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Intonation XII - What to do when the choir goes flat?

I had no idea this topic was going to go on this long! Comments from all of you talented people keep new posts and ideas coming. As I said in my initial post, intonation is a complicated subject.
 
If you haven't looked at the comments, please do so! This community has many sharp (I don't mean pitch!) and talented people, and they've added to what I've written. My last post got a lot of excellent comments--take a look here. I gain as much as I give here.
 
So, now to flatting (I'm speaking here primarily in a cappella music)! What do we do about it? As with all to do with intonation, it depends on the cause. There's no one reason why the choir goes flat. I remember Michael Korn saying at a workshop one time that the proper use of the left hand was a finger pointing up, reminding the choir not to flat! I can't agree with that very much, although a gesture can help at times.
 
First (and sorry, this isn't the magic answer you may be seeking!), you have to work constantly on those things we've been talking about:
  • good vocal technique
  • unified vowels - good placement of vowels
  • good unisons and octaves (and perhaps a vibrato that doesn't obscure the pitch--YMWV/"your mileage will vary"--my way of saying that everyone's taste will vary here!)
  • work on whatever tuning system you choose--if it's just intonation, the choir has to learn where those major thirds belong, for example
  • good rhythmic ensemble and vowels that coincide when they should
  • tuning exercises--I highly recommend John Goldsmith's exercises!
It should be said that this is a long-term plan, not something that happens overnight. It's an important part of your training the choir and choir members to be better musicians and to have better ensemble and vocal skills. And it's work that never ends--do you think the Swedish Radio Choir never rehearses these things? Of course they do! At a different level than most of us do, but they constantly address all these issues, too.
 
It also means that your rehearsal plan needs to be appropriate to each stage of the choir's development on a particular program. In the early learning stages, don't overwhelm with too much at once. Work on neutral syllables or count-sing (instead of text), work at a slower tempo (so they can absorb the pitches and harmonies better). Pace your rehearsal well so the hardest work comes when they're still fresh, and make sure that demands are varied throughout the rehearsal (see my earlier posts on rehearsal technique).
 
Separately from this, what's the room like where you rehearse? Easy or difficult for them to hear each other? Too reverberant, not reverberant enough? Temperature relatively well-controlled, or often too hot or cold? These aren't always things you can control, but if you can, do so! I've worked in great and terrible rooms, but manage to make it work in all. But if you can work in a better room or improve the room you're in, you'll want to do it.
 
But, assuming you're doing the things on the list above (appropriate to the level of your choir), what goes into a choir singing flat? Back to basics first--your diagnosis has to tell you why they're going flat. Possible reasons and solutions:
  • poor breath management - remind them about proper use of the breath -- are they slumping in their chairs? Are they using enough breath energy?
  • are descending intervals too wide? If they've done exercises such as John's, your feedback will mean something to them and they can make adjustments, for example, on a descending minor third that is too wide (a common fault)
  • are the vowels dull or placed too far back? work with them on brightening and bringing vowels forward -- have them sing on a brighter vowel/syllable (tee), then go back to text -- do a quick exercise to bring the primary vowels that are poorly placed where they should be
  • are they singing with a lowered soft palate? do an exercise to get them to raise the soft palate
  • do they "scoop" up to pitches? then work with them on making sure each onset is exactly in tune
  • is the key part of the problem? Perhaps you need to try transposing up or down.
  • how about their energy on the day? or a room that is too hot? do something to bring up their energy, a physical exercise/movement, switching to a lively piece that they like, etc.
All of these are possible problems and solutions. Your experience, listening and observation (what you see in the choir can often give a clue to the items above) will tell you a lot about why they're flat and what to do about it.
 
But there's another issue that I spoke of last time: that of tonal memory. Patrick Taylor, in a response to that post, said that he believes it's more about muscle memory than tonal memory--and I should have mentioned that. It's certainly a combination of those elements (thanks, Patrick!). I can't say what the percentage is of each, but it doesn't really matter. If the choir sings flat for very long, or sings an interval too far down on the descending side or not far enough up on the ascending side . . . they will memorize that as correct (whether tonal or muscle memory). And once they do that, it's very hard to get them to sing it correctly.
 
For that reason, I don't want to allow the group to sing under pitch when they learn a piece. I will use the piano in the following ways:
  • I (or my accompanist) will play some chords or pitches to keep us in key, but not play constantly
  • we can also play pedal notes (in the bass or the treble--usually below or above where the choir is singing) that help establish correct pitch
  • it's possible to play along with them as well, but I'd try the other options first
I simply don't want them to start to learn the piece in the wrong key.
 
