Dr. James Henry, head of choral studies at the University of Missouri – St. Louis (our alma mater), said it best – “Breathe together. Sing together.” This is not only a metaphorical statement, but a literal one when it comes to having your choir sing in tune. Don’t get me wrong, there are a million things that have to go right to tune even an open 5th within your choir. We’re exaggerating of course, but it doesn’t feel far off!
With so many ways that a choir can start to teeter towards out-of-tuneness, luckily for us, there are also so many OTHER ways to fix the issues too. Here, we’ve compiled some of the most common reasons that choirs sing out of tune and combated each with a solutions. But keep in mind what your voice teacher would say in college, “Your problems won’t be fixed overnight!” – maybe that was just OUR voice teachers…! Nonetheless, these tips will need to be polished until they become second nature. Be patient with your singers, and most importantly, be patient with yourself.
Reason #1 – Breathing
Outside of a singer’s body alignment, breathing is the most fundamental part of being a singer. The body (and more specifically the voice) is a wind instrument. Here’s the funny thing though – we all have been born with this natural instrument, yet not everyone knows how to PLAY it well. The ones who DO know how to play it gracefully understand the breath.
When you take a singer’s breath, and before you even start to phonate, four things should happen:
- The ribcage expands.
- The abdominal wall expands.
- The diaphragm descends.
- The pelvic floor drops.
In. That. Order. Now, singers might think that when you exhale (or begin phonation/singing), that same breath would “escape” by just doing the above steps opposite direction – 4, then 3, then 2, then 1.
Go ahead. Try it for yourself.
Inhale while thinking of the four steps, then do your best to exhale backwards (steps 4 through 1). It doesn’t work that way. When you exhale, or begin phonation, the steps happen in the same order but in the opposite direction:
- The ribcage comes in.
- The abdominal wall contracts.
- The diaphragm ascends.
- The pelvic floor ascends.
That’s why, in order to support our sound, we need to DELAY the triggering of the exhale steps. In other words, as you sing, keep your ribcage expanded to keep the rest of the support mechanism in place. Sounds simple – but it takes practice.
This singer’s breath is a huge factor with intonation. If your singers can’t “play” their instrument on a foundational level, how are they ever supposed to play (or sing) in tune? It’s luck of the draw without proper breathing.
It’s worth it to note that some of your singers may also face difficulty with breath control because of performance anxiety or nerves. This kind of anxiety can wreak havoc on our ability to maintain a steady flow of air. This is a bit beyond the scope of our chat here, but do put a pin in this idea and investigate if you have a singer who is continuously out of tune–could they be facing some performance fears? Does that make sense with their experience and what you know about them? Sometimes a quick of assessment of this can save you hours (and them years!) of being frustrated with their pitch inconsistency.
Try this with your singers: Invite your choir work on this 4-step breath. When you begin warm-ups or some of your repertoire, have them breathe together as a choir and then come in on their entrance. “Breathe together. Sing together.”
In order to make it through longer phrases, focus on keeping the rib cage expanded. That’s the first step in the 4-step breath.
Reason #2 – Vowels
One of the most rewarding (and difficult) things about being a choir director is having so many people from different backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, race, neighborhoods all sing as ONE. Because of this, we have to sometimes address differences in speech or accents and a singer’s natural tendency to twist and manipulate their vowels as they would during their normal speech patterns. This is another common way that choirs tend to SOUND out of tune.
We emphasize “sound” because you can have a tenor and bass section singing an open 5th exactly 701.96 cents apart from each other (701.96 cents is a justly-tuned 5th) and the overtones could still be non-existent–it won’t tune right even though the pitches are EXACTLY in tune!
This is because their vowels are not matched.
Here are two quick facts about vowels:
- Women’s voices have an easier time singing closed vowels (ee, closed o, etc) while men’s voices have an easier time singing open vowels (ah, eh, etc).
- Pure vowels happen in the back of the mouth and with the tongue, not in the front of the mouth and the lips. The lips simply color the vowel and break the air flow by forming consonants, but let’s not bite off more we you can chew right now!
To tune vowels in your choir, you need an anchor vowel, or a vowel that a choir perfects and uses as the foundation for coming into unity on all other vowels. For most choirs, the ‘oo’ vowel works great for this purpose. If you can get your singers to perfect the closed ‘oo’ vowel, you will be able to polish that vowel into an ‘i’, ‘oh’, ‘ah’, ‘aw’, and so on.
One of the benefits of using a tool like choral rehearsal tracks with your choirs is that they rehearse with vowels that already match and can model their singing in the same way. We spend a TON of time focusing on the minutia of coordinating vowels and turns of diphthongs when we record our tracks, and it can make such a huge difference!
Try this with your singers: Sing everything through an “oo” vowel for now. Keep consistent space within the back of the mouth as you have your choir start with an “oo” vowel and morph into another vowel of your choosing, then morph back to the “oo” vowel. The trick is: when you morph into another vowel, keep that space, resonance, and brilliance of that “oo” vowel. You can do this in unison or on your favorite voicing of a major chord.
Once your singers begin to perfect this simple exercise, you will be amazed at how much more “in-tune” they will sound.
Reason #3 – Staying “On Top” of the Pitch
Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to title this section. I mean, we all have heard, “stay on top of the pitch,” but what does that actually mean? And you might be thinking, “I’ve told this to my choir thousands of times and we’re still out tune. We always tend to go flat and loose energy.” We’ll walk you through our favorite exercise to start training your singer’s ears to stay high on the pitch by fine-tuning (you’re welcome) their ability to hear gradations in pitch.
Let’s understand this first – there are 100 “cents” within a half-step/semitone for our friends across the pond (there are theoretically an infinite number of notes in a half-step but let’s keep it simple for now!) A piano can ONLY play a C and then a C#. It can’t play anything in between. However, singers have the ability to “bend” pitches almost endlessly. We can sing ALL those notes between a C and C#.
“How in world am I going to get my singers to do this?” We got you. There is an exercise in bending pitch that is attributed to Robert Shaw.
Try this with your singers: Give your choir a pitch (let’s say Eb). Tell them that within a slow 4/4 measure, they will start on the Eb and, over the course of the one measure, slide up a half-step. They need to end on E on the downbeat of the next measure. The trick is: make the ascent up the half-step is smooth and consistent. What SHOULDN’T happen is for the choir to hold the Eb for 3 beats and then scoop up a half-step on the last beat. The journey up the half-step should begin right away and end on the downbeat.
You can do this exercise descending as well. Start with four counts. Then, if you’re feeling crazy, move to 6, 8, 10, or 12. The longer the count, the harder it is to bend the pitch consistently and the finer your singer’s ears will become.
Try this with your singers: Once they’ve gotten more comfortable with this half-step pitch-bending exercise, repeat the exercise again. Except this time, catch them off guard by stopping them at the downbeat of beat three! Theoretically, they should be singing directly BETWEEN the Eb and E. This is called a quarter-step and this is where the skill of “staying on top of the pitch” lives.
This will take practice and nuanced work. But doing this everyday will begin to train each ear in the room (including your own!) Then, when your choir begins to sway out of tune, just remind them, sing this pitch on our beat three – in between the half-steps.
What are your best tips for keeping a choir in tune?