There is a problem...one of the men in the choir is clearly tone deaf. He has been a member of the choir for a very long time. On Sundays when he is away and we are without him the quality of the choir is rather exceptional...however when he is there he noticeably drags down the choir, and he gets looks from the other choir members throughout the Mass and during rehearsals. I am not sure he is even aware, but he CANNOT hit a note, and when he does manage to get near the note it is consistently flat. I am not quite sure what to do about him. I don't know how much longer I can let it slide. As I stated before the choir members have noticed, and they have voiced their opinions on the matter. What would you do if you were in my situation?
  • Difficult to advise since there are so many variables. How old is he? Is he of a humble and reasonable attitude? Does he take instruction, suggestion and advise well? Is he teachable? Is he single or a widower with few or none in his life so that this choir is an extended family? If all this were the case, I would spend a day with him and get to know him extremely well, take him to lunch or supper, have a sincere, caring and heart-felt conversation with him. Find out if he has any hearing impediments and if he doesn't know or is not even aware, suggest a routine visit to his doctor. Express that it seems to you he might have a challenge with pitch.

    If by then he humbly and kindly hears and accepts you, and he has seen his doctor and has nothing wrong aurally, offer to train him vocally (this pre-supposes you have knowledge and skill in vocal training) for free; maybe even offer to meet with him several times a week! In most cases, if you show you genuinely have his best interest in mind, and your heart is in this pastorally to help him, I am pretty sure he will step up and accepts your offer to be of help.

    Use some device to record your lessons with him so he can hear it; the machine never lies!

    If after all this, he still has difficulty matching pitch but wants to be of service to the choir, there are so many other things he could do to be of help. Think of all the non-musical things that a volunteer could do for you and the music ministry.

    In the end, if handled correctly, he just might turn out to be your biggest supporter and the choir's great fan.

    With all this in mind, if possible, inform and seek your pastor's advice and wisdom. Maybe bring him along to that lunch or supper too! You foot the bill for them both - your treat!
  • He is a retired firefighter, in his late 40s, married with kids so he has a big family at home...he explained to me a while ago he received vocal lessons from someone, and went to these lessons for a great deal of time. I couldn't really see how that was possible given the way he sings. A choir member did offer an idea. Her mother is in the choir and she sight reads very well and has great pitch. She worked with a former member who was mentally disabled who couldn't match pitch at all and eventually she was able to help her out. I said that would be a wonderful idea if her mother was willing to do it. I am still waiting on that idea. Other than that its very hard because this man seems like he enjoys being here. I don't want to remove him from something he clearly enjoys, but at the same time I can't sacrifice the quality of the choir. Its a big predicament. I will talk to him after a rehearsal and express my concerns about it...in a very gentle way though. Any other advice would be greatly appreciated
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,677
    He is a retired firefighter, in his late 40s, married with kids so he has a big family at home...


    Whew! For a moment I thought my 80+year-old who refuses to wear a hearing aid was also singing in your choir. LOL.
    Thanked by 1jdamico30
  • "Tone deaf" is not a medically supported condition. It's a made up term. If you can hear anything at all, you can recognize pitch. I've worked with many singers (young and old...but mostly old) who claim to be tone deaf (and whose friends would also claim they are tone deaf). It is absolutely possible to teach an individual, who is willing to practice daily, how to match pitch alone and within a group.

    I've been in your situation in two separate choirs. What I did both times is ask that person to come in for some private one-on-one lessons and taught them over the course of a few months how to correct their issues. "There are a few things I'd love to work with you on. Can you do a voice lesson on .....? Voice lessons are free for members of the choir. We're really close to being able to accomplish this more difficult music, so I'm asking members to come in for one-on-one checkups over the next few months."

    I do this within the context of also giving voice lessons to many other members of the choir, as well as the pastor. If you've established yourself as group leader (choir director) and private instructor, it's fairly straightforward navigating the delicate path of someone's self-perception and vocal ability.
  • Actually, "tone deaf" is the laymen term for the medical disorder called "Amusia." I was actually thinking of working on him one on one and seeing where we can get with that. But the fact that he said he received vocal lessons for many years and he cant match pitch now says a lot.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • Clearly, this gentleman does not belong in any choir. I would have a serious and charitable discussion about this with your pastor and get him with and behind you in implementing whatever solution the two of you arrive at. Somehow, this man needs to resign from the choir - particularly if the choir is as stellar as you say when he is absent. I would not have waited a year (more like two weeks) to address this problem.

