Why does my choir go flat?

NATALIE WOODCOCK - THE SUTHERLAND SHIRE CHILDREN'S CHOIR

Techniques to maintain pitch


Flat singing is often due to inadequate breath support. Choirs are inclined to get gradually flatter as they sing due to the fact that they are running out of energy and diapragm control. A good choral director ensures that every rehearsal includes breathing exercises.  Encourage singers to 'sing to the end of the phrase'.


Many choristers operate on autopilot, focussing all their energy on their melody, lyrics, chorolography etc. The singer forgets to listen and feel how his or her voices fits in a group.


One technique which encourages choirs to listen is to ask singers to swap parts. This will teach your choir to listen to other parts more intelligently resulting in better tuning.

 

Ask singers if they can hear all other parts clearly while they are singing. If they can't, they might be singing too loudly.  It is a good idea to change your choir's singing/standing configuration regularly so that they experience the blend of their sound with different singers.  Also, singing in smaller groups will highlight issues of balance and will encourage your choristers to listen and sing without relying on a stronger singer to lead the way.


If the choir is still singing out of tune, sing the song on different vowels starting with bright vowels such as 'ee'.  Problems with resonance may be a factor contributing to your choir's intonation challenges.


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STEVE CLARKE - THE HONEYBEES

Why do we Keep singing flat? The acappella predicament


Why do a cappella choirs always fall flat over the course of a piece of music, and not sharp? We’ve all heard it before: the song starts in crisp F major but ends in a soggy E flat. Why not the other way around? Is there such a thing as “vocal gravity?” Do notes have a physical mass that actually drag you down? Why can’t we finish a song in the same key we started with?


No matter what you’ve been told, there is no conclusive explanation for why we keep singing flat. In fact, many choral singers will tell you that they are just as likely to sing sharp in a particular song or key (although they’re in the minority). You’ve probably noticed that you’re more prone to sinking pitch at the end of a long rehearsal, on a really hot or humid day, or then again, maybe it’s just the soprano’s fault!


Here is an attempt to explain some of the causes of a capella pitch drop and a few tips and strategies to avoid it.


1. I’m tired – This is the obvious one. You’ve been singing for hours leading up to the big concert at the end of the year. Your slave-master of a director has called for extra rehearsals and you can’t hit that top F like you could just after the warm-up.


2. It’s too high! – You’re more likely to hear this from the tenors than the sopranos because tenors can’t sail into their head voice quite as easily without jumping into falsetto. Consequently, really high notes may sound stretched and strained.


3. It’s too humid – This excuse has had more investigation than any other. There’s a great deal of evidence to suggest in very humid conditions, it can be more difficult to breathe as quickly or deeply as in dryer conditions. Without good breath control, you can’t have very good pitch control. You’re going to go flat.


4. I can’t hear the harmony – Sometimes a choir will fall very flat at the beginning of the rehearsal when fatigue can’t be the reason. In this situation, the ear is to blame. Tuning a chord requires attention and concentration – you need to be able to hear the notes from all the other parts simultaneously. If your focus isn’t on the harmony, your pitch may waver and then everyone starts to adjust downwards to try to get the chord back.


5. Too many semitones – Overly chromatic parts without a clear melodic guide can be very difficult to tune; not the sort of melodies you feel like humming in the shower. This is often an alto issue as the arranger dumps all of the leftover harmony that s/he can’t (or won’t) give to anyone else. As the altos struggle to make sense of their rising and falling semitones, they always end up falling more than rising.


So how do you fix the problem?


1, 2 and 3. Breath control - This is the first and last thing to consider when singing. Without enough breath or diaphragm support, your pitch will waver and your sound will fade early. Ensure you warm-up sufficiently before you sing (if you’re running late, warm-up in the car!). The greater volume of breath you can take and control on the exhale, the stronger and more in tune your sound will be.


Special tip: try to inhale earlier than normal before you start to sing, to avoid the last-second, upbeat gasp. This will help you produce a stronger, more sustained sound.


4 and 5. Ear training - If your voice is warm and well supported but you’re still singing flat, you might not be able to hear your note in the middle of the chord. Try singing your part in sectional duets or with one or two people from each part. Blending amongst sections or swapping sectional positioning can also help you hear parts of the chord you may not have noticed. Anything that forces you to listen to the harmony in a new way will help you hold your pitch and fine-tune the chord.


Special tip: practise humming 3 or 4-part harmonies in your warm-up and try modulating up or down a semitone together while holding the chord in the same tuning. See how far up or down the scale you can go before the chord breaks down! If you can keep the harmony together in a chromatic scale, you’ll find it much easier to sing the rest of your repertoire in tune.



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JANE BECKTEL - THE JUBILA SINGERS

3 sources of wisdom to help with flat singing


The first one is this one from Margaret Nesse. It's very American biased but I found it quite helpful. Who Margaret Nessa is I have no idea - I imagine she is someone who was associated with a Barbershop group in Texas years ago.   I kept the article because some of the practical exercises actually work.


http://lenre.tripod.com/pitch_more.html


The second is an article from way back in 1997 from the newsletter called Choral Room.  I don't even know if the newsletter still exists.    I found the exercise #4 quite helpful.


http://www.spectrum-music.com/CRWinter1997-98.html


The third is a selection of responses to a question about "flatting" choirs (I originally read it as flattening choirs!) on Choralnet.   When I printed it it was 4 pages of small font.   It's dated from 1996 but there are lots of ideas.  There have probably been hundreds of posts on that site since then.


http://choralnet.org/137382


It certainly is a challenge.    I had a rare day today where for the entire session the choir did not slip in pitch once.  One of the experienced singers there (an ex-Sweet Adeline) said that it was because of the damp and humid weather!   I've never heard that before.

 

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VICKI DWYER - THE CIRCULAR KEYS AND THE SYDNEY HARMONY CHORUS

Why are we dropping?



Answers to the age old question of “why isn’t this song staying in pitch?”


There are many factors that affect a singer’s ability to maintain pitch. Reasons that singers go flat can be one or any combination of the following:-

Incorrect posture
Insufficient breath support
Inconsistent stamina
Instability of placement & its effect on passaggio
Lack of awareness of “do” (the key of the piece), when they are on it and the notes related to it.
Mismatched vowels



POSTURE

Correct posture is critical to good singing. Singers who stand or sit slumped (or become slumped during a song) are less likely to be able to maintain pitch.


Always pay attention to good singing posture - ensure that the head is not tilted downwards to look at music as this also affects the singer’s ability to sing accurate intervals and maintain pitch. If holding music, ensure that it is held at chest level so as to not upset good posture.


Some singers lift their head upwards or downwards in line with the direction of the notes they are singing. This too has a detrimental effect on singing with freedom and consistent resonance. The singer's 'eye-line' should remain parallel with the floor.


Facial expression is also part of “posture”. Ensuring that there is good lift in the cheeks and eyes, that the mouth has an “inside smile” (not a wide grin, however), will help to maintain good lift and energy in the phrases being sung.


Posture exercises:-


Stand with your back to a wall and walk your feet as close to the wall as possible. Your weight will be balanced over the balls of your feet.
Bend your knees so you can keep as much of your back in contact with the wall as you can.
Relax your shoulders and allow your shoulder blades to touch the wall.
Bring your head back to touch the wall.


Now step forward, away from the wall and try to maintain the same posture.


The points for good singing 'posture' from the floor up are:-


Feet parallel and about shoulder width apart (definitely not feet together)
Toes are pressed into the floor and weight is on the balls of your feet.
Knees are flexed (definitely not locked)
Pelvis/hips tilted forward (backside is tucked under)
Ribs expanded
Sternum lifted
Shoulders are wide, relaxed and ‘down’ – as though you are hanging on a coat hanger.
Neck relaxed
Face - lifted countenance


BREATHING FOR SINGING

Breathing technique is imperative to pitch - maintaining consistent breath flow throughout the sung phrase. Singers who are still developing their control of breathing technique tend to 'stop' the flow of air between notes/intervals or close down at the end of the exhalation. Good breathing technique allows the throat to stay open and avoid glottal attack on the commencement of the next phrase. Ensure that the chest stays lifted throughout the exhalation and does not drop leading into the next inhalation.


Breathing exercises:-


Lie on the floor on your back.
Knees are bent and the soles of your feet are flat on the floor.
Lower back is pressed into the floor.
Arms are out from your sides.


Breathe in slowly, pay attention to the abdomen and feel the stomach raising up as the breath goes in and then lowering again as the breath is exhaled. Notice that the ribs do not move in this position.


Now as you stand up in your good singing posture, breathe in slowly again and try to maintain the same sensations for the inhalation and exhalation as you felt while lying on the floor.


Exhale on a "ho ho ho" (like "Santa Claus" might say "ho ho ho"). Feel the abdominal muscles contract on each "ho".


Breathe in over 8 counts feeling the body "fill up" with air. Now exhale over 8 counts and keep the rib cage lifted and expanded. Use the abdominal muscles to assist the exhalation and do not allow the chest to collapse.


Exhale on a steady SHUSH for 8 counts. Take a quick breath and do so without 'gasping', thinking about opening up the mouth and throat and allow the "new breath" to rush in as the abdomen relaxes outwards and effectively pulls the new breath into the lungs. As you become proficient at this exercise, increase the length of the SHUSH while still maintaining a quick breath in (no gasping).


STAMINA

Singing is an athletic endeavour and requires the singer to have consistent "energy". This consistent energy ensures that notes have a 'spin' and 'ring' to them. Tired singers are more likely to have trouble maintaining pitch.

Stamina building exercises:-


Stand up to practice. Move your weight from side to side allowing the body to be free and relaxed. Avoid standing stiffly.


Stamina exercises can include physical exercises at the start of rehearsal to increase aerobic fitness of the singers.


Singers who enjoy a challenge can jog on the spot for 30 seconds and then immediately sing their song. This works well for show choirs and choruses who have a lot of choreographed movements in their performance.


PLACEMENT

Placement relates to the change in resonant space that occurs either through articulation of different vowel sounds or relating to "head tone", "mixed tone" and "chest tone".


With regard to vowels, each of them has subtle differences in the formant space created between the tongue, the teeth and the roof of the mouth. When adjusting the mouth to articulate different lyrics, the space changes in accordance with the vowel formant.


When singing from one interval to another and also changing vowels, the accuracy of the interval can be adversely affected if insufficient space results from the difference in vowels.


Being aware of this space and ensuring that the placement of the notes remains as consistent as possible will help to remedy the tendency to flat the new note.


With regard to changing from one vocal tone to another (head tone to chest tone etc), this is another trap for "dumping" notes when descending or "squashing" notes when ascending. Practicing the transitional notes and ensuring that there is never a 'closing off' of either voice while traversing the passaggio will help to alleviate the tendency to flatten pitch.


Exercises to traverse passaggio:-


Slides and sirens involve singing from one note to another on a glissando. To strengthen the passaggio, try the following intervals on any vowel shape you like.


1-5-1, 1-8-1
8-5-8, 8-1-8


Quite often we need to resort to 'mind games' to help a singer maintain freedom in their voice when navigating difficult passages of music. The simple answer to maintaining pitch is to keep the voice free of tension, to have a lifted countenance, to have an abundance of air available for every phrase! Okay, this is not so simple in reality. So we help this process by coming up with some other 'thought processes' to help the technical processes. Try thinking the opposite direction and adding a kinaesthetic action to associate to the opposite process:- ie notes running in an upward scale or arpeggio, imagine the notes walking down a hill away from you. Lift your hands above your head to start the passage and gradually bring your hands down in front of you or by your sides as the notes ascend. Notice how the change of 'thought direction' allows you to keep the singing space lifted and resonant? Try the same “opposite” thought and arm action for notes descending. This time, as your hands move upwards, you are less likely to drop your soft palate and this helps to keep the space consistent across all of the notes in any direction.


WHERE IS ‘DO’?

Knowing the keynote of a piece helps the singer to develop a muscle memory for correct pitch. It will also help the singers to gain an awareness of the relationship between certain notes and pitch. For example, “Ray” or the major 2nd in a scale has a habit of being sung flat, as does the major 6th and 7th. If a singer is aware that they are singing these notes of the scale, they can ensure that they are sung “tall” and with good breath support.


Practicing perfect intervals between parts is also an important element of pitch awareness. Knowing which voice part is on the tonic or octaves of it, who is on the 5th and 4th are important tools for correct tuning.


Exercises:-


Have the singers mark their music to highlight when they are singing the tonic (Do).
Now as they sing through the song, play the tonic on a piano or pitch pipe each time any voice part has ‘do’.


“Human Pitch Pipe” is when one voice part sings only on Do. Every lyric is sung on the same note while the other parts sing their harmony against it. Each voice part has a turn to sing only Do.


Duets – breaking up the voice parts so that two parts can duet together helps singers to hear where the tuning needs to be more precise.


MISMATCHED VOWELS

When we sing in a choir, we need to sing as a unit instead of individuals. Individuals need to be aware of the slight adjustments required to achieve a unit and blended sound. Without this match, there will be a detrimental effect on pitch. Singers who have a ‘broad’ or ‘wide’ pronunciation of vowels need to work to create a tall and lifted sound on all of their vowel sounds.


Exercises:-


Matching in a row – have a singer whose vowels you would like to use as the model sing a long held note on a particular vowel. Add one singer at a time to join the first singer. Each person adds their voice, mindful of the first singer’s example. (Breathe as you need to).


Sing through passages of a song on one vowel sound:- ie sing all the notes on “Lah”, “Voh”, “Nee”, “Loo” etc.


Practice scales or arpeggios on vowel progressions such as “Mah, May, Mee, Moh, Moo” etc.


Resources:-


The Complete Choral Warm-Up Book – Russell Robinson & Jay Althouse – Alfred Publishing Co.


How To Train Singers, 2nd Edition – Larra Browning Henderson – Parker Publishing Company.


Complete Handbook Of Voice Training – Richard Alderson – Parker Publishing Company.