All Things Vocal Blog & Podcast by Judy Rodman: June 2009

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Help for Allergies- New Therapy Available

Singers and speakers plagued with allergies are not able to be at the top of their game. The problem, of course, with many treatments for allergies is their side effects, including dryness in the voice and zombie-like alertness. Vocal performance is definitely affected.

I'm always looking for what works for you... so when my chiropracter Dr. Dwaine Allison told me about his new therapy I was thrilled. The following is a guest post he kindly agreed to write for "All Things Vocal" blog:

Life in the "Bowl"

How often have you heard someone say, "I never had these allergies until I moved to Nashville?" Or maybe it was you who said this to someone else! Our fair city is positioned neatly in a paradise filled with hundreds of varieties of trees and other pollen generating plants, cradled within beautiful hills serving as a sort of biosphere that allows all that pollen to hover gently within our breath's reach.

It makes for great pictures, however the camera won't reveal the ravages felt by those suffering with seasonal, or environmental allergies. And for those who depend upon a good set of lungs to make a living singing, it can be annoying or even disastrous! As a wellness coach and practicing chiropractor, I see it all the time, and have looked for ways of helping fellow Nashvillians cope with and ideally overcome allergies. The physical problems range from sinus drainage, congestion, infections, irritation, and diminished impaired respiratory capacity. Then there's the distraction of itchy eyes, skin upset stomach, fatigue, and general malaise, none of which serve well when laying down a vocal track, or giving a live performance. I've seen otherwise intelligent people reduced to a state of stupor when resorting to over the counter or prescription med.s. They lose their sharpness, awareness, and coordination, so much so, that many med.s have label warnings to avoid driving or operating machinery, but, people still do.

So, what's the solution? There are a lot of things a person can do nutritionally to curtail many of the above problems. A few simple things such as; limiting or avoiding all together dairy, gluten containing wheat items. Avoiding refined sugar, or worse artificial sweeteners is a good idea. Keeping your diet free from processed foods which contain numerous health and performance diminishing chemicals like MSG, high fructose corn syrup, salts and the like.

Since a singer's body is their instrument, it follows that overall health practices should be practiced daily. Much like a guitarist would not dream of subjecting their instrument to extreme temperature or humidity, or otherwise handle it carelessly, a vocalist must maintain and protect his or her own body. Habits like getting enough rest, managing emotional stress naturally, keeping a positive perspective, observe good body mechanics and posture, and doing suitable exercise are a few basics. They are not optional. If you don't have some coaches to give some objective guidance, then there are frequently gaps, or uncovered bases that will inevitably make themselves know in the form vocal or health plateaus that will frustrate or severely jeopardize your performance.

Coming back to allergies; There is another problem that makes things dicey. There are two primary types of allergies. Five percent are rapid response allergies known as "I.G.E.". These occur within minutes to an hour after being exposed to an allergen. These are usually obvious to us. However, ninety five percent of the time people experience "I.G.G." or "delayed response" type allergies. These are the ones that occur two to three days after we've been exposed to an allergen. Exposure can be anything eaten, drank, breathed or touched. So, a person may have any of the common allergic signs, or it may be more more obscure. A person may have indigestion, headache, fatigue, heart palpitations, joint pain, or emotional swings. And given that because delayed response is days after contact it can become virtually impossible to connect the dots.

Until now, delayed allergens have been difficult if not impossible to identify through traditional methods. Fortunately, there is a way to uncover these hidden irritants. It's based upon biofeedback technology that can evaluate foods, environmental, and chemical allergens, as many as sixty five thousand substances in total. This is more than could have been tested in a lifetime. And it can now be performed in minutes.

I recently tested a boy who his parents thought was allergic to beef and pork. Sometimes he'd eat and be fine, other times he would be reduced to tears and in anguish with pain. His test revealed no allergies to either meat. Although, he did have a sensitivity to citric acid, (contained in certain fruit). His dad who fashioned himself as a gourmet chef would sometimes spruce up the meat after cooking, with lemon juice to "wake it up" a bit. And as it turns out, this was what was flipping his switch.

