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.
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.