I Can't Sing

"I can't sing."

This is one of the top responses I get whenever I tell someone I am an elementary music teacher (another response I often get is an air-recorder version of  "Hot Cross Buns." Love that one...). I always cringe when I hear the stories of "my teacher told me to mouth the words" or, "I always had to stand in the back row so people wouldn't hear me." Each year, I establish goals for my teaching and my students. This year, as I started in a new building with kids who had limited Kodaly exposure, two of my goals were:
Every child will sing
I will not say "good" unless it is true.
I have to admit, it is not always easy to stick with these goals. It is much easier to let that student who is not singing slide under the radar or give a student who is not matching pitch a meaningless "good job" and move on to the next thing in your lesson. Unfortunately, I believe that this is where much of the "I can't sing" mentality comes from. When people say they "can't sing," many times they actually are referring to struggling with pitch matching. Taking the time to truly TEACH singing and pitch matching requires thoughtfulness, dedication, and a commitment to EVERY child in your room. Tanya, Christopher, and Aileen have all discussed fabulous ideas for helping your students sing, so today I am going to try to stick to strategies for pitch matching.

Pathways to Matching Pitch

1. Establish a supportive environment with high expectations.

Singing can be very personal and make people feel very vulnerable. It is important, especially if you are working with older beginners, to take steps to create a supportive community for kids to learn to sing. Provide many opportunities for group singing, frequent positive feedback and always celebrate progress and courage. Make sure that your students understand that singing is a skill that requires effort and practice to achieve. Ultimately, my goal is that students not only can sing, but that they want to sing. Creating an environment where students feel comfortable, supported and encouraged to sing is a huge piece of the pitch-matching puzzle.

2. Help your students build a "pitch vocabulary"

Building what I call a "pitch vocabulary" goes far beyond just teaching solfege. Generally speaking, a pitch vocabulary is your singers' vocal range. However, when working with your kids, it is important to guide them through their exploration of range and add to their "vocabulary" of sounds. Aileen wrote a great post about singing and including vocal exploration a few weeks ago (you can read it here), so I am not going to steal her post by diving too much into vocal exploration. However, as you approach pitch matching remember that your singers may not know what it feels like to create very low or very high sounds. They speak in a very limited range, so it is incredibly important to give students an opportunity to see what their voice can do, especially in their higher range.

Using vocal roller coasters and things like John Feierabend's Pitch Exploration Pathways are great tools to help your children do this in the classroom.
Many people use these with K-1 (appropriately, so), but don't be afraid to use them with your older kids if you have older beginners, students new to you, or simply have older students who need help matching pitch. I have done them with 5th grade, and they get a kick out of seeing how high and low their voices can go. You can also modify these to create vocal warm-ups for your classes or choirs. I have a set of cards I created using vowels that I use regularly with my 4th and 5th grade choir. They have to sing the shape of the card on the vowel shown. It is a quick and easy way to explore range and work on vowels at the same time!

3. Use visual models

One of the greatest challenges that comes with teaching singing is the fact that singing is largely based on feeling. When you are working with a student who is not matching pitch, one tool that can be incredibly helpful is to provide them with a visual. I have several ways I do this...
  • Pitch Matching Mountain
    • I often make the analogy of a mountain to my singers (we are in Colorado, after all!). When a singer is too low in pitch, I will say something like, "I am at the top of the mountain, but you are here (show them on the mountain). Can you climb up the mountain with me?" Then I will progressively have them sing a serious of echoes moving higher and higher up the mountain. I love this visual because it draws in another key aspect to good singing: breath and energy. Often, students singing too-low simply need to give their sound more energy. I especially see this with my older students. The idea of climbing a mountain is a perfect visual, because students understand that it takes more effort to climb up the mountain when you are hiking. 

