Sunday, December 11, 2011

That is the KEY Question: To Sing or Not to Sing?

I recently did some Christmas carol sing-a-longs with some of my groups in a psychiatric hospital.  They chose the songs and I accompanied on the guitar.  I always seem to struggle to find just the right key for each song that will facilitate the optimum singing range for the group.  

Having worked many years with both kids in the schools and now adults in the psychiatric setting, it seems that both groups face many challenges in singing.  The adults in the psychiatric hospital, for example, are typically on medication that dulls the senses and throws off the sense of timing.  Because of this, I prefer to provide them with a fairly strong guitar stimulus.  This means much more strumming than finger-picking, even on the more traditionally softer and gentler songs.  I also try to use a pic for more volume.  

The strength of the guitar has a direct relationship on my song leading cues.  This sets up the question for the day:

Do you sing in the key that is good for your voice or the key that is good for the participants?

In my case, I have to decide whether or not to sing the song in a key that is good for a lyric tenor, as opposed to something lower in range that might be easier on the group.  I tend to err on the higher side of things, especially since I am playing the guitar very strongly.  My voice can carry much easier when I am singing in my optimal vocal range.  

I think I usually sing closer to my range because I have found that my strong leading cues make the group activities more successful.  It has always seemed less helpful if the key is closer to their range since many of the participants are not even close to the correct pitches anyway.  

I suppose that I am focusing more on the therapeutic aspects of the group rather than the musical aesthetics.  This seems to work for me, but I would like to know what you do with your groups?  Perhaps I am a bit unique in that I have a higher tenor voice?  Since most men are baritones, other music therapists may not share my particular challenge.  And for the majority of the music therapists (80-90% of MTs are female), I wonder if there is some consensus from the lady MT's?  

In the meantime,...happy singing!


  1. I used to be a first soprano. I say "used to be" because, after several years of singing in the Eldersong low keys I'm no longer able to hit those above-the-staff high notes. When I first started leading sing-along type groups at the nursing home, I sang in keys closer to my natural range. What I found was that most of my elderly group members weren't able to sing in a higher register and they would simply stop singing along with me. So when I lowered the keys closer to their range, I got better participation from them. I could adjust my singing range a bit, and they really couldn't. And if I wanted them to participate and have that shared sense of community through group singing, then I needed to lower the keys of the songs. I also think it improved the musical aesthetics of the experience as well since group members weren't trying to screech out high notes. Perhaps I didn't sound so great in the basement of my register, but if they could sing then I was willing to sacrifice a few not-so-pretty notes on my end. Just my 2 cents. Thanks for a great question!

  2. I love that term, "Eldersong"! I hadn't heard that before.
    I appreciate what you are saying, and I actually don't sing in my true register either, but compromise between my ideal key and the key that is best for the participants. And you are right that if the group has some singing ability, you will be more successful by facilitating their singing with a good musical accompaniment.
    Thanks for some great insight on the question! Have fun with your Eldersong carols too! :)

  3. Great question. I agree with Stephanie - lower keys with older adults. (And, Eldersongs is great!) With kids I tend to use higher keys. When I do the two groups together, I tend towards my preferred range (I'm an alto) as my strongest range seems to bring out the most participation.

  4. Wow! I just love your thoughts on this! Thanks for your input JoAnn! If we get enough responses, maybe we can create some kind of chart with singing recommendations for different populations!


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