3 ways to encourage good intonation in your choir

I remember once my chamber choir performaed at a large shopping mall in Southampton, the nearest big city to our village.  It was a great day, exhausting but tremendously rewarding. There was something about having people stop and listen to us who hadn’t expected to hear a choir that was almost more of a buzz than having a paying audience in front of us.

One of the challenges of singing in that space was keeping the intonation tight. With so much background noise, it was tricky for the singers to stay in touch. A couple of times, I made the internationally-recognised conductors’ ‘you’re a bit flat’ face (eyebrows somewhere near hairline, slightly strained smile!). They responded admirably, but it got me thinking about the mental and physical mechanism singers use to adjust their pitch.

The more usual tuning problem with choirs is being under-pitch, rather than over, which suggests that it’s not a listening difficulty, but a technical one. When I’m singing, I know that if the conductor gestures that the pitch is flagging, I respond almost unconsciously to resolve the problem. But what’s actually going on in my body and brain when I do that, and how can we, as conductors, encourage our singers to have good intonation?

Don’t talk about it

The most important thing, in my view, is to avoid simply telling your singers that they are out of tune. I have been guilty of this from time to time and I know it to be counter-productive except when you’re dealing with very experienced and adept singers. The more you consciously worry about singing flat, the worse it gets. Ask your singers to change things that are in their conscious control.

Stand up straight

Most pitch problems can be resolved with physical changes. Ask your singers to correct their posture, paying particular attention to lifting the sternum and elongating the back of the neck. As the head comes into the correct position, the pitch will improve. A raised chin leads to collapsed shoulders and chest, which leads to poor breathing and support, which leads to bad intonation.

After correcting posture, you can adjust facial expressions. The quickest way to sing flat is to let the face sag. A good exercise is to ask your singers to smile their sunniest smile, then sing different vowel sounds without allowing the cheeks and eyes to be any less smiley.

The final piece of the physical jigsaw is support; a poorly-supported note is likely to be a flat one. Exercises that encourage good support (my favourite for beginners is asking them to blow out an imaginary birthday candle three feet away by going ‘ha!’) will, over time, help your singers’ intonation.

Think ‘up’

It is remarkably easy to trick our brains. If we think “up” while we sing a descending scale, we are more likely to stay in tune. Try it with a descending chromatic scale. Over a single octave, most choirs will end up below the tonic when they get to the bottom of the scale. Repeat the exercise, but this time gently raising the hands, palms upwards, as you descend the scale. The effect is often striking. Finally, repeat the exercise again, asking your singers to simply think ‘up’ or visualise raising their hands as they descend the scale.

A great exercise for good intonation

Another great exercise that I’ve really enjoyed doing with my choir helps with both intonation and intervals. Give one third of the choir a starting note, which will be the tonic. The next third of the singers sings a major third above, the final third a perfect fifth above. Holding the chord to a hum or to ‘oo’ (and breathing whenever they need to), ask the choir to raise the pitch by a semitone, then return, then lower by a semitone, then return. Make the change in pitch a slow portamento so that your singers have time to listen as they approach the note, and notice when they have truly arrived. Repeat the exercise, giving another section of the choir a new tonic note. You can experiment with major and minor chords, adding seconds, fourths, sixths and sevenths, raising the pitch by whole tones or even larger intervals.

Comments on 3 ways to encourage good intonation in your choir

  1. Avatar Neal says:

    Thanks for the interesting discussion. I, too have inherited a choir (though this is the first time in over 20 years that I have conducted such a group). Intonation is pretty good mostly, but the a cappella stuff kills us. We just did a song at the Christmas concert with a short ac section, and it was always a crap shoot whether they’d keep it in tune. The culprits seemed to be the soprano section that had to sing an interval of a fifth up, and they would often undershoot that which killed the rest of the sections. In order to improve this, I’ve chosen three a cappella songs for the spring concert and it will be a big focus in our rehearsals. So I’m looking for any and all ideas to help us work on this. Thank you for the original comments, Victoria, and all of you who have added your ideas in the subsequent conversation.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Neal,

      Thank you for your comments. I think you’re doing exactly the right thing by keeping going with a capella work. The more your choir do this, the better they will become at it. You can also compliment this work with lots of warm-ups and exercises focused on pitch and good posture. Good luck, I’m sure you’re choir will soon feel much more confident singing a capella and get some great results.

  2. Avatar Mariza Joubert says:

    Thanks- you’ve given some good advice!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Mariza

  3. Avatar Kamali says:

    Many thanks for this brilliant experience.

  4. Avatar Shelagh M. Rogers says:

    I’m a beginner in this business of vocal sound production, and still very confused about pitch and timbre – thanks for the advice here. A lot of it seems to be psychology and deportment. We’ve been singing a lot of rounds though – great confidence builders; and I have noticed that mouth shape seems to affect pitch on vowel sounds, though I don’t think you could get a whole choir to make the same shape for a vowel out of very different mouths – isn’t it more that individuals need to keep the same shape to the end of the note?

    1. Avatar Alice says:

      Different vowels produce different harmonics. Ideally, to sound unified, you want the same harmonics; therefore you need the same vowels. Try this: have half the choir sing “ee” and half sing “ah” on the same note; listen to the sound, then have them all sing the same vowel. Even if they are keeping the same shape to the end of the note (the first time), it should sound more unified if they are on the same vowel. I would encourage them all to round their lips (especially for “ee”) — sometimes I have my choir put their hands on the sides of their faces and squeeze (gently!)…or demonstrate for them the difference of sound you get between singing “oo” with “flat” lips versus rounded, trumpety lips.

