Singing In Tune: Intonation Ideas for the Choir

Singing In Tune: Intonation Ideas for the Choir

Vocalists often struggle with singing in tune. How do we know if we are singing the right pitch? Training the ear is important, but we can use technology to give us some new perspectives and confidence that we are heading in the right direction.The viral video dominating my Facebook feed this week was Mandy Harvey’s

The viral video dominating my Facebook feed this week was Mandy Harvey’s audition for America’s Got Talent. https://youtu.be/ZKSWXzAnVe0

Her lovely high voice and passionate singing captivated me. But the most incredible part is that Mandy is deaf. In the audition, she mentions briefly that she re-learned to sing after losing her hearing by using visual tuners and muscle memory.

Hearing people can learn from Mandy.

Tuners are readily available and tuning apps for smartphones offer even more functionality.

tuner

TE Tuner for iPhone

At a recent Vocal Resistance rehearsal, I showed the choir a few exercises for singing in tune. For these exercises, you will need a tuner and something that generates a steady tone. The TE Tuner app on my iPhone does both of these things well. The following descriptions will show how to do this on the TonelEnergy Tuner app, but they can also be done using any device that creates a pure drone and tuner.

Exercise 1:
Hearing what “in tune” and “out of tune” sounds like.

Turn up the volume on the phone. Open the TE Tuner App and select “sound” from the menu at the bottom. Touch the box that allows you to choose the instrument and select “SineWave,” “SquareWave,” or “Organ.” In the circle of pitches, find a note that is in a comfortable register for your voice. While the note is playing, slide your voice up and down until it “clicks” with the drone. When you voice is matching the pitch, you may notice that the sound coming out of the phone seems suddenly softer. This is called auditory masking, and it’s a good indication that you are singing in tune.

Play with making your voice a little bit higher or a little bit lower than the steady pitch. You will hear “bubbles” or waves that will increase in speed the farther away you are from matching the pitch. Being out of tune sounds like a helicopter landing and it has an unpleasant physical effect inside the ear. When you sing too high, you are sharp. When you sing too low, you are flat. To sing in tune, we must hear these “bubbles” and quickly move the voice to be more in tune. With practice, you will be able to know which way to move the voice (sharper or flatter) to eliminate the waves. In the meantime, when you hear that you are out of tune, slide the voice higher or lower. If the waves become faster, switch direction.

Experiment and be curious

Practice holding the note in tune as long as you can. Notice what happens as you get out of breath. Usually, the pitch will go flat as the breath support wanes. Notice what happens if you raise