By the same token, I have to be very aware of melodic patterns or intervals that are flat (the descending minor third above is an example). The choir or section needs to be made aware of that and correct it. Again, singing that flat just a few times will make it a part of how they hear and feel that passage and it will be much more difficult to sing in tune.
 
There will also be difficult transitions/modulations or a difficult series of chords to tune. Special time needs to be spent here. I remember during one of the rehearsals I did preparing the Swedish Radio Choir where the accompanist (Michael Engström, a wonderful musician!) said, "take some time and care there--it's a dangerous place." You can't gloss over these passages, but need to make sure the choir is very secure.
 
Chords may need to be tuned in isolation. Are unisons and octaves really unisons? You may need to point out a place where the tenors and sopranos are in octaves so they listen and tune together. There also may be dissonances that have to be pointed out--if the basses and altos sing a major seventh, but aren't aware of it, they may try to "correct" by ear to an octave. Those are places where I'll isolate just those sections. Just asking the choir to listen (unless they're very accomplished) won't do the trick--you have to point out to them what to listen to and how to correct the tuning.
 
Of course, I'm also aware of other causes--if it's vocal/vowel, I have to fix that. If it's poor rhythm, I have to fix that.
 
Additionally, when learning (and remember, more of their conscious brain power is focused on finding the right pitch, rhythm or word) I have to be aware of tempo. Music that is fast has to be rehearsed more slowly, so they have time to perceive the correct pitches, hear and reproduce them. By the same token, slow music might have to be taken faster--it's very difficult to sustain a slow tempo vocally, and when they're learning, I want it to move at a tempo that makes it easier. As they know it better and have control of pitch, then I can gradually slow down or speed up towards the real tempo.
 
The key may need to be changed. This can come about because you realize that the key simply doesn't work for your choir and moving it up or down makes it comfortable and they sing in tune. Or you can plan for it. I used an example of this in a response to the last blog: I know that Weston Noble was once preparing the Nordic Choir to do Bach's Singet dem Herrn, which is written in Bb, but was probably done during Bach's time at a pitch close to a half-step lower - Weston rehearsed the choir in Ab almost exclusively and then raised the pitch to A major just as they began performances . . . and apparently had no flatting problems whatsoever. Here I think he was taking advantage of the fact that the new key (A major) was a very fresh one for the choir with no memory (muscle or tonal) of any problems in the lower key. It also may have been helped by being in a sharp, rather than flat key (although we can argue about whether this is psychological or physiological!).
 
My mind is starting to go and I'm brain-dead, even though there is much more to say. Please add your ideas in the comments! Help us all out with your ideas!
 
If I have enough mind left, I'll make a couple last posts on this topic next week. Happy weekend!
 
 
on June 1, 2013 9:36am
Great post, thanks! Lots of really helpful observations...
 
Not to oversimplify, but besides a good pitch memory, the placement of the tongue is critical in not only singing on pitch, but also *sounding* in tune. Proper placement of the tongue is as follows: tip of the tongue at the back of the lower teeth, the back of the tongue is lifted to the roof of the upper pallate, relaxed, not tight. To demonstrate, sing a tone with the tongue in proper position, and then flatten it, going back and forth between the positions. It is possible to stay on pitch, but if you notice the tone "flattens" as the tongue flattens. To remind the choir to lift their tongues (the tone is unmistakable once you know it) i curve my hand to match the curve of the tongue. My choirs know this signal all too well! It not only improves their pitch, but also their tone unfies and sounds more open as a result. 
 
The other thing I use a lot is what you call tuning the thirds. Once a singer marks the certain notes which constitute the third of the chord, it seems the pitch stays where it belongs. Hope these two observations help!
 
 
on June 2, 2013 12:39pm
Another fantastic, thought provoking post.  You might have been brain-dead by the end, or so you claimed, but it wakes up the rest of us.
 
I re-read part of Henry Coward's "Choral Technique and Interpretation"  From the middle of his discussion, under the heading "Nasal Resonance". in chapter 3.  Quoting:
Here,in a few words, is the secret of the pianissimo singing of my choirs. To sing a true pianissimo get the tone quite to the lips of the nearly closed mouth, and let the sound be a half hum, so as to secure nasal resonance. The loose throat, absence of muscular strain, and forward breath induced by this production, together with the accompanying mental alertness, tend to maintain the pitch; the quality of the tone gives it clear definition and carrying power; and the union of the whispered fundamental sound of the mouth with the nasal harmonics gives quality and character to the tone, the whole satisfying the mind both as to quality and quantity of sound and intonation (pitch).