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Helping singers to not sing flat.

I am posting this on behalf of my wife, who is musical director of both a Ladies and a Male Voice choir, both of which have a high proportion of older members. Whilst the overall tone of both choirs is excellent, performance is sometimes marred by singing below the note. Has anybody got some 'surefire' techniques they can recommend that she can add to her armoury?
 
Many thanks in advance.
 
John Brackenborough
Replies (16): Threaded | Chronological
on April 30, 2013 3:39am
From what you describe, the main problem would seem to be issues in vocal production rather than pitch perception - if they're blending well, they are tuning to each other, but not energising the sound sufficiently to keep it on top of the note. Older singers sometimes need more work on support/airflow than they did when they were younger and more physically vigorous. Also, the spoken accent in Hampshire (indeed all the English home counties) has quite dark, backward-placed vowels, which can also give the effect of under-cooked pitch.
 
'Bubbling' (http://www.helpingyouharmonise.com/bubble) is an exercise that can help both of these. It encourages a brighter, more forward resonance, which adds more upper partials to the sound, and it gently but effectively engages bodily support to underpin the breath. Singing standing on one leg is also an excellent exercise to energise the sound, and has the advantage of strengthening the muscles that support the ankle - I spend quite a lot of time with middle-aged singers persuading them to sing on leg with the promise that they will be less likely to suffer a fall in old age as a result! Not quite sure how old 'older' is in the case of your wife's choirs, but if they are able to do this, they should be encouraged to.
 
all best,
liz
on April 30, 2013 3:46am
I'm a great believer in simplicity. If the singers can perceive that they are flat [simplest thing to do is get them to record the sections they are singing flat with their phones - then get them to listen to it back], then it can be easy to fix. This may sound flippant - but how I do it is that I tell them to stop singing flat.
 
My experience is that if you try to give them techniques to correct flat singing, it will confuse people more. By telling them to stop singing flat they have to find their own method to do so. However - this technique ONLY works if all the singers utilise a unified technique. My group have one - we call it the "Anúna Technique", so if they are supporting properly and using their bodies correctly they are also perfectly capable of singing in tune. I believe that too much choral direction is proactive. Singers need to be as proactive in their singing as directors are in their direction. I would suspect that this theory may be too simple for many people to accept. However, it definitely works for us :-)
Applauded by an audience of 4
on April 30, 2013 3:56am
Dear John,
This is a very interesting subject, and something we (my partner and I, both Voice Specialists) work on a lot. We just worked with a group of elderly choir members in a workshop we gave in L'Aquila, and one of the main problems of this group was flatting.
 
The flatting in this case - as in most cases - was due to the choir director asking the singers to sing loudly (telling them that they would not be heard if they didn't) and telling the singers to "articulate" the words.
Several of these singers complained of vocal tiredness after rehearsals.
 
Words have lower resonances. The voice must be high in the head at all times. It will never get there - or stay there - if the singers attempt to over-articulate words and/or push the voices (mistaken idea of "support").
 
It might be a good idea to look at the concept of what it means to "sing"...as some people may be trying hard to produce tone and in the process are holding their air, tensing jaw and palate.
 
The first thing to do is to sing quietly. Very, very quietly.
This does not mean to become tense singing double piano, it means to relax and listen to the pitch, allowing the ear to do its job, namely, communicate the pitch directly to the voice, then to begin barely murmuring on that pitch and not think of "singing" but rather of speaking on the pitch.
 
A good exercise can be to take one note, an easy one for everyone, and have the singers listen to the note while simply mouthing  la-la-la or another syllable or even a small amount of text (with a relaxed jaw and very, very little mouth movement, exactly like the natural way one might speak in a very quiet environment, say a library) with no sound, then whispering quietly still saying la-la-la etc., all the while listening to that note, and then gradually let the tone 'appear'.
 
The singers may close their eyes and take on the attitude of someone who is sleepy and dreamy.
As the note gradually comes in - no bumping or pushing or sudden loud sounds, and no..."singing"! - the singers must be grounded and inside of themselves and they should try to amalgamate their voices with the note they are hearing - played on the piano or organ - and with the singers as well. By "amalgamate" they should understand that this does not mean to try to sound like the other singers but rather that they should be able to hear them, and if they can't, it means that they are too loud.
 