      1. Avatar Dyrck says:

        Also remember the diphthongs. Frequently people arrive on the appropriate, matched, vowel sound only to turn the diphthong early or late.

      2. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

        Thanks for these great tips Alice, I will these exercises with my choir.

    2. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your message Shelagh,

      There are so many ways to help your choir with techniques through fun warm-ups and exercises. When it comes to pitch posture is so important as is a bright, lifted face position. You can work on the vowel sounds in your practice. Encourage open mouth shapes with a relaxed jaw. As you say it can be hard to ensure everyone is on the right track and doing the same but with practice, you’ll soon find your choir adopting good habits.

  5. Avatar Maggie says:

    Thanks for the interesting article. The discussion is really valuable to me. I am very new to taking a choir and the advice is really pertinent.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Maggie,

      Glad the article was useful to you. Good luck with all your new choir ventures.

  6. Avatar michael says:

    Hi….I have a problem with my choir. My choir does not sound unified. If I ask them to sing in unison, I can really hear that some of them are not in the proper vocal placement. I have been teaching them vocal placement but it seem ineffective. How would I fix this?

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Michael. Personally, when my choir is not blending well, I find that mixing them up really helps. It encourages them to listen in a new way.

  7. Avatar David says:

    Thanks Ian, intresting.

  8. Avatar Ian says:

    I agree with the above especially regarding ‘support’. Another couple of easy tips to avoid poor intonation from my experience: ensure that everybody is singing vowels with the same shape; it’s surprising how different pronunciation can affect the overall sound and therefore sound out of tune (especially ‘wide’ ee sounds).

    The second is for conductors to ensure that their hands are palm up. The natural way to elicit a diminuendo from a choir is to move our hands in a downward motion, palms down. We may get that diminuendo but it’s a negative gesture and the pitch also suffers. Do it with your palm facing upwards and the difference is incredible. Don’t tell the choir what you’re doing and you may find the problem disappears without anybody being aware there was a problem at all!

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Thanks Ian. Some interesting ideas there.

  9. Avatar Jeannette says:

    Hi. I have been listening to a group of young people (middle school age 11 & 12 year olds). They have a problem with their intonation. (down right flat at times).
    Young people seem to think that if you say – lets to that again you were not quite on the note, they sing louder…. the louder they sing, the worse it gets.
    Any tips or exercises to help them actually fix that problem themselves…. Thanks

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Jeanette, I would combine two approaches. Firstly I’d get them singing lots of rounds, particularly with them mixed up so they have different parts in their ears. Secondly, I’d get them focusing on the things that they can consciously change: posture, facial expression etc.

      I hope that helps.

  10. Avatar Sally Duncan says:

    I can understand the way of helping them when my choir is going flat – it’s usually lack of confidence which improves over the rehearsal period. But I also have the opposite problem of someone singing very sharp. I do practise chordal singing and singing softly so they can really hear each other but it’s still happening! I don’t like to pick on any one person, although I know who it is, as we are a community choir. Any suggestions?

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Sally, thanks very much for your comment. I agree with you that sharpness is harder to correct than flatness. I would go at it two ways. Firstly, I would make sure that the singer (and all your singers) are nice and relaxed in the upper body, particularly the neck, shoulders and jaw. In my experience, muscular tension can result in tense, sharp singing. Secondly, I would do some work on intervals – on hearing and matching an interval. In particular, I would focus on semitones and whole tones. You could, for example, do some chromatic scales followed by some whole tone scales so that your singers have to think very hard about where to place the notes. Another approach to the intonation problem would be to have half the choir sing a long note, and the other half start on a higher or lower note and “slide” up or down to meet the sustained note. Again, this gets them thinking about exactly where to place that note.

      I hope that helps. Let us know how you get on.

      1. Avatar Karen Ross says:

        Also, I find that my singers go sharp because they sing too loudly. When singing too loudly a singer is less able to hear clearly the other singers or pitch source in order to match. I know it sounds silly, but it wasn’t until I finally figured out that I had to TELL my students to LISTEN on purpose that I started to get the intonation results I wanted. It’s just too easy for someone to just sing along , passively hearing and producing sound- it is important for a director to teach singers to actively listen and adjust as necessary. Guiding students into active listening has helped my students become much more independent as singers who proactively work together to improve the choir as a whole.

        1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

          Hi Karen,

          Thanks for your message, I think it’s a really important point you make. Too often singers rush in to try singing something without properly listening first.

  11. ‘Intonation’ = ‘tuning’ ??

    1. Avatar VictoriaHopkins says:

      Well, strictly no, but they both refer to pitch accuracy and I was trying to avoid repetition. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      1. Sorry, I’m just rather dumb when it comes to jargon. I’m not clear exactly what ‘intonation’ is!

        I totally agree: ” Ask your singers to change things that are in their conscious control” rather than making vague criticisms.

        I’ve been trying your last exercise with my own choir and they ARE getting better at it! They do tend to rush from fixed point to fixed point though and avoid exploring all the interesting quarter notes in between.

        From the Front of the Choir

        1. Avatar VictoriaHopkins says:

          The difference between intonation and tuning is easiest to think of in terms of stringed instruments. Tuning is turning the pegs to ensure that the open strings are accurately pitched. Intonation is putting your fingers on the right spot on the strings.

          As singers, we don’t really “tune” our voices as such, but I tend to think of good “tuning” as referring to the ability to accurately reproduce an external pitch, eg from a piano, and “intonation” being the ability to accurately reproduce intervals.

          You are SO right about singers wanting to rush vocal slides. Slow and steady slides are hard, but so effective. I’m really pleased that you tried the exercise with your choir. Thanks.

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