Most of us probably take singing on pitch for granted. Others -- like a government analyst who has said she'd "give her right arm to be able to sing" -- haven't thought it possible for most of their lives. They were told early in school to mouth the words in chorus, not to sing when the high-school gang was wailing away in a car and were reminded by well-meaning loved ones it was futile to try.
And so they didn't, acquiescing to the idea that singing was something fun and enjoyable they would never be able to do. After all, they couldn't carry a tune, and that was the depressing, incontrovertible evidence of the fact that they were tone deaf.
Tone deafness is a fairly common, inherited hearing dysfunction of both ears, in contrast to other kinds of deafness that may occur in only one ear. It can cause great emotional stress simply because the desire to sing without self-consiousness is so strong.
Many people believe that tone deafness is incurable, a permanent yoke around the afflicted's neck. With little evidence to the contrary to be found among acquaintances -- most of whom have been singing since childhood -- one generally assumes that any attempt to improve a sense of pitch is fruitless.
That assumption, I believe -- on the basis of my experience in working with "tone-deaf" students -- is erroneous. If a person is sufficiently motivated and has the patience to endure sometimes long months of tiresome, frustrating repetition of pitches, scales and note patterns, there is an excellent chance that the dysfunction gradually will disappear. The person probably will be able to sing. The period of time involved differs from person to person -- as little as seven weeks or as much as two years -- according to the extent of the problem, motivation and discipline.
Over the last six years I have seen gradual and sometimes dramatic improvement in working with about 25 persons -- age 10 to 60 -- who initially could be called tone deaf.
The most difficult case was the first: a young actress who could not match pitches, tell whether she was going up or down in pitch, or how far in either direction. She was in a voice class with seven others, and after three weeks I told her privately that I thought she would never be able to sing. She opted to stay in the class since the breathing work would help her speaking voice for the stage.
At the end of 15 weeks she became more consistent in being able to determine up from down, and could with some regularity match a pitch I played on the piano. She studied privately with me for the next year, and gradually she was able to do scales, simple arpeggios, and finally, after a year and a half, note-perfect songs.
Her slow but steady improvement was, frankly, astonishing, and it radically changed my thinking about tone deafness.
When the director of an environmental organization began lessons, her intense desire to sing and her fear of being told "no" one more time battled with each other from the start. She was so nervous at her first lesson I was afraid that at any minute she might rush from the room, never to return.
As a child her third-grade teacher, grandmother and parents told her she couldn't sing; she refused to sing in chorus out of embarrassment; she had never gone Christmas caroling and had always mouthed the words at birthday parties. At age 32, she would not even sing in the shower.
After explaining the mechanics of breathing -- watching her agonizing over what was to come -- I played a note on the piano and asked her to match it. She didn't, but sang fairly close to it. Then I played the note she had sung, asked her to sing that one, and she did. In the next 15 minutes she matched 75 percent of the pitches, and we even began a simple exercise.
To that woman's utter surprise and disbelief -- "I've got to run and call my mother!" -- her problem turned out to be very slight, just a rusty sense of pitch. After working diligently for five months, bringing her tape recorder to each class, she is now able to sing -- although with some anxiety -- her favorite songs from her favorite show, "The Fantasticks."
Other "tone-deaf" students have included an Army historian, a Capitol Hill consultant, a computer programmer, a beauty-pageant contestant, a psychologist, a radio announcer, a Pentagon motion picture and TV writer and other actors and actresses.
The two most important aspects of tone deafness: the part of the brain enabling the ear to distinguish pitch seems to have rarely, if ever, been used and is therefore "rusty" to a greater or lesser degree; the means of raising and lowering pitch while sustaining a consistent tone and volume level -- by proper use of the breathing apparatus -- is generally foreign.
For people who have sung for years it is second nature to increase breath support as the pitch goes higher, and reverse the process when the pitch is lower. With tone-deaf students it is normal to ask them to sing louder if the note they're singing is below pitch, and to sing more softly if the note is above pitch.
With proper use of the breathing apparatus (abdominal and back musculature and the diaphragm), correct pitches are not only more consistently attainable, but the throat and neck area are free of strain -- one more inhibiting factor out of the way.
What is it like to be able to sing when you've been sure for years that it was impossible?
A family therapist describes the process as similar to what she experienced when she finally decided to learn to swim after many years of procrastination. After she could swim it was difficult for her to imagine how she had been unable to before.
A formerly tone-deaf radio announcer equates learning to sing with learning to drive a car. In each case there was a sense of being completely helpless in the beginning, with no control over what she was trying to do. But little by little she mastered the accelerator and the brake, in much the same way she mastered control of her breathing and the gradual sharpening of her sense of pitch.
Two other points about pitch: If there is a stretch of a few weeks in which the person does no singing, the ear does not regress as the muscles of the body do when not used. Also, once the pitch-differentiating mechanism has been "dusted off," the individual may be able to learn new note patterns with the same ease -- or even more quickly -- than people who have never had pitch problems.
Brave souls who have taken the plunge may never do anything more than sing around the piano or at birthday parties, but they are singing.
And for teachers, there are rewards like this:
At a party several Decembers ago, a tall, 35-year-old student suddenly ran up to me, grinned broadly and exclaimed: "'Hey! I just sang my first Christmas carol!" There followed words of gratitude, a big bear hug and then a mad dash back to the group around the piano where he continued to sing on into the night.