Developing your choir’s voices: pitch and dynamics

In my short series of articles on developing your singers’ voices, I’ve looked at mixed ability rehearsals, posture and breathing and range and flexibility. In this concluding part, I will be focusing on pitch and dynamics – two crucial elements of great sound production and performance.

We can talk about ‘pitch’, ‘intonation’ and ‘tuning’ and mean roughly the same thing in a choir context. We’re referring to the pitch accuracy of our singers. In mixed ability choirs, it’s very common for pitch to be an issue, and most choirs are more liable to drift flat than sharp. The challenge is to tackle these issues in ways that yield results. For most untrained singers, simply telling them that they’re flat is unlikely to have the desired effect – they don’t know what to change in their bodies to raise the pitch. Instead, we should focus on things they can change – posture, facial expression etc.

‘Dynamics’ refers to the contrast of quiet and loud in music. It’s the mark of a mature and well-trained choir to perform with dynamic colour that suits the music and enhances the audience’s appreciation of it. If your choir sings their repertoire all at one volume, while all the other elements may be in place, it will not excite the listener. Creating dynamic colour and contrast in a piece is, I believe, the difference between a good performance and a great one. It is crucial before you embark on a new piece that you understand what it’s about and what emotion is contained within the text.

Here are three great exercises to that will help your singers with pitch and dynamics:

  1. A short song – Pick a simple song or round which is familiar to your choir; something light and happy. First, ask your choir to sing it with a serious face. If you are a singer and have ever tried this, it feels awful. Next, ask them to stand up straight with good posture. Tell them to imagine they are biting into an apple, thus lifting the cheeks – this will create a bright expression Now ask them to sing the song again – the difference will be striking and much more pleasing to the ear. Each time you encounter problems with pitch whilst rehearsing repertoire refer back to this exercise, getting everyone to lift their expression.
  2. Changing dynamics – Get your choir used to varying the volume of the sound they make. Sometimes singers can get into the habit of blasting everything out at full volume, particularly in the learning process. Again, pick a simple song or round which the choir is familiar with, so that they can sing it while watching you throughout. Use your conducting gestures to vary the dynamics, sometimes in counter-intuitive places. Create as much contrast as you can.
  3. Descending patterns – Any descending pattern exercise is a great way to work on good pitch. Choose a variety of sounds such as ‘yum’ or ‘blah’. Choose a starting note and descend in five note scales moving up a semitone each time. Remind your singers to have good posture and lifted cheeks as in the previous exercise. Also ask them to imagine gliding up and over the notes rather than reaching up to them. If the pitch is still slipping, as them to sing the descending scales while raising their arms.

Comments on Developing your choir’s voices: pitch and dynamics

  1. thanks for the information

  2. Thanks Christine. I like your exercises.

    I however seem to live in a different choir world from yours. Here, there are very high chances that singers sharpen the pitch rather than flatten it, resulting in an upward shift of the key of the song. This eventually strains them on high notes. The problem is so rampant that out of ten choirs, 9 or even all will gradually raise the key to a 4th or fifth depending on the length of the song. Can you propose exercises to counter this also.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Emmanuel. Sharpness is often caused by tension, so I would concentrate on getting your singers to relax and let go of tension, particularly in their necks, jaws and shoulders.

  3. Avatar Juanita says:

    Thank you once again Christine for more amazing tips for my choir. I am always trying out your tips and they have been incredibly helpful and most important of all, fun!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Juanita,

      The tips I give are always tried and tested! Glad to hear the content is of practical help to you in rehearsals. Also delighted to hear you enjoyed the spooky Halloween warm-ups. I had a giggle with my choir using them this year too.

  4. Great tips, thank you. I like the idea of trying a simple song they know inside out and experiment with different postures and facial expressions. Bring on the funny faces!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Polly,

      This exercise is always good fun, it gets the message accross with a giggle and helps singer’s improve their pitch. Glad you like the ideas.

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