  • Bulls-Eye!
    • This is a variation of Pitch Matching Mountain that I use with my older kids. I used it a lot when I taught middle school choir, too! The idea is the same, except the correct pitch is the center target and then you can use the surrounding area to show where a singer is. To make this even more fun, you can laminate it and use Nerf Sticky-Darts. They love it. :) 

  • Body Symbols
    • I have a set of motions I use with my K-2 students for pitch matching. As students are singing, I can give them feedback about where their voice is while the class is singing using these body symbols. You can also have the students give you feedback by singing with them and asking them to show you what you're voice is doing. 
      • Hands on Head= singing too high
      • Hands on Hips= singing too low
      • Hands Crossed on Shoulders= juuuust right (it helps if you say this one with a cool-dude tone) 
  • Just Draw It. 
    • Visualizing pitch for your students can be as simple as a dot on your white board or holding your two hands up to show where your student is and where you want their voice to be. Don't feel like you have to take a huge amount of your time to create incredible pitch matching activities. Instead, just build it into your everyday practices. 
4. Use Student Models and Encourage Solo Singing. 

Let's be honest- it is very easy for your non-confident singers to "blend in" to the class or hide behind the stronger singers in the class. I often see classes where 30-40% of the students do 100% of the singing. One of the most effect strategies I have found for building student participation and confidence in singing is to use solos. This may seem counter-intuitive, but when you approach it correctly, I think you will see positive results. When you use student models and soloist, here are a few things to keep in mind...

  • Give positive feedback. Students are motivated to volunteer for solos when they see you providing positive feedback to other singers, and your soloists will gain confidence when you can give them a boost. Make sure your feedback is accurate, but always find something that you can celebrate in your soloists. 
  • Celebrate growth, not perfection. This is HUGE for your kids that are still not feeling confident. When they see you celebrating the progress another student makes, they become more comfortable exploring their voice. It also re-establishes your goals of good singing and pitch matching to all your students
  • Encourage students to try again. I know that I am always nervous the first time I present something to my peers or in front of others. Giving students a chance to try again will help them feel more confident and secure singing in front of others. 
Many times, it takes singing alone for a non-pitch-matcher to hear themselves clearly and understand what they need to change. By building a culture in your classroom where solo singing is practiced, celebrating, and encouraged, you will be giving your "stars" opportunities to shine and your struggling students opportunities to grow. 

5. Don't Give Up!!

We don't expect students to read on their first day of instruction, shoot three pointers on their first day of basketball, or color inside the lines the first time they pick up a crayon. Learning to sing and match pitch is a skill that takes practice, time, and effort to achieve. In my classroom, we make a BIG deal when a student begins to consistently match pitch (clapping, cheering and high fives are all involved). Make sure your students know that you not only want them to match pitch, but that they can and that you will support them along the way if they keep practicing. With a few tricks, some patience, and a little bit of care I truly believe we can create a culture of people who no longer say, "I can't sing," but instead jump at a chance to sing together.



  1. Wonderful ideas, Kate!! Thanks for sharing, and for some great reminders. :)

  2. This. was. AWESOME! Thank you for writing such a beautiful piece on matching pitch. I cracked up thinking about how many times I've encountered adults with the "I can't sing" syndrome as well! From now on, I think I'm going to just say...ahhhh, I think you mean, you struggle with matching pitch. I'll help!!! Come to my class! heehee. I LOVED your mountain and target visuals. Even just a dot on the whiteboard - I'm here, you're here - so smart. I find myself often just using my hands to show the kids where they are, but I can't wait to try the mountain for those very visual learners. Thank you for sharing so many wonderful ideas!!!

  3. Yep! I've also had so many people tell me that their music teacher or choir teacher told them to just mouth the words. Heartbreaking!

    Thank you for such a lovely post full of great ideas for pitch matching! Love your two goals! It can be really hard to start at a new school that has had very little (or no) Kodaly exposure! That's where I was a few years ago!

  4. I recently discovered this blog and love everything I've read. Thank you for the ideas on pitch matching. I wanted to share that I started a fun way to have the kids solo sing. I sing the first part of a phrase and throw the bean bag to a student who finishes the phrase. They throw it back to me and I start singing the next phrase for the next singer to finish. They have had so much fun while I check in on the tunefulness of their singing.


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