More About Pitch

By Margaret Nesse

Whether your chorus goes sharp or flat, here's how to get them closer to the bullseye.

"Singers don't go flat out of spite," says Jerry Blackstone, Professor of Choral Conducting at the University of Michigan. Singers go flat because for us tuning is a complicated and delicate process. Unlike pianists or guitarists, we don't have keys or frets: We can't simply poke with a finger and be reasonably confident, having made sure our instrument is in tune, that we will strike a true pitch. For us, producing a true pitch is a complex interaction between such diverse elements as breath support, tension in the vocal mechanism, vowel color, ability to listen and blend, the weather, the quality of the air, and the singer's energy level.

As a veteran of many hundreds of voice lessons and 30-plus years of ensemble singing, I've faced plenty of intonation problems both as an individual singer and as a chorus member. Like many singers, I have a tendency to go flat at times, and I have learned certain tricks of the trade that can help to ameliorate or prevent this problem.

Faulty intonation for singers is rarely a function of faulty hearing. Like most singers who persist in the activity, I have a pretty good ear. I can carry a tune and reproduce notes and phrases I hear played on a piano or other instrument. Most of the time the notes I hear in my mind's ear are pretty much the same as the notes I'm supposed to be singing. Most of the time the notes I actually sing sound pretty good inside my own head. But sometimes, the note that sounds OK to me will sound just a hair, or maybe two or three hairs, under pitch to the person who's standing across the room. Why this discrepancy? If I'm hearing the note or phrase correctly, why don't I reproduce it correctly? If poor hearing doesn't cause poor intonation, what does, and what can we do about it?

My own pitch problems began to improve dramatically when I achieved an understanding of the three main elements of good vocal technique: good breath support, relaxation of tension in the vocal mechanism, and good vowel color and placement. Of these three elements, good breath support is the most important.

To demonstrate what's meant by good breath support, Julia Broxholm, an instructor at Adrian College and soprano member of the Great Lakes Vocal Quartet, uses a simple exercise called "the hiss." To practice the hiss, one begins with a slow, deep intake of air: The abdomen and rib cage expand, the diaphragm drops, but the chest and shoulders remain stable and relaxed and do not lift as air is inhaled. The mouth is slightly open, the tongue rests behind the teeth. Slowly, the abdominal muscles contract and press the inhaled column of air through the slight resistance of tongue and teeth to produce a sustained hiss. The effect is like that of a steadily pressed bellows: All effort is centered in the abdominal muscles as they squeeze slowly and firmly against the column of air. There is no tension in the chest, neck, or throat.

The hiss forces the singer to focus on, use, and strengthen the abdominal muscles that form the foundation of well-supported singing. When the hiss has been mastered, it can be alternated with a sigh on a descending "oo" vowel, also firmly supported with the abdominal muscles. Once the sigh is in place, the same support system can be applied to the regular warm-up regimen of scales and exercises.

Simply reinforcing good breath control practices can often take care of intonation problems: Remind students to think about the bellows and to let the abdominal muscles do the work while releasing tension in the jaw, neck, and upper body. They won't always hear the difference between their own well-supported and poorly supported sounds, but they should be able to feel the difference. A well-supported sound will feel solid, as though it has dropped naturally into a groove, rather than being forced, pressed, or manipulated. Most choral directors don't emphasize breath support nearly as much as they should. At best they might say in passing "Let's have more support on that descending passage," but they shy away from explaining what is meant by "support" or from using exercises that will help choir members develop good breathing technique. A lengthy and at times tedious procedure like "the hiss" is not always practical in the classroom or the choral rehearsal situation, but there are variations and elaborations that can be used successfully with groups.

For example, Richard Ingram, chair of the music department at Huron High School (Ann Arbor, Mich.), begins his choral warm-ups with a series of short hisses. The short hiss, like its sustained counterpart, forces the singer to use the abdominal muscles to press out air. The singer learns where those muscles are, and what it means to control the breath with those muscles rather than with the less reliable muscles in the neck, mouth, and upper chest. Jerry Blackstone has his choristers sing a long, sustained pitch on the syllable "no." He spins his hand rapidly to indicate that the singers should keep the breath alive and keep it spinning through the sound. Abdominal support must kick in in order to maintain the movement of the breath through this sustained, spinning sound.

