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They just won't stay in tune...

My beginners mixed choir is working on LGPE music, and no matter what I do or try, my ladies cannot stay in tune. If they start to go sharp, I raise it a half step, but then they start going flat. One of my main issues is that my class has turned into the dumping ground for the guidence office for all the kids who don't want to take what ever class they are in. Any ideas on how I can get kids who can't even match pitch to at least sound good enough to get a 3 at LGPE?
on March 14, 2014 5:36am
Kimberly: Most conductors agree that staying on pitch is a mental, or failure of concentration by the singers.  One suggestion that has worked in rehearsal is to use the "in and out" game.  Start them all together then tell a section [one or more] to stop singing [or out] then after a few measures tell them to start singing again [or in].  You do this with each section as you continue through the song and most often by its conclusion the ensemble maintains pitch, i.e., in tune.  If you can demonstrate to the group that this 'game' works, you thus are showing them that staying in tune is mental and they can do it if they keep 'engaged' rather than drift off to 'wherever land."   
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on March 14, 2014 6:25am
I have a few ideas to add to the awesome thoughts Robert shared above.  
This is about listening.
1)  We need to teach our students to always be able to locate "DO".  An exercise to start them thinking in this direction:
a)  Sing a pitch and call it DO.
b)  Have them sing it back.
c)  Play about 5 seconds of a random song on the piano that is in a different key.
d)  Stop playing and then ask them to sing DO.  
e)  Play a different random song in a different key for 10 seconds.
f)   Repeat step D
g)  Play a different song in a different key for 15 seconds.
h)  repeat step D
i)   Bang random keys on the piano
j)   repeat step D.
Then, tell them they must never lose DO no matter what.
2) Then, start focusing on locating DO in your various songs.  If you have successfully taught step 1, your point will be well-remembered.  Have as much fun as possible with step 1 so that the students stay totally engaged in this quick but effective activity.
3)  Record them... a lot.  Ask them to listen to themselves and evaluate when they are in tune.
It's all about listening.  I use the phrase, "Listen Loudly" frequently with my middle school singers.  
I also drive home these important points and many more in my Sight Singing program for Middle School teachers and their students.  I share several of the techniques that I use that solve the problems you listed above.   It's called "S-Cubed", and it truly helps so much more than simply teaching sight singing.  It teaches many important listening skills and the best part is that they can sight sing in two parts in months with great confidence.
Good luck and hope that helps:
Dale Duncan
Find the full 27 lessonS-Cubed Series:  Successful Sight Singing for Middle School Teachers at:
Read my Blog with a focus on Sight Singing for Middle School:
Subscribe to my YouTube Channel with tons of teaching tips and teaching examples that include me working with my beginning middle school singers:
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on March 15, 2014 8:01am
Teaching solfege really helps.  Do it at the beginning of class every single day; promise to only take a couple of minutes, and stick to it; don't try to perfect each line or exercise.  They will tolerate it at first, then be amazed and proud of their accomplishment, especially if you have them demonstrate it as part of a program.  Solfege, done correctly, helps them memorize intervals - IF you insist they do it right!.
Something possibly for more advanced groups:  There's a newish keyboard, actually developed for band directors - the Yamaha Harmony Director.  At the push of a button, you can re-tune the keyboard to pure tuning (or any other tuning system) in any key.  Hearing what a TRULY in-tune chord or scale sounds like should help.
on March 15, 2014 10:41am
Sing warm-ups that require intonation accuracy.  Use solfeggio only!  Sing a cappella only.  Have them singing in triads.  Next, work on breathing techniques.  Next, when singing those triadic warm-ups, do not permit anyone to stand alongside someone of their own section on either side.  Being that it is a female choir, when first attempting the triadic warm-ups, play the root of the chord (one key only) on the piano in the deep bass area only. Eventually, have just 12 sing the warm-up; three to a part standing with those in their own section.  Reduce the small ensemble to nine then to six, then to three (one per part).  Always, always sing a cappella; yes, even when it hurts!  Always, always sing using solfeggio.  Praise those individuals who perform accurately.  For those who stubbornly exhibit poor intonation, have them sing while resting their head against another section member's head.  The vibrations, the travel of sound through bone, and sympathetic vibrations works wonders.  Also, have the choir sing while closing ONE ear tab shut thus causing "internal hearing."  Remember to use that deep bass root note on the piano at times.  It is like an anchor.  Use the deep bass notes because their sine waves permeate the air space more fully while not having to be loud and are easily discernible from higher pitches.  If after a month this has not worked, write to me personally.
With a voice of singing,
John H. Briggs, Sr.
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on March 15, 2014 10:50am
I forgot one other important activity, Kimberly!  Have them start every rehearsal by singing the note A (second space).  Do not play the pitch.  Do not hum the pitch.  NO HINTS.  They are to find the note A on their own merits.  Of course it will be miserable at first. Later, they will just sing it.  After they have tried for a short time unsuccessfully or when they have discovered their group answer in unison, stop them and play the note.  Make no comment facially, verbally, or in body stance.  Move on to the next activity.  It may take a month to see results.
Best regards,
Jack Briggs
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