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Basic skills for singers: Chord tuning

Thanks to the many who responded to my request for help with vertical
tuning in my high school choirs. ChoralList is a fantastic resource! Many
great, practical ideas, which is what I need. Here is the compilation of

A number of people recommended "Choral Ensemble Intonation" by James Jordan
and Matthew Mehaffey. There is a a book, VHS Video, and two exercise
booklets. All are published by GIA. I have the video and the two exercise
booklets. I must confess that the video left me a little perplexed. It
was hard to imagine doing that kind of work with my large high school choir
at lunch rehearsals. However, so many people recommended this resource
(and I have great respect for James Jordan) that I will watch it again to
see if there are things that I can adapt.

Nancy Telfer, "Singing in Tune" (Kjos, 2000), ISBN 0-8497-4187-4.

Check Your Intonation. Tom Wine. (April 2004) Choral Journal, Vol 44, No.
9, pp. 25-28

Exploring the whys of intonation problems. Doscher, B. M. (1991). Choral
Journal, 32(4), 25-30.

Choral Intonation: More than Meets the Ear. Steven Powell. May 1991.
Choral Journal Vol 77 No. 9, pp. 40-43

From Edie Yaeger:
Two things, which seem overly simplistic but really DO work wonders:

You can't sing the scale on solfege enough! Sing it in a round, sing it in
funky ways, any way you can think of. Just sing the scale on
solfege...solfege works by far the best, because of the vowel placement.
Play it on the piano (make sure the piano is in TUNE) , find listening
examples of other famous choirs, if you can?

Also, two crucial intonation problems happen on the 4th of the scale: fa
and the 7th 'ti'.
Make sure that they have a 'tall' enough mouth on fa, and even though it
leads to 'mi' or the 3rd of the scale, if the tone is flat, their eyes
should be bright and cheeks should be lifted slightly (this helps the soft
palette remain lifted).
Same principal for 'ti'.

From Susan Quinn
I've done alot of research on choral intonation and I can offer briefly:
1. Before placing the third of the chord make sure the fifth is perfectly
tune (slightly wider than the equal-tempered 5th) like the open strings of
2. Place the third so that it balances and in no way over-powers the chord.
The major third is actually slightly lower than the piano third and the
minor third is slightly wider than the piano's minor third.

From Mike Wade
Tune octaves carefully. Also the fifths. Remove the thirds and tune the
open intervals.
Sing "high" thirds sixths and sevenths.
modify vowels in the soprano high range.
Continue to ask if the singers can "hear" the problem. Don't allow them to
do it! I have found most high schoolers can be taught to become aware,
then it drives them crazy!

Thanks again!

Sally B. Murphy
Oak Bay Secondary
2101 Cadboro Bay Rd
Victoria BC V8R 5G4

on July 31, 2008 10:00pm

This is a rather later response. I was wading through some of the resources on ChoralNet and came across your request for tuning resources/tips. The one idea that I would add to your arsenal is to isolate the troublesome vertical structures and make sure that your singers are aware of what the complete structure is, not just their own note. The great conductor Robert Page works a triad singing exercise into every warm up with his choruses. On "loo"--head tone only--and at a volume no louder than mp ("more brain than voice" he would say) chords are sung in succession and on one breath (moving in eighth notes):

Major, minor, Augmented, Diminished, Major (1-3-5-3,1-b3-5-b3, 1-3-#5-3, 1-b3-b5-b3, 1-3-5-3-1). This exercise can also be done descending (8-6-4-6, 8-b6-4-b6, etc.). Sing the exercise beginning on C. After singing the exercise ascending and descending, move up a whole step and repeat. Then split the choir by sex or section and have them sing both ascending and descending together. Stop on the tritone (b5) that occurs on Gb in both the ascending and descending versions and check to see if the two Gbs match.

When tuning vertical structures in the course of rehearsal, always tune the structures according to the overtone series. Have the accompanist play only the root and ask root note singers to sing their pitch. Add pitches at octave, then fifth, then third, then seventh or ninth, and last add any non-chord tones. If dealing with a complex vertical structure (overlapping chords), identify the two triads or seventh chords that make up the more complex structure and tune each separately, then combine. Alternate between the two chords and their combination until the chord "sets".

Hope this is helpful! It really works wonders and puts a lot of important responsibility on the singers in the choir.

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