Blackstone also tells his singers to "look gorgeous" or "fill as much space as you can with your bodies." Thus prompted, singers will throw back their shoulders, expand their chests, and stand tall. Without having to mention such technicalities as breath support or body alignment, Blackstone elicits from his singers the posture that is conducive to well-supported singing.

Julia Broxholm will slowly lift her arms as the singers move down the scale in order to encourage the extra support needed to keep descending passages from going flat. The gradual lifting of her arms suggests to singers not only a sense of lift, but also a sense of forward movement of the breath that keeps the passage from sagging, and instead makes descending notes feel like they are advancing, or traveling toward a goal.

Although good breath support can go a long way toward promoting good vocal intonation, it can only go so far if there is tension in the vocal mechanism or if vowel color is spread and uneven. I mention vocal tension and vowel color in the same sentence because in my experience the one effects the other: A relaxed jaw, neck, and tongue and a lifted soft palate will produce a pure, open vowel sound, and vice versa. Once good breath support is in place, you can improve intonation simply by working on exercises that loosen the vocal mechanism and unify vowel color.

Broxholm, for example, once worked with a women's chorus to prepare Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols. The "Hodie" movement is a cappella and very exposed, and the singers were becoming frantic because they couldn't sing it in tune. Instead of berating them, Broxholm told them to relax, to let their jaws drop naturally, to open up the vowel sounds, and to get rid of all those tense, spread, midwestern diphthongs. The vocal line sounded off-key because the singers were producing a large variety of different vowel sounds. As soon as they matched their vowels, intonation improved dramatically.

Ken Westerman, head of choral music at Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School, uses a mirror to promote release of tension in the face, neck, and jaw. The mirror covers the entire width of the front of his rehearsal room, and singers can watch themselves, notice when tension is creeping in, and see what it looks like and feels like to release that tension. Westerman points out that young sopranos frequently go sharp because of tension and over-excitement, and that letting a soprano section stand in front of the mirror and practice tension release will often work wonders for toning down and evening out that screechy sound.

Ingram also encourages his students to relax their jaws, tongues, and necks and to concentrate on producing pure, open, slightly vertical, and well-supported vowel sounds. Almost invariably, intonation will begin to improve as correct singing takes hold, and Ingram will be able to praise his students for producing a pure, focused sound, rather than criticizing them for singing off key.

Blackstone has his students imitate the diction of Julia Child, whose snooty Boston accent exactly matches the ideal of pure, open, relaxed vowel color. He notes that people don't talk the way they sing, and they shouldn't sing the way they talk. Julia Child's heady, elongated diction may seem phony and affected, and may cause some embarrassed giggles amongst his students, but it's the sound that's needed for singing, and when students can mimic it successfully, there's no need for the director to fuss about diphthongs and "midwest spreading."

Breath support, relaxation, and unification of vowel color are the fundamentals of good intonation, whether one is singing alone or in a group. But faulty vocal technique is not the only cause of poor intonation, nor is working toward improvement of technique the only cure.

Choral groups sometimes sound out of tune because individual voices stand out, or because one voice part has lost its awareness of what the other parts are doing. In choral situations, a singer needs to know how to listen to and blend with other voices and voice parts. Students listening skills can be greatly enhanced by singing in quartets or in small groups that contain members of all voice parts. Singing in a circle can also enhance listening skills. Exercises that involve starting on a "home tone," then moving by steps and intervals away from there and back again are very helpful in developing listening skills. Several choral directors I know practice a cappella literature on short "doots," an approach that encourages careful listening and forces quick adjustments when chords go out of tune.

It's important to bear in mind, too, when director and singers feel as though they have drummed vocal technique and listening skills into the ground, that all singers and choruses have flat days—those times when the air is heavy and muggy, when the barometric pressure is too high or too low, when everyone is tired. Flat days can happen when energy and excitement are low, but they can also happen when energy and excitement are high, when performance day is bearing down and nobody feels quite ready, or when tempers are short and nerves are frayed.