So, then what? It gets better! It is possible to use a class three laser coupled with a homeopathic dosage in the form of an energetic frequency to gently reprogram the nervous system to not overly react to such substances. And it only takes about four minutes to accomplish, is totally safe for all ages, and you don't feel a thing, except, in most cases you are over the allergy. Science is great!

Of all the things I've seen for allergies, I believe this method, along with a healthy lifestyle, to offer the most hope for all of us living in the Nashville bowl. It is a paradise, here, but, only to those who can enjoy it. Breath easier!

For more information on allergies and living healthier, contact:
Dr. Dwaine Allison, D.C.
128 Holiday Ct.Ste. 107 Franklin TN 37067

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Spasmodic Dysphonia: What Treatment Options Are Working?

For my last post in this series on Spasmodic Dysphonia, I will report on treatment options and currently available, controversial alternative viewpoints and will offer my further thoughts as a vocal coach:


The first thing we need to know is that medical treatments now available will only manage symptoms in true SD cases. That is the major diagnostic difference between SD and MTD (muscle tension dysphonia) disorders; MTD cases can be cured by re-training vocal habits and eliminating physical and psychological tension. Please note: MTD cases are much more common than SD.

Medical options pretty much boil down to two things: Botox and surgery.

First of all, several experimental surgical treatments involving such things as paralyzing nerves and splitting the thyroid cartilage to make more room for vocal cord stretch have been found to be ineffective. These surgeries also cannot be reversed, and are not now recommended.

One surgery reporting better success is called "selective laryngeal denervation-reinnervation"(SLAD/R), which is suggested for some with the AdSD type of Spasmodic Dysphonia. Patient response has been reported to be 85 - 90% positive, with life-long results of improved vocal function instead of eventual re-occurring symptoms, as has happened with other surgeries.

What has been reported to be more than 90% effective for SD patients is Botulinum toxin (BTX or Botox) injections, which involves injecting a very small amount of the toxin directly into the overactive vocal muscles. It weakens these muscles so that spasms are diminished and the speaking voice is improved. Patients experience best results more often having one side at a time injected instead of hitting the whole set of overactive spasming muscles.

The drawback to Botox therapy is that it is only temporarily effective, and must usually be repeated every three to six months. It is important to find a doctor who is skilled in delivering this injection because a needle must be inserted into the vocal muscle affected, frankly a tricky spot to hit. The treatment is expensive and can be painful, but is the method of choice by most SD sufferers at this point because surgery is considered a last resort.


I would be remiss in my three-part series look at SD not to tell you that there are also reports of this disorder being overcome with vocal and breathing therapies and re-training. The website discusses these alternatives, reporting that many vocal coaches including Roger Love and Gary Catona report success treating SD patients with vocal training. Another such viewpoint comes from Connie Pike, CCC-SLP. A quote from Connie's website:
I have come to view SD as a mindbody disorder; not psychological or neurological, but both. I believe we cannot separate the mind and body functions, including the function of the brain... The track record for voice therapy is a poor one. I believe this is because speech therapists are not properly trained to administer voice rehabilitation with the intensity and the holistic nature that SD therapy requires. The emotional piece of SD is huge and there are breakdowns not just in voice production, but in breathing, voice image and more.The “feeling” of proper voice production is lost in a case of SD and must be rediscovered.
Chiropractic, Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method can provide symptomatic help in certain cases, and a breathing technique is discussed here.


The medical professionals I heard and spoke to at the Nashville symposium last week all say that much about spasmodic dysphonia remains a mystery. They wanted me to know as a vocal coach that if I run into a frustrating case I can't cure with my vocal training, I should send them to get evaluated for vocal damage or spasmodic dysphonia, which of course I have done and will continue to do. They also affirmed that patients with SD can, especially if they have mild to moderate severity of the disorder, be helped to a limited degree with vocal therapy and retraining.

However... an SD sufferer was the person who invited me to the symposium, because she had been so frustrated by seeking help from drama and vocal coaches with no positive results. She quite rightly wanted to get the word out about SD to vocal coaches so they would know to recommend medical evaluations instead of continuing ineffective training if they suspect this condition in a student.

Could alternative treatments cut out the need for Botox injections? Are the above websites just selling false hope to suffering people? I don't have the personal experience to form an opinion.

