Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Conference Morsel: TOO Concerned with Tuning?

(An excerpt from the interest session “Starting a Group,” presented by Deke Sharon during the 2014 Western Division Conference)
 
       People in "a cappella" [the form of pop ensemble singing] have become too concerned with tuning.
       Perhaps it's the prevalence of pitch correction in recordings and pop music, but groups seem ever-concerned with their pitch, and moreover judge other groups as if tuning is the point.
       People usually do not decide what they like or want with their logical minds. They make them with their hearts, and then they justify them intellectually. That's been proven time and again, and is at the core of everything from political campaigns to grocery store product placement.
       To bring it closer to home, do you remember when Ben Folds said to the Beelzebubs in Season One of The Sing Off: "There were some tuning issues, but I just didn't care!" That's exactly what I'm talking about. A great performance with heart and sincerity will always trump technical prowess.
       Do you know who else doesn't care? You don't care. Do you hate all Motown music? Most likely not. I'll bet there are many songs that make you happy But the vocals are well outside what would be considered "in tune" nowadays. And they're beautiful. And real.
       Moreover, if you're focusing primarily on tuning on stage, you're not performing and you're not communicating. You're manufacturing sound.
on April 9, 2014 5:14am
Somehow there has to be a balance.  It happens to us that when we're rehearsing and, yes, when we're singing, my group(s) will lose pitch - but do so together.  It suggests, contrary to the constant reach for "perfection" (whatever that wierd animal is!) that the group is in tune WITHIN ITSELF, as opposed to some yet-to-be-reached perfect tuning.  Now, we don't hear much about that.  Our bass section leader has a very acute ear, and works at keeping pitch up, and the tenors are pretty good at maintaining that distance as needed.  BUT - we have the phenomenon I call "soprano squash" - i.e., the case of where the largest section (we're talking numbers here, not physique!) has a tendency to lose pitch, especially since many of them are not maintaining the best possible posture, etc., etc., etc.  We work on it, but it happens.  Consequently, between the rock of the sopranos following inevitable gravity and the hard place of the bass trying desperately to stave off inevitable collapse, the poor altos and tenors tend to get "squashed" between them; so then, a degree of "de-tuning" takes place, so that we don't have a complete train wreck (only a few cars jumping the rails!).  Nonetheless, you have to constantly remind the sections to listen within their section, and listen to others - but these are volunteers, for the most part, and they do their best.  I can see the horror-struck faces of the assembled ears (now, there's a mixed-up metaphor if ever there was one - ears with faces!), but I truly do not care in the long term, because my longer-term is different than a single performance.  On a Sunday morning, or a special event, when they sing in such a way that a heart is moved or soothed or touched, we have done our job.  And when people let us know that they appreciate what we do at Mass, or at a special service, we have done our work.  I know people out there who are horrified by anything less than perfection, but the last time I checked, I worked and played in a field much strewn with rocks and holes and weeds - and finding a rose within that is a grace we can only thank God for.
 
Ron
Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 9, 2014 11:11am
I affirm Deke's perceptive words.  I also affirm Ronald's words about balance; I think many directors are in similar situations.
It may vary with genre-situation; I perceive that folks will not readily accept poorly-tuned Mozart as as well as they will certain songs from Country, or Jazz, or Pop, or certain World pieces that have pitch-bends naturally in their language.   (That is not to say that all of those should not be well-tuned; they definitely should!  But perhaps not "stress-tuned"  ;))
 
I see the key words from Deke here as, "..if you're focusing primarily on tuning on stage..."    Do not our breathing support, tension-relaxation, tuning, diction, and other important technical matters need to be handled in much earlier rehearsals?  (I believe so!)  If we have regular issues with certain sections, and they are not responding to our guidance, perhaps it is wise to bring in an additional trained ear with helpful ideas - again in earlier rehearsals.  (Often we coaches, along with our directors, know full well we are basically giving the same advice re: posture, jaw-relaxation, etc.  But a new voice, phraseology, demonstration, and perhaps a more vocal-focused background might help the singers respond, and follow up in subsequent weeks, when reminded by the regular director.   Groups here have had success with vocal coaches - (the ones with good voice training, who can bring that forth appropriately for a choir) especially if the coaches are of different gender/voice part than the director, and bring that perspective/knowledge/experience.  (I often use expertise from competent tenors and basses to advise mine - after all, I've never been one!)
 We can remind our choirs, during the earlier rehearsals,  that the acoustic changes in a different building do and will warrant some vocal/choral adjustment. 
 Perhaps a few seconds of tuning-attention in the performance space is called for.  But beyond that, Deke is quite right; we would be causing our choirs (and early-arriving listeners) to focus away from their main purpose - the heart-to-heart communication - whether that is anything from an angry, rock-influenced piece, to a gentle, faith-based lullaby.
Ron, I wish we had your actual voice saying this:  (Its beauty begs to move beyond the page) "...worked and played in a field much strewn with rocks and holes and weeds - and finding a rose within that is a grace we can only thank God for."  (If I may add: We need all it all - without the rocks, holes, and weeds  - the roses would not grow well, as well as be taken for granted; unnoticed. )
Blessings to all,
-Lucy
on April 13, 2014 12:21pm
Do you know who else doesn't care? You don't care. Do you hate all Motown music? Most likely not. I'll bet there are many songs that make you happy But the vocals are well outside what would be considered "in tune" nowadays. And they're beautiful. And real.
 
This has to be one of the lamest comments in recent history.  Have you listened to any Motown?  Tuning is beautiful, generally speaking, not equal tempered but good, very good. 
 
And how do you identify "heart and sincerity"?  TUNING!
 
William
on April 13, 2014 4:43pm
Lucy and Ronald, on rereading your responses, I mostly have to agree.  The only thing that I see as missing is an understanding by the music director of when a voice must tune  high, when tune low, when tune to another voice, and when hold steady for another voice to tune to it.  I believe that with this understanding  we can try more and more to interpret the music as the composer wrote it.