Christopher Sutton of Easy Ear Training interviewed by Florian Städtler
Q: Maybe we could start with you explaining a bit where this project came from, and why an “ear training” company is making an app that’s about singing?
Sure! The short answer is that there is no more powerful way to improve your musical ear and develop your musicianship than to use your voice. And likewise, having a good ear is essential to being a good singer. The longer answer is… we have always been focused on helping musicians improve their ears, but last year we found that a lot of visitors to our website were actually one stage earlier than that: they weren’t quite musicians yet; they were people struggling with the question of “what if I’m not musical?” or “am I tone deaf?”.
We wanted to help them to find the right answers to these questions and get involved in music making, so in April we launched Tone Deaf Test
a free app on the web and iOS to let people find out for sure if they truly are “tone deaf” or not. I’m glad to say that with over 40,000 tests taken, 98% of people have proven that their ears are just fine! Of course, when people say “I’m tone deaf”
, more often than not what they really mean is “I can’t sing”
. Or really, it’s normally “someone told me I was out of tune, and now I just don’t try to sing any more.”
I’m sure you’ve encountered people like that!
There’s really no reason these people can’t be singers. They just haven’t had the training (for their ears and their voice) yet. It seems a great tragedy that so many of them feel locked out of the world of singing because they doubt they’re capable of it… So we spent the next 6 months developing the next step for people who passed the test: an interactive singing tutor which helps you take the first steps into the world of singing, even if you start out thinking you’re tone deaf. And that’s SingTrue!
Q: It sounds like this is a project you feel quite strongly about!
It really is. For a couple of reasons.
Firstly, I grew up singing a lot, and on paper I was good at it. I was in several choirs and a cappella groups, I sang solos, and I passed my Grade 8. But I still had hangups about pitching and worries that my voice wasn’t really that good.
I think there are a lot of singers out there in the same boat. They’re getting by okay, and enjoying singing, but with lingering doubts about their tuning and whether they are technically singing well or not. Wouldn’t it be great if there was some objective way to check and see “yes, I can accurately sing notes on pitch every time”?
And the other reason is that the more time I’ve spent on this topic of “tone deafness” and people who think they can’t sing, the more angry it has made me. We have a culture that popularises the “X-Factor” and tells people they need “talent” to sing, and if they don’t have it they shouldn’t try. A single negative comment from a teacher or parent early in life can be enough to ensure someone never sings again, never picks up an instrument, and feels “unmusical” for the rest of their life. That to me is just inexcusable! So I’ve become determined to help more people realise that music and singing is for them too.
Q: So what exactly is SingTrue?
It’s a new app for iPhone which has over 30 exercises to train your ears, your mind, and your voice for singing. It starts from the very basics of pitch, like “is this note higher or lower than that one?” and “can you sing this note?”, and builds from there to some quite sophisticated musical skills.
The app’s designed a bit like a game: there are different exercises, each with a few levels, and you get awards and points for completing the levels. It may sound silly, but that really does help keep it fun and engaging, and more importantly it lets you track your progress and see how your voice is improving over time.
We really want this app to help as many people start singing as possible so it’s going to be free to download and try, and then you can pay for the more advanced exercises.
We did a full month of testing with a small group of users, refining and improving the app based on their feedback, and it was really exciting to see how the app helped them move from “I can’t sing!” to “Oh, cool, I’m getting the hang of this, maybe I could be a singer after all”.
Q: Well we can all agree that creating more singers is a good thing, but what does it have to do with a cappella?
That’s one of the things I’m most excited about, actually. Although the app is designed to help people at that beginning stage, it’s also meant to be a gateway into serious singing and musicianship.
That means it doesn’t just feature the very basics. It leads you on through more challenging singing exercises, and teaches you the solfa framework for recognising notes by ear and sight-singing. We also have some new modules in development which will be released in the next few months and specifically teach harmony singing skills. So you can practice singing your notes in the context of a given harmony, and develop your ability to sing a cappella accurately and reliably. We think it’s going to be a really handy tool for aca groups who want to work on their pitching and blend.
Q: Why an iPhone app?
When we started this project, we actually weren’t sure if it should be an app! We considered a number of options, including online courses and desktop software. But after talking with a lot of potential users we found that there were some really good reasons to do it as an app. The big ones are:
- It can be used anywhere. In particular, the exercises for your ear can be done even if you’re on the bus!
- It’s private. A lot of beginners are nervous about singing in front of other people, even a singing teacher. With an app, it can be just you in your bedroom.
- You can use the microphone. The exercises in SingTrue can listen to you sing, analyse your pitch, and give you personalised feedback. That’s a really powerful thing.
So we think it works really well as an iPhone app. It does also work on iPad, and we’re hoping to bring it to Android phones soon.
Q: Is this something for teachers or choral directors to use?
We hope so! We’ll be adding a feature soon which lets you keep multiple profiles on the same phone, so we hope that will let teachers use it more easily with their students. But actually I think the more useful thing is for singers to use SingTrue as a home practice tool. There often isn’t time in rehearsal sessions to work on individual singers’ pitching, but if they can take the app home and practice privately, they can then come back to group practice having honed their voice to perfection.
To help support the work of music educators and get as many people singing as possible, we’re actually offering the full app for free to all singing teachers and choir directors, and their students. There are full details here
SingTrue will be released in the App Store on Tuesday 21st October. You can find out more information and download the app at http://singtrue.co