Vanderbilt Voice Clinic suggests the following website for the most accurate information on spasmodic dysphonia: .

My course of action:
  • If a student comes to me with signs of spasmodic dysphonia, I will not tell them I think they have it, because I know you can talk someone into manifesting a disorder just because they believe it.
  • I will try using the training that so far has helped everyone I work with, at the first lesson. If I cannot get quick results moving in the right direction with vocal improvement, I will suggest a medical evaluation from experts in the voice such as Vanderbit Voice Center to rule out physical vocal damage or conditions such as spasmodic dysphonia which might require medical intervention.
  • If spasmodic dysphonia is diagnosed, I will consult with the medical professionals concerning any vocal training that I could try which could mask or better the symptoms of the particular client.
  • I will keep up on the research into spasmodic dysphonia, which I believe is vitally important for all vocal coaches everywhere.
May a cure be found ... and soon... for all sufferers of spasmodic dysphonia.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Spasmotic Dysphonia: Causes and Diagnosis

So how do you get spasmodic dysphonia? How is it even diagnosed? There are currently unsolved mysteries in the answers to both these questions.


Here's the current state of research... no one really knows for sure. Somehow improper and inappropriate signals are sent from the brain to the vocal cords that produce spasms of the muscles controlling the vocal cords. Estimates are that 5 in 100,000 people are affected, twice as many women as men. Onset it usually mid 30's to 50's, but can begin in teens.

Sometimes the onset occurs after a viral illness or psychological trauma, sometimes after some kind of physical vocal damage. Sometimes the person has been poisoned by taking a medication or being exposed to heavy metals. Sometimes there is family history of some kind of dystonia, or muscle spasm disorder. And sometimes it seems to come out of thin air, someone just wakes up one day and the voice has a strange uncontrollable sound to it. And sometimes the voice is normal!

What is known is that SD is exacerbated by stress, fatigue, pressure and tension. An SLP at the symposium explained it to me like this: the threshold for vocal dysfunction is much lower in SD patients, and the stress that can trigger a worsening of the symptoms can be mild. There is usually gradual onset, it gets worse, then levels off.


Many times the voice disorder called Spasmodic Dysphonia is ignored until it interferes with a person's lifestyle or employment. Often the first help sought will be from a vocal coach. That's a huge reason for all vocal coaches to be familiar with SD.

The presenting symptoms occur with the SPEAKING VOICE! If the speaking voice is fine, spasmodic dysphonia is extremely unlikely to be a problem, in fact I would dismiss the possibility outright, and suggest re-training the singing voice which is likely to have problems with "muscle tension dysphonia" (MTD) instead. IMPORTANT: if vocal lessons and re-training does NOT result in quick progress, the presence of SD should be considered.

Symptoms run the gamut:
  • You have trouble speaking, sounding chronically hoarse.
  • You are frequently asked if something's wrong with your voice.
  • Your speaking voice sounds tight, strained, strangled, breathy or whispery.
  • Spasms in your larynx often interrupt sound, causing words and sentences to be broken up.
  • But...breathing and swallowing feel normal.
Here is a video illustrating the sound of a voice plagued with variations of spasmotic dysphonia. Here are some audio file illustrations from a different source.

Getting an accurate diagnosis of SD is difficult. It can take months o r at least weeks to get a definitive diagnosis, because the symptoms of SD and MTD are very similar, and other vocal issues must be ruled out. Diagnosis IS important, however, because treatment is different and must be tailored to the disorder, or the combinations as listed in my previous post defining SD and its various types.

What to do if you suspect spasmodic dysphonia or any other voice disorder? If in doubt, get checked out- by a medical team expertly familiar with SD such as the Vanderbilt Voice Center. As vocal coaches, choir directors and drama teachers, if we suspect a physiological or neurological disorder like SD, we should always suggest a medical examination.

