- January 14, 2017 at 2:36 pm #533809
I direct a brand new church choir–only in its second season. Only one singer (She’s a music teacher)reads music. We do very simple two-part music (for now hopefully!) but I’ve noticed that I still have singers who have a difficult time finding the correct pitch (I.e., going flat). I try to incorporate singing on pitch exercises during the warmups at the beginning of rehearsal but I don’t think that’s making the cut anymore. Does anyone have any suggestions for exercises I can try or point me to resources I can take a look at? Many thanks!
RonJanuary 15, 2017 at 7:35 am #533843
Michael J. SeredickParticipant
I offer my comments based on what worked for me before I retired. It would help to know your denomination liturgy traditions, but I’ll offer generalities based on what I observe now that my retirement schedule allows me to visit various church services.
1) Teach your choir to read, or at the very least, follow music. Consider instrumental directors. Other than the marvelous Suzuki beginning violin techniques, instrumentalists learn to read music. Far too many choral directors rely on rote learning or CD recordings.
2) Solfege training worked for me as a church choir director as well as a public school music teacher K-12. I used movable (do) and applied it to portions of chosen liturgy. I prepped my rehearsal scores in Finale software. As an example, consider Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee or any hymn with musical integrity. I often lowered the key for learning purposes. Have everyone sing the tune on solfege.
M M F S S F M R D D R M M R R – M M F S S F M R D D R M R D D
The phrasing form is A A B A, and the repetition in this Beethoven masterpiece is helpful to new singers. Given your description, I’d make unison singing the first goal for center-pitch. Add parts later.
3) DO NOT USE THE PIANO. Use your voice or a pitch pipe as a pitch source. In these times, there are wonderful, free pitch apps you can download on your iPhone. They can do the same at home practice, even if they have no piano. Sure, they will stray from center, but that’s part of the learning process. To know they are out of tune involves hearing their own sound as well as all singers at rehearsal. I believe that is best accomplished without a director continually banging on a piano.
4) Choose simple music of good quality. Again, I refer the Beethoven’s masterpiece above. Learn one phrase and the choir automatically knows three lines of the hymn. All too often, I hear directors choosing music above the choir’s ability. It is good to challenge an ensemble, but if the end result is never in tune or lacks basic musicality, I believe the time has been wasted, both for the choir and congregation.
5) Do not be concerned what other choirs sing because every situation is unique. Only you know your roster. What can they accomplish? How do you build skills? What are your liturgy needs? In fact, for the brand new choir you describe, you could use quality selections from your parish hymnal as a repertoire option.
Choose hymns that are seldom used. With that approach, you educate your pastor and congregation on the wealth found in good hymnals. That wealth is commonly unfamiliar. Be creative. Maybe all men or women could sing a verse and everyone in parts on the repeated refrain? Next verse is a solo followed by refrain. My point regarding the use of unfamiliar hymns centers on repetition. Once the choir knows the notation, repetition allows you to focus on tuning. When my choirs were out of tune, I used solfege to correct the problem.
I hope that offers a few thoughts for your consideration. Feel free to contact me at if you’d like some simple PDF copies of pieces I’ve used. No charge. Just sharing to help a new director. Best wishes on your journey.
Broadview Heights, OhioJanuary 15, 2017 at 10:47 am #533851
thanks for rising up this so useful topic. Some years ago I met a choir a bit flat in terms of dinamics but really good at pitch. I realised what was the secret. They worked with MIDI files. So they learnt exactly what MIDI said.
Once we know what is a MIDI, we can talk a bit more in deep about. For working with MIDI as basic source of learning by the choir, the conductor must have defined exactly what type of dinamics he/she wants. If not singers will sing as MIDI says for ever. It works with songs already worded by the conductor previously in other choirs.
The best is that all singers can read a score. If nobody knows it, the best is to record each voice performance. If not posible to record it, please use MIDI file, but all dinamics should be inside.
I hope this is usefull,
Choir conductor and composer, Burgos (Spain)January 15, 2017 at 10:47 am #533852
One underrated thing I think helps newer singers a TON is to take a few minutes and establish a sense of the key you are singing in- and where the notes they are singing lie, relative to the key. This will help the minds of your singers grasp the context of their notes, and have a feel for keeping the correct intervals with the other section.
Make sure they know what the “foundation note”, “bass note,” or tonic, is. Have them sing arpeggios in the key “la-la-la-la-la-la-la”. Split your group into 2 and have them sing intervals where one group sings the “foundation note” and the other sings a third, a fifth, and an octave. If you have dissonant intervals in your piece, ie a Lydian interval, have the groups hold that interval for a longer time (5-10-15 seconds), to recognize and feel the tension, and urge them to not shy away from the tension.
One fun exercise is to have 2 groups sing a solfege scale up and down, where one group starts later- when the first group has reached “Mi.” The two groups have to sing in minor and major thirds all the way up and down, tuning to each other the whole way. You can help them make corrections when the intervals go awry!
On another note ; ), my choruses with the Schiller Institute fare better by singing all of our music at the “Verdi Tuning”, which is slightly lower than today’s standard A=440Hz (but not ‘baroque’). As Giuseppe Verdi argued in his time- even submitting legislation to the Italian parliament- a tuning of no higher than A = 432 Hz sits better with the voice– it is healthier for the voice! Today’s higher tuning forces the voices to struggle much more, have significant difficulty accomplishing the transitions at the passagio, and develop much less color. Thus, the altos sound the same as the sopranos, the baritones and basses are less differentiated from the tenors, and everyone sounds more screachy. We have found in many performances of ours at the Verdi tuning that our choruses (and soloists) sing with remarkable “warmth.”
So this is something you may wish to consider looking into for your chorus, to help their voices settle into the music. Much of the classical repertoire (Verdi, Mozart, Handel) was actually written for this slightly lower tuning.
You’re welcome to contact me if you wish, for more material/videos/explanation/help. If you find performances of Schiller Institute choruses on youtube, they will all be performed at the Verdi tuning. We did a Mozart Requiem in Boston on Jan 19, 2014 that was quite nice.January 16, 2017 at 10:24 am #533885
There are many excellent suggestions here. I’d add that the physiology of singing (which is not just talking on specific pitches) is extremely important. Singers need to learn and use correct support — the appoggio position — which anyone can do. The best guide for this (and just about every issue that comes up in choral singing) is Prescriptions for Choral Excellence by Shirlee Emmons and Constance Chase (Oxford University Press).
What I’ve found helpful in learning new music is to break down in terms of priorities, of which the first is rhythm, then pitch, and then the text. Often amateur singers’ focus is exactly the opposite. Have them la-la a passage on a single pitch until it’s solid, then add the actual pitches. When that’s working, add the text.
Pitch problems can also occur when singers are stuck in the one-note-at-a-time mode, especially in non-stepwise ascending places — forths, fifths, sixths, etc. These need to be practiced as short legato phrases on “ah” with no intervening consonants and resulting changes in moth position — narrowing the focus to the pitches in the context of a phrase.
Finally, you have a great addvantage in that it’s a new choir.: your singers haven’t had a chance to build up bad habits.
Best wishes!February 2, 2019 at 9:33 am #586668
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