Always learning: a conversation between choir leaders

I was recently contacted by reader Krystle Boyd and we had a really interesting email discussion. Krystle was hesitant about pointing out something she thought was wrong in one of our downloadable worksheets. She needn't have worried - Christine and I are always delighted to receive constructive criticism for a very good reason: we're not experts! We're on the same journey as many of you, although perhaps a bit further along and with some experiences that have helped us along the way.

We don't see ourselves as choral music sages, sitting on high and imparting wisdom. We're just working choir leaders, dealing with all the hassles and challenges of the role, doing the best we can, and helping others when we find answers that work. That's why we love to hear from our audience. You have different skills, strengths and experiences to us and we can all learn from each other.

Anyway, Krystle very kindly agreed to let me share our discussion with you, so here it is.

Hello I have been perusing your downloadable worksheets and warm-ups, and let me just say that I really love your warm-ups that you share.  I am a school music director who teaches band and choir, and I always love learning new warm-ups to share in class.  My choir students favorite warm-up this past year was Belle Mama, and that is thanks to you all!

I wanted to mention something I found on one of your worksheets that did catch my eye in disagreement.  Now, I apologize for being nit-picky, but on your "Pitches & Intervals" worksheet you mention that instrumentalists tune to a pitch and then don't really have to worry about listening to the other instrumentalists unless external factors cause the instrument to lose it's tuning and that it is more difficult for singers to tune because they have to use their ears.  It is entirely possible to tune an instrument to a given pitch and then play every single note flat or sharp if you do not constantly listen and play in tune with the rest of the ensemble and especially if you do not know which notes are naturally flat or sharp on specific instruments, not to mention an instrument like the trombone, where you have to constantly pay attention to the slide position and listen to hear if you are matching pitch.  I understand that you are just trying to explain the difference of tuning an instrument and tuning a voice to your singers, but as a teacher who teaches both, I would not want my students-instrumentalists, singers, or those who do both-to read such a statement.  I teach them all to constantly listen and tune and that neither is harder or easier, just different.

I am not trying to sound like a "know-it-all" because I assure you I am not, but I just saw this and thought if other choir teachers are downloading this and teaching this to their singers, and if they do not know about playing instruments, then they are being falsely informed, and I would hate to see anyone be misinformed about either vocal or instrumental music.  I hope that my point makes sense and does not sound snobbish.  I just wanted to mention it.

Again, I do thank you for being so gracious to share you wealth of knowledge online and email us these wonderful tools.

Sincerely Krystle Boyd

Victoria to Krystle

Hi Krystle

Thank you so much for taking the time to write to us. I think you make a great point. I was, as you say, trying to make a complex point simplistically, and I agree that the way I phrased it isn't ideal. I tell you what. Let's improve it and put a revised version on the website. The existing paragraph says:- "Once instruments are tuned to an agreed pitch, usually concert pitch, the player does not have to worry too much about staying in tune with other instruments unless external factors cause the instrument to lose its tuning (eg a warm room)."

How do you think we could succinctly express the unique tuning challenges for singers as opposed to instrumentalists without misrepresenting the latter? Or do you think it's a distinction without a difference, and the challenge of staying in tune is the same for all musicians?


Krystle to Victoria

Hi Victoria,

Thank you for replying and valuing my input.  I figured that is what you were going for, trying to explain something more simple without getting into too much and confusing people.  I am not sure how you would like to word it, but this is how I try to explain it to my students.Tuning is a constant exercise and we must always be tuning as we sing and play, which means everyone must be listening all the time.  While some instruments are external (trombones, guitars, flutes) and voices are internal, many of the same factors go into tuning.  In all cases, a proper tone must be first and foremost, because if you are "in-tune" but not "in-tone" it still sounds bad.  Poor breath support will often result in pitches going flat, improper tension or stress often causes pitches to go sharp.  It is a constant process for all musicians, and the key point is to know your instrument, whether it is internal or external, know the fundamentals of tone production, and how to adjust pitch when needed.

I hope that perspective helps you some.  Thank you again for being so open and valuing my input.

Krystle Boyd

Victoria to Krystle

Hi Krystle

How about we change the last two paragraphs of the introduction to this:-

"Tuning is a different process for instrumentalists and singers. Most players tune their instruments, such as guitars, flutes and violins, to an agreed pitch, usually concert pitch, before they begin to play. Vocalists must find their starting pitch by ear. For all musicians though, tuning is a constant process of listening and adjusting to maintain a good ensemble.

For singers, tuning can drift for various reasons, for example if we struggle to hear an accompaniment. Poor breath support can result in the pitch going flat. Tension and stress and send it sharp. It is important that we learn good vocal technique so that we can adjust the pitch when needed."

I know it's asking a lot, but how would you feel about my doing a quick blog post about our conversation? I think our audience would find it interesting.

Best wishes Victoria

Krystle to Victoria

Hi Victoria

That sounds great!  And I do not mind at all if you share our conversation.  I would like to share it as well, with other band directors if you do not mind.  I think it would be good for some of them to see that a simple polite conversation can clear up misunderstandings and disagreements.

Thanks. Krystle

There you are folks. A masterclass in amiable discourse! You can download the new and improved worksheet here.
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