At your check up, you will have your vocal cords "scoped" to see if there is any physical problems that can be found in your larynx. You will be asked, probably by a speech language pathologist (SLP) in the medical team to speak certain phrases such as
  • "Aaron eats apples & oranges",
  • Help me hold this hoop, pet the pound puppy"
  • and sustain certain vowel sounds like "ee" and "ah", among other speaking and singing tasks.
But there is no brain scan or blood test for definitively identifying this disorder. The two evidences most relied upon for diagnosis of true spasmodic dysphonia are -
  1. ...the sound of the voice (vocal nuances can tell an experienced clinician with a good ear whether or not to suspect SD)
  2. ...and whether or not a round of speech therapy and/or vocal training will work. The experts at the SD symposium suggest that if re-training offers limited or no success, the problem must originate in the wiring of the brain, possibly the basal ganglia, which cannot be re-trained. I will discuss this theory as well as report on alternate theories in my next post about treatment options for SD patients.
After various stages of testing, treatment options for spasmodic dysphonia are offered. I'll discuss these in my next post.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Spasmodic Dysphonia: What Is This Mysterious Voice Disorder

I had the pleasure of attending a conference on Spasmodic Dysphonia (known as SD) sponsored by the Vanderbilt Voice Center this week. Instead of being a dry, boring medical recitation of things I already knew, it was fun, full of kindness and caring... and truly illuminating. I'm so glad I went.

This will be the first post in a series on this disorder with information gleaned from the doctors, speech pathologists and speakers with SD at this event. These experts included Charlie Womble, NSDA Board Director, Jennifer Muckala, M.A. CCC-SLP, C. Gailyn Garrett, M.D. (Medical director at Vanderbilt Voice Center), Fenna Phibbs, M.D., Amy Zeller, Ms. CCC-SLP, Brienne Ruel, Gwen Sims-Davis, Jill Van Vliet and several NSDA support group members who have SD.

First, before you self-diagnosis and scare yourself, let me state this firmly:
In all probability- YOU DON'T HAVE THIS! But if you did... or knew someone who did... you'd want it to be properly diagnosed and be pointed towards something that could actually help instead of frustrate. So here goes my first post...
Spasmodic Dysphonia (SD) is a voice disorder which is part of a family of neurological disorders called dystonias. Dystonias cause muscles to contract and spasm involuntarily.

Here are five forms of SD:
  • Adductor spasmodic dysphonia (AdSD), which is by far the most common, is where the adductor vocal muscles (thyroarytenoid or TA muscles) are too active and spasm frequently on voiced speech sounds like vowels in the words "eat, back, in, I, olives, nest". The voice has a strained, strangled sound.
  • Abductor spasmodic dysphonia (AbSD) occurs where the adductor vocal muscles (crycothyoid or CT muscles) are too active and spasm on voiceless speech sounds like "f, K, c, t, h, th." The voice is very breathy and the person feels short of breath when they talk. It is also often accompanied by chronic constriction... grabbing and holding of the vocal folds.
  • Mixed... where symptoms of both AdSD and AbSD are present.
  • SD with tremor... where there is also a tremor in the voice. In this case, the SD problem is compounded and accompanied by a separate disorder... tremor. The voice will have a rhythmic fluctuation when sounding vowels if a tremor is present.
  • And lastly... SD may be mixed with... or misdiagnosed as... muscle tension dysphonia (MTD). This sometimes happens when a person with AdSD tries to control their vocal folds, holding them too tight and causing a chronic tension to occur. MTD, unlike SD, is functionally based and can be cured by modifying behavior (vocal re-training).
SD is maddenly consistently inconsistent... that is, it doen't necessarily happen all the time, or happen in the same way. Sometimes you can fake it out for a while by speaking in a pitch or accent you don't normally use. One of the panel members with SD demonstrated in a hilarious Swiss accent that she could speak without spasm when she did this. A speech therapist expert in this field said that this would only be a temporary fix; if the person began speaking the new way all the time, the spasm would return.

The speakers at this conference were unanimous in saying that SD is NOT a psychological disorder, it is a neurological one. What's the difference? A psychological disorder can be treated by learning different thought patterns. A neurological one is physiological... re-training treatment is limited in effectiveness. There is something wrong in the wiring of the brain itself... which manifests in the end-organ, in this case, the larynx.

Posts to come: What Causes SD? How is SD Diagnosed? What are the treatments for SD? What can a vocal coach do to help?