When we do this exercise - and a few others after this, which i can explain later if you are interested - with any group of singers, the intonation improves instantly and everyone loves the relaxation as well as the introspection that is a requirement of the exercise. This approach is easy to apply to any piece of music, emphasising to the singers that they should not try to 'hit' pitches but that they should remain introspective and 'think' the music while 'speaking' the words, always piano, never forte, and the notes will come.
 
I hope that is this helpful.
Lisa
 
 
on April 30, 2013 11:37am
Here's what I do to keep the choir from going flat.
- I always start warmups with "reaching for the ceiling," and then a few abdominal breaths and sighs;
- If a particular passage is flatting, I ask people to sing it with lip trills;
- "Sing to the back of the room,"
- "Keep it light and bright"
- "Keep the air flowing"
- And of course there's never any harm in just asking for exactly what you want: "At the top of page 3, keep the pitch up..."
 
Also, I find that some older women were taught as teenagers to darken their tone to make them sound older.  If they're still doing it, now that they're older, all kinds of counter-productive things can result, including flatting.
 
 
on May 1, 2013 5:27am
Often I find that singers need to be reminded to listen more and sing less, so I tell them to sing with their ears. Sometimes I ask them to sustain a pitch and slowly turn around in place while continuing to sing. Inevitably, the intonation and blend are better when they all turn 360 and are facing front again, I think because they start listening more carefully and hearing other sounds around them.  I also echo several of the other posts about relaxing and letting the sound happen, keeping the air flow going (I sometimes say "fster" air), and about putting the responsibility back on the singers.  Also, sometimes it's the vowel that has collapsed, not the actual pitch, so that it sounds like the pitch is flat, when actually, it's the shape of the vowel inside the mouth that has collapsed, making the pitch sound flat. 
 
Hope this helps!
Joy
 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 1, 2013 7:25am
Joy,
I like what you say about vowels relating to pitch. Many pitch problems I encountered was a combination of: (1) not listening, (2) inadequate breath support, and (3) poor vowels and failure to match vowel sounds with other singers. I heard it said once (I don't remember the source) that "your voice is what your vowel is and your vowel is your sound." I liked that statement and incorporated that into my teaching.
Larry
on May 1, 2013 9:28am
My late father-in-law, Dale Grotenhuis (some of you may have performed his pieces?) believed there was often another reason not stated above.  He would tell me that singing flat was often a result of not having internalized the harmony.  Of course, as a composer, he thought a great deal about each specific chord tone...and its true...an "A" in one chord is not necessarily the exact same "A" in the next chord....things like that.  Hearing the underlying harmony is extremely important.  I am all for sections learning their individual lines, but am not so sure how helpful it is to do it very much without the accompanist playing the underlying harmony.  The harmonic motion, especially if it is well written, also naturally "leads" the singer to one note or another and makes more "sense" than if you hear the progression of notes only by themselves.  In helping soloists learn recitative, I often try to play the underlying suggested harmonic motion...I feel it helps them orient themselves on a much deeper level.
 
That being said, developing singers need some "tools in their tool boxes" to adjust pitch...bringing vowels and diction forward in the mouth, modifying vowels at certain times, proper breath management, application of mental energy to every split second of singing...no coasting, ever! 
 
I have a couple students for whom singing flat regularly is also an confidence/fear issue....any ideas on that?
 
 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 2, 2013 6:07am
Another Joy!
Yes, I completely agree with you - singers tend to think and hear linearly - horizontally rather than harmonically - vertically.  If they cannot hear where their note is in the harmonic structure, they will not be able to sing in tune. they need to know where their note "fits".  Jim Jordan has written a lot about this, and in his warm up sequence, the root and the 5th play an important role in teaching tuning.  He has a book and video on intonation that is excellent.  One of the exercises I use a lot is to have the choir sustain a pitch and play the chord for which that note would be the root.  Then I change the chord so that now the note they are singing is the 3rd, then the 5th, maybe a 7th, etc. and change the quality of the chord as well.  It really forces the choir to listen closely and adjust their tuning, because they hear, for example, a G differently when it is sung as the 5th over a C chord, or a 3rd over an E minor chord.  It's really interesting. 
 