    I had a tone deaf person in a choir once. He sang so softly that he could not even be heard. As such, he was a faithful and enthusiastic member. It's odd that sometimes one runs across people who can't sing who love being in a choir. Strange!
    Thanked by 3MBW CHGiffen moderntrad
  • @jdamico30: Yes, but "tone deaf" is still a misnomer...it's an unfortunate term, applied far too widely. People suffering from amusia, which is unfortunately very real, have side effects including that they don't enjoy listening to music since their brain processes it as noise and dissonance. People who enjoy music and sing can have amusia, but it's extremely rare.
  • I waited so long because this is a particular place that doesnt deal with change very well...so much so that they ran out 2 pastors in 2 years because they "changed" alot
    Thanked by 1CharlesW
  • Reval
    Posts: 164
    It's hard to fire volunteers, isn't it? Maybe just put up with it for the rest of this year, then announce "auditions" for next year? Or just in time for the new year?
    Thanked by 1jdamico30
  • "But the fact that he said he received vocal lessons for many years and he can't match pitch now says a lot." It says a lot about the "teacher" who took his money, not him.
  • Could be seen as that, but why blame the teacher right off the bat? The teacher is actually a very credible vocal coach whom I know who has had many satisfied students. In the end, it says a lot about his ability.
  • kenstb
    Posts: 364
    I think that it is important for you to take this singer under your wing immediately. The fact that he has had lessons in the past seems to indicate that he is willing to be taught. You should share your concerns with him as kindly as you can manage. If he is consistently flat when singing, it is likely that the problem is with his hearing. Have a private talk with him about having his hearing examined by a qualified physician. If he has no physical impediment, then offer to teach him privately and see if that helps. I have found that singers of mine who drift off key have not learned the skill of listening well. YMMV. Regardless of your final decision, you should try to satisfy yourself that you have done everything possible to help him to remain as a member.
  • A voice teacher is there to help a student overcome difficulties. Here is someone who is proud of studying with a teacher, and when people hear him sing...the teacher looks bad. You are right as this, too, says a lot about his abilities.
  • Oh absolutely, the teacher definitely looks bad. When he told me he took voice lessons I immediately asked him who it was because of that fact. When he informed me of who it was I then knew it wasn't the teacher and it really told me all I needed to know about his abilities. I think I'm going to talk to him and work with him privately over time and see what we can do.
    Thanked by 1noel jones, aago
  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    Semantics aside, the condition that's clinical affects less than a percent of any demographic. May I suggest-
    *Richard Miller, "The Structure of Singing." Absolute authority.
    *James McKinney, "The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults."
    The Sarge is correct, "tone deaf" is a conventional convenience (redundant but true.) You and your chorister must plot a strategy of correction that, for both of you, will be a lengthy, intensive process. I've done it with a <1%er. It's serious hard work. Worth it. I've also nurtured other voices (which come down to "ears" and mind moreso) a number of times. Nobody's prognosis is the same. MACW, please chime in.
  • You may also consider, because they're free on IMSLP, the following texts:

    1. The Art of Singing; Francesco Lamperti

    2. The Art of Singing; Mancini
    Thanked by 1sergeantedward
  • I sympathize with your gentleman, for I have been told I was 'tone deaf' by a fellow choir member. Being made aware of it made me more sensitive to listening to my own voice while singing. I still have a difficult time with pitch. My solution was to leave the singing up to the gifted ones, and assist the choir in other ways. My church projects the hymns to a screen, so this new ministry 'Sight and Sound" was created. I now run the projector and slides.

    Being a firefighter I can imagine the loud environment your gentleman is exposed to. sirens, horns and bells, especially if he is riding an engine. You might approach the subject in this manner. I'm sure he would appreciate the help. I did.
  • Hearing loss was the the first thing that came to my mind, also.

    I'm told (haven't researched it) that natural changes in hearing start to happen for most people in their late 40s, even without occupational exposure to loud noises.

    First, pray for him. Then talk to him, compassionately but honestly.