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Singing with Bands Unfamiliar With You

I got a great question about singing with musicians in "instant situations" where you sit in with those who don't regularly accompany you.

This situation can happen at big and small events, such as:
  1. Bars and clubs who invite new singers to sit in.
  2. Contests or auditions where the accompaniest plays for you with no rehearsal.
  3. Informal jamfests where you're invited to "do something you know", and someone there plays for you.
  4. Events where artists have to fly or bus in and perform with a house band of some kind.
  5. TV shows where the artist plays with the house band.
It's always tricky. Sometimes a musician or band can be awesome, but even with great musicians this is never the optimum situation. What you can do is limited, but here are some suggestions from my days of doing these things:
  1. ALWAYS know the key for a song you are considering singing.
  2. ALWAYS be able to give them the "feel" and the tempo right before they count off. If you are confident with doing so, you count the intro off yourself.
  3. ALWAYS show respect to the band, no matter how limited or strange they play.
  4. ALWAYS try like crazy to get a rehearsal or at least a soundcheck. Not always possible, but try anyway.
  5. Be ready to sing as if you're singing acapella. If they don't play the song the way you know it, you'll need to confidently plow ahead and let them follow you. Practice this by doing a lot of acapella singing.
  6. If the players ARE good, consider changing your own performance to an "in the moment" feel. You'll have to literally feel this out.
  7. Sometimes you have a situation where your own band member(s) can't get to the gig for some reason, and you may be offered the services of a substitute. If you can rehearse, and if you have the authority and confidence and kindness do so with respect, pay rehearsal fee to a player who hasn't had time enough to master your songs. Then tell them you're just not going to be able to use them for this show, because it came together so fast. It's usually better to play with just one musician (or trio) than to play with an unprepared band.
  8. Remember to sing TO THE AUDIENCE... don't perform as if you are rehearsing.
  9. Leave the band and the audience wanting more:)
  10. If asked to sing and you don't think you and the band are a good enouth fit, politely decline the invitation. The last time I declined to sing was an event where the band was absolutely incredible... and I didn't know any of their genre of songs! I saved myself some embarrassment there!
Lest we condescend, remember that plenty of musicians have stories about having to sing with singers who don't have a clue, too! Make it easy on them... be prepared... and be respectful. Let that be your reputation among musicians and it will pay off in droves. The last thing you want is for a band to groan as you asend the stage towards the microphone:)

Anyone else have suggestions?

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I play 6pm Bluebird show this Wed

I'm doing the 6:00pm show at the Bluebird this Wed (June 17th). If you want to come... go to the Bluebird Cafe website- specifically this page link here - and pick your table! You might want to hurry, though, there are not many seats left.

Singer/songwriters performing in this round include me (Judy Rodman), Jennifer Adan, Cassandra Kubinski and Nicole Witt.

There is a minimum $7 drink/meal fee for the early show and $1.50 reservation fee (per person) if you make a reservation. First come-first served seating is available at the bar and on the back benches.

Hope you can come! - Judy

Sunday, June 7, 2009

ALERT:PPP vocal workshop at Indie Connect Monday night (June 8th)

Hey guys & girls...

I'm speaking at Indie Connect tomorrow night (Monday June 8th). For this event, I'll be giving an introductory "hands on" vocal workshop. If you or anyone else you know would like to get your voice assessed, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, because my full workshops are expensive.

Also, I will be attending the Monday morning session as well, because my music business mentor, Mike Coleman, will be speaking... 11:30am Monday at Corkey's in Brentwood.

Other Indie Connect events this week:

Nancy Moran speaks on "Alternative ways for an artist or songwriter to make money"...Tuesday, June 9 at 11:30 AM
Ryan's Grill Buffet & Bakery
405 S. Cumberland St. in Lebanon TN

and... Vinny Ribas will be speaking on "Booking Yourself" ...Tuesday, June 2nd at 6:00 PM
Exit 65 off I-65
1306 Hwy 96 East in Franklin TN

Saturday, June 6, 2009

No Vocal Competition with Vocal Uniqueness

I have a unique slant on what performance is. This may surprise you in this day of gladiator-style vocal competition. You can quote me:
The best voice comes not from competition with other
voices but from a pursuit of its own excellence

I say there is no competition with uniqueness. The REASON we sing will be a big reason for the WAY we sing. If your first goal of performance is money or celebrity, sit down and listen. A strong ability to move someone with vocal performance will trump the fame and fortune in soul satisfaction, and oddly enough, fame and fortune often follows. The business should follow the music, not the other way around. This paradigm shift has set many a voice free, immediately, in my office, and several careers have been born or re-born. It's a beautiful thing!