As to confidence, I use a lot of echo speech to get them to feel more confidence, lots of pitch exploration. Hard to model in a post like this, though!
Joy
 
on May 3, 2013 4:34am
Years ago I learned a terrific warmup from Ed Polochick, who said the intervals where people lose pitch are 1) ascending whole steps and 2) descending half steps. So he would have the group sing ascending whole steps in quarter-notes followed by descending half steps in eighth-notes, all in one phrase on "ah" with the quarter-note going at about 112 or so. This comes out to a six-measure phrase in 2/4, six quarter notes followed by 12 eighth notes. Even better is to do that twice in a row, which they can often manage in one breath. Eventually it's good to have the piano remain silent during this warmup so they have to rely on their own hearing to remain in tune. I will also have the singers stop on one of the notes, then have the piano play that note to see how they have done. It's a bit maddening at first, but a very effective technique for opening ears!
 
I will also second the points about 1) getting the vowels to match, which will have a big effect on intonation, as well as 2) getting the singers to consider where they are in the harmony--for example, the third in a major chord amounts to two whole steps above the root, so it has to be tuned high. This means getting the singers to be aware of how chords are built...another way that dry old music theory actually does relate to how the performer functions. Bill
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 13, 2013 8:08am
I would add one more interval that often is the culprit—the descending minor 3rd. Another warmup in a similar vein is 'asc WT, desc ST (semitone), asc WT, desc ST, etc'. My choirs, who can whip off chromatic and WT scales, were challenged by this to get it exactly right when I introduced it (just last week). 
 
One other aspect to consider is who the singers are standing next to. If we have a lot of unhappy chords, I'll do a quick re-line up to put like voices together, which often fixes a fair bit. 
 
Thanks for all the great ideas and reminders in this thread...
 
on May 4, 2013 10:50am
Hi.
Do you rehearse with a piano?
 
Is the piano tuned properly?
Singers not only "adjust" to each other but they will also adjust to an instrument that is not in tune.
 
Just a thought.
 
T. Butler

on May 4, 2013 4:55pm
Before I address the issue itself, I feel compelled to dispel some of the myths stated in earlier responses.  Response 1: "Support" (a misnomer in and of itself) and airfow are not congruant concepts, they are antithethical to each other.  "Support" is the elevation of the body as a whole with an expansion of the ribcage done in order to retain and minimalize airflow.  Thus asking for more airflow or encouraging such is the advice of the unknowledgeable.  Response 1, et al:  "Bubbling" and lip trills are two of the most nonsensical exercises ever divised.  In an article in the NATS Journal, an author listed seven benefits.  I have countered each of those seven ideas in my own text on singing.  As but two of those items, muscles surrounding the lip area must be active during singing antagonistic to the cheek muscles, but they must be totally freed to accomplish that requested act that never has a place in singing itself.  Nonsense.  The most exgregious reason given was countered with the fact that lip trills take three times as much airflow to accomplish as correct singing.  Don't ever give anyone this exercise or use it yourself.  Yes, bodily levels of activity will have to be increased to accomplish the exercise.  But why deal with the mystical and not just simply ask for more energy or intensity of sound?  You don't need any b.s. exercise for that!  Just ask!  Reponse 3: a) "The voice must be high in the head at all times."  The voice can't be anywhere but in the larynx.  Placing is a myth and can't be utilized as a consistent thing for a proper tonal quality in whatever erroneous definition is used.  Singers do feel sensations from the chest upwards, but these are results, not causes.  All sensations felt vary from pitch to pitch and emotion to emotion with the ever-changing, infinite demands of tension and stretch on the vocal folds.  Nothing will get the larynx to rise faster and tire the voice quicker than when a static result of sensation is requested, save the use of the vowels /i/ or /u/ for "warm-ups," but that's another topic.  b) "...speaking on the pitch." Conversation (odd harmonics only) and oratory (all harmonics present) are two differing concepts of voice production.  Speaking on pitch is a dangerous thing to use unless terms are defined up front.  Orate on pitch, yes.  Speak on pitch with conversational energy and your hurting the singer.  Oration requires a higher energy level and greater mental involvement, widening (width-wise release) of the upper constrictor muscle, as well as many other bodily factors.  Oration requires a higher level of bodily involvement to accomplish than does conversation.  Thus, doing this gently is utter nonsense; the body won't be involved.  Response 6: All bad advice.  a) "Sing to the back of the room," if by back of the room, the author means the rear of the hall behind the audience, that's wrong.  You sing correctly in manner imaging the sound is going behind the singer.  Thus, if the author truly meant the wall behind the singer, that would be correct.  b) "Keep it light and bright".  Never!  That's the hallmark of tense vocal emission and a raised laryngeal position.  Good vocal emission at any level of intensity and volume must contain both the bright and the dark simultanously, what the old Italians called "chiaroscuro," bright, clear, and dark at the same time.  Ask for brightness by itself and the larynx will invariably rise and everything will be tense.  c) "Keep the air flowing."  No.  Airflow is the bane of any singer and needs to be directed inward such that every molecule of air is turned into tone.  The old masters always said "Drink in the tone," never did the utter the late 20th century nonsense of "up and out," or worse, "project the voice," another fallacy of 20th century vocal pedagogy.  (See Burton Coffin's vocal terminology dictionary.)  In no book in my library of 275 books dating back to 1744, does any author pre-Vennard state "up and out."  They all say down and in or words to that effect.  Many responses:  Listening to others:  Well, if the others aren't singing on pitch, what has a singer to tune to?  Unless an acurrate pitch reference is sounded behind the choir, then won't they be tuning to inaccuracies?  And who needs to make the adjustment one person, three people?  Who is supposed to adjust?  That approach can't work with everybody adjusting to everybody else using active muscular control to accomplish this.  They have to listen to themselves first.
 