Opening a window can help on a flat day. So can walking around, giving the person next to you a back rub, or singing in a new formation—anything that gets the blood flowing and the energy moving. Joke telling can be a great remedy for a flat day. A good joke and a little bit of laughter can inject energy into a dull rehearsal or release tension in a wound-up one. And laughter helps to lift the soft palate and to place the mouth and jaw in the smiling position that furthers good singing and makes good intonation more likely.

And then of course there's the old trick of moving an entire piece of music up half a step, a magical approach I ve never understood that almost always seems to work. Maybe human beings just weren't designed to sing in the key of C major, or maybe transposing just gets us out of a rut, stirs up our concentration level, and makes us sing higher. There are several good strategies available for improving intonation; there are also a few that are not as good. Some choral directors have a tendency, especially during performance, to point upward surreptitiously with a finger when the choir as a whole, or a particular section, is singing flat. Blackstone notes that a conductor who points his finger upward encourages singers to tilt their chins back, thereby constricting the vocal mechanism, causing a squeezed sound, and increasing, rather than decreasing, the likelihood of a poor intonation.

The finger-pointing gambit is a prime example of what I call the "go for the jugular" approach to fixing intonation. Another, less subtle example happens when a choral director simply yells out "You re flat on that E" or "You ve got to think higher on that A" without working toward improvement of the underlying problem. The most Draconian version of the "go for the jugular" approach involves going down the row of the miscreant section and making each singer perform the passage solo in order to discover the culprit or culprits who are going flat, thereby making everybody in the section more nervous and more likely to sing off key than they were before.

Of course, most choral directors who use "go for the jugular" strategies (and most directors resort to them sometimes) are well intentioned. Variations on these methods do work sometimes, but only for the short term, and at a cost. Telling singers that they re singing off key levels the finger of blame at them and implies that they are doing it on purpose, or that they either lack talent or are not trying hard enough. An adversarial relationship develops between the singers and the director, and tension and self-consciousness increase on all sides. In my experience, tension and self-consciousness are the worst enemies, not only of good intonation, but of good singing in general. The best friends of good intonation and good singing are directors and coaches who model good posture, good breath support, and good vowel color, who infect singers with their own good humor and sense of fun, and who give more praise than blame.



April 18, 2009 at 12:51 AM

I watched a small jazz vocal group this week at Carnegie Hall as they performed three pieces during an intermission. They were a group of seven or eight with a director. They sang two complex jazz classics with finger-snapping percussion, a four-part pop ballad with some strong solo work and finished with an upbeat gospel song. Generally they were very polished, although their paucity of tenor and baritone voices (and their wearing of cloth gloves while snapping fingers) gave listeners a chance to wonder what was missing. The real (yet tolerable) flaw in their show was that during two songs, part of the group fell away from pure intonation while the rest of the group hung on, creating moments when the audience's ears awaited damage control or in situ tonal repair for the performers. The director chose, in both cases, to notify the group that they had slipped a bit, and to adjust. And they did, and they finished with their credibility intact.
Their problem lives on, however. Small acapella vocal ensembles often fall into similar problems onstage, where the moment-of-truth pressure is greatest (like finding yourself onstage at Carnegie Hall). Most of the singers in a jazz group have stong relative pitch and ear training skills, in addition to solid choral and vocal ensemble experience. It is that very background that works against our instincts when part of the group slips away from intonation focus with the other singers. In these situations, directors (and panic-reflexes) tell us to listen for a tonal focus provided by a group member who is known for rock-solid pitch. That approach would work if a rock-solid singer always carried the melody.
Because that is not a realistic expectation, we have to instead focus on the (singer of the) melody, and to move the harmonic voices (usually down in pitch) along with the melody, recrystallizing the voices before the audience detects real error.
How do we pull that off?
When some vocal parts begin to sour, assume that you are the problem or you are the solution. The director can save you, but not quickly enough. The ensemble must focus on the carrier of the melody, and for each voice to refocus their parts toward the melodic line, even when other parts are contrapuntal or involve jazz substitution principles. Know your part and know its relationship to the melody (rather than to the chord roots) throughout the piece.
This strategy will not save the ensemble from stumbling out of pitch, but if you employ it, you won't take a nasty fall.