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Angela Martinez Invites Us to the Scleroderma Walk-A-Thon

I believe in pay-it-forward. My precious student Angela Martinez does, too. She asked me to spread the news of an upcoming Walk-A-Thon to benefit a cause which has touched people she loves. Here's what she'd like you to know if you're in or about Nashville on June 13th:

Angela wants to encourage everyone to come support the Seventh Annual National Scleroderma 5K Walk-A-Thon (3.1 miles).

It will be Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 9:30 a.m. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m.
Starting Line: The large picnic shelter near the train in Centennial Park, Nashville.

Scleroderma is an autoimmune disease which literally means "hard skin", and not only attacks the skin but also the vascular system and internal organs. Angela has a dear friend who has Scleroderma and through her introductions Angela has met more people with this disease. Greatly touched by their stories, Angela immediately wrote a song for them. Angela is hoping to raise awareness of their need for support for finding a cure.

Her new song is called "Right There" and you can hear it on her "Myspace" page. Angela will be performing at the Walk-a-Thon and will have "Music Down Load" cards available, featuring her new single. All donations will go to benefit the Scleroderma Foundation.

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Monday, June 1, 2009

Pitch Problems: Tips To Fix Them

Pitch problems can be frustrating... especially subtle ones that are not quite a half-step off. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

I often find pitch issues to be directly related to physical tension. This unnecessary tension can act like someone tugging on the arm of a person playing a fretless instrument. There would be no way to hit the notes perfectly in tune with that kind of outside interference. I've had a lot of fun double-teaming a few of my students with Ethan Kind, who guest-posted on the Alexander Technique previously on this blog.

Another source of inaccurate pitch is physical tightness in your throat channel when you sing. Your throat should open in three directions... up (soft palate and nasal membrane), down (jaw and tongue positions) and back (head balanced, tension-free, on tailbone instead of in front).

Problem-causing physical tension can originate from what I like to call "tense thinking"... psychological anxiety, causing physical guarding, collapsing the "scaffolding" from which the voice works most accurately. Here's where my post on the vocal magic of intention and expectation could help you.

Pitch problems can also stem from wrong vocal technique habits, such as powering your voice from too high in the body. Move your feeling of where power comes from lower... at the pelvic floor... (squeeze your butt for power, not your neck, chest or shoulders) and get taller, lengthening your spine when you sing instead of compressing it and make sure your head is not forward.

An action that can help get pitch right is to make sure you've warmed your voice up throughout your whole range. When the muscles controlling your head and chest voice are equally strong, aiming at pitch becomes much easier. Important: don't just do vocal exercises... find out how to do them CORRECTLY!

Another positive action is to focus your listening to an acoustic instrument in the track or band, instead of swimmy things or low instruments whose overtones tend not to be accurate and will throw off your pitch.

To summarize, here are 6 big tips to help increase your pitch accuracy:
  1. POSTURE... stand or sit tall and confidently, head balanced on tailbone.
  2. WARM UP... your voice correctly throughout your whole range, mixing it.
  3. LISTEN the music, especially acoustic instruments such as piano and guitar.
  4. DON'T LISTEN... to swimmy instruments or bass to get your pitch center.
  5. AIM the pitch... intend to hit a specific note.
  6. CONFIDENCE... expect to hit it!
  7. PRACTICE PERFECTLY... don't allow yourself to be content with pitchiness. Practice hitting the note you're aiming for, instead of allowing yourself to sing "pitchy". You'll train your ear to be much more accurate when you practice accuracy.
Let me know this works for you... and anything else you'd like to add!
To book a pitch fixing lesson in person or by phone, contact me here.

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