I'll leave the rest of the erroneous material alone.  It's just too much advice from the unknowlegable about the true workings of the voice.  (And excercises are rarely, if ever, the answer, and the purview of the voice teacher, not the choir director.)
 
Let's deal with the subject, singers going flat.  The first question that must be asked is the obvious, "Why?".  As a singer descends in pitch, the tension and stretch of the vocal folds is diminishing.  An unenergized singer, thus, will "naturally" go too far in the release processes.  Altos and Basses, who have to do this wholesale in order for the folds not to be over-pressurized in the lowest of their ranges and must diminish the level muscular activity in the larynx and the air pressure (not airflow) behind the pitch, are the most guilty.  However, they will also, unless really involved in what they are doing, diminish the body energy, too.  In other words, they know they can make sound in the lower part of their voices without having to be totally, bodily involved, so they will!  Result?  Flat.  Please do not translate that as drop their "support."  Support, the English word, doesn't cut it for the true bodily circumstance of singing.  We're not holding something upward from falling.  If anything, it's a down and inward act.  The only term that correctly addresses the thoracic circumstance for correct singing is the Italian word "appoggio," a 360° leaning (expansion) from the inside outward of the ribcage.  When the appoggio is lost, that can be what's occurring when a singer goes flat.  On the flip side, too much tension in the wrong places can also cause a singer to go flat.  "What's a mother to do?"  If the singer isn't singing freely in the first place in a vain attempt to sing to match the sound of the group, they will add tensions and go flat.  If a piano or pianissimo sound is requested, most untrained singers of any range will attempt to tighten or hold back.  Vocal, and choral, death---instant flat.  If the body learns to let go of the excessive muscular activity but still keeps the mental energy and personal involvement in the singing, a beautiful soft sound can be accomplished easily.  Volume of sound and levels of emotional intensity are mutually exclusive concepts; they can be done simultaneously in a multiplicity, yea verily, an infinite number of combinations.  Besides, without emotional involvement and intensity in a softer sound, you can kiss the words goodbye, regardless of the volume level.
 
The problem choral directors have---and I don't envy the position--- is that one must ethically address this issue without entering into the realm of a voice teacher.  Asking for or implying something to physiologically be done is a "no-no."  Merely providing information of what works and leaving it at that is probably ethical enough.  Worse, there are two types of individuals: those who need information to be specific (what Keirsey and Myers/Briggs call "Judgers"); and those that can readily utilize imagery ("Perceivers)--it's a 50/50 split in humanity.  Both types of individuals exist in the choral circumstance, and both types need to be provided with logical information to fit these inherent characteristics for a choir director to be effective.  This is one of the myriad of reasons that the two professions can't, or shouldn't, cross into each others area of expertise.
 
Here's my simple advice, albeit somewhat antithetical to what most would consider to be fact when it comes to a good choral singer.  Ask the singers to sing for themselves.  Music of any kind is done for the enrichment of the human spirit.  Whose spirit?  The individual's.  If they're singing for the group and its sound, then they will inherently be tense.  If they're singing for they're own enjoyment, then chances are that their energy levels will be higher, their bodies will be freed of unnecessary muscular activity, and they will be far more involved in the sound of the group without having to actively "try" (implying failure) and do something physical to manipulate their sounds, conscious or unconscious.  Besides, the moment any singer attempts to adjust something physiologically as an active mental process, the laws of kinesiology come into play.  Inherently too much muscle work will always be the result with the obvious consequences.
 
Here's the second "mantra" that can't help but work on any mental or physiological "level" of your chosing.  "Sing in, wide, and down."  It's simply a rewording of the advice of the Masters into understandable terms rather than an undefined concept of imagery.  Inward, toward the back of the throat, thus releasing the upper constrictor muscle (which also works on an image level of singing for one's self, too, and singing to the wall behind you.)  Wide, the direction of the release of that muscle opening the pharynx.  Down, thus reminding the individual that the chest must always remain inflated and inviolate during an entire phrase; thus, airflow is minimalized and every molecule of air becomes tone.  (Off the top of my head, "Let's the words fill you outward like a balloon as you sing" would be one way to ethically state this concept on an imagery level.  Not perfect, but it will do.  Just don't use the word "up" in the statement.  If anything it's "fill you down," like what we actually do in reality when inhaling.  And singing is done, after all, during a state of suspending the inhalatory processes mid-motion.  If you want to call that support, fine.  I can live with it.)  This direction also works to open the pharynx for the sake of the initial resonance and keep the larynx properly tilted and suspended correctly in its web of musculature, with the chiaroscuro tonal quality as the result.  It's that simple.  No demonstrative garbage or b.s. exercising required.  Couple that with "sing for yourself" and you have a combination that can never fail you for a wonderfully rich choral sound, resplendent with shimmer of vibrato in all voices.
 
Applauded by an audience of 2
on May 5, 2013 12:52pm
Ready for simple?  Try changing the key up or down by 1/2 step.  Some tunes just refuse to stay in certain keys....
 
on May 6, 2013 12:32pm
When trying to help your singers not to go flat, you must also consider your conducting gestures.
If you consistently press down with your , the chests of your choir are going to collapse.
If your patterns are too high, their breathing won't be properly deep.
And if your stance is not opened and engaging, their will always follow yours.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 8, 2013 7:04pm
William,
Thank you for sharing your viewpoint on this subject. However, some of the techniques, which you rudely dismissed and others have put into practice in their own groups, have worked, or else they would not offer them. I respect your opinion but not the way you present it. I know that listening to those around you, as you sing, and matching vowel sounds with them, as well as other techniques, works.  I've heard it work in my own ensembles and those of my collegues.
Please re-read some of John Howell's responses when he disagreed with someone's opinion or ideas. He was always courteous and was never rude or insulting.  A good way to respond to someone's point of view, with which you might not agree, would be to say: "That has never worked for me. May I suggest.........."  That's how you begin to win others over to your viewpoint. Not by calling their ideas nonsense, erroneous, garbage, myths or b.s.
Approach others with a little more kindness and tact and you might find them more receptive to your ideas.
 
Applauded by an audience of 8
on May 9, 2013 7:27am
Larry,
Thank you for bringing this up.  I, too, felt put off by his comments simply due to his rudeness.  I couldn't bring myself to finish reading his comments.  There are much better ways to communicate as you pointed out.
 
Applauded by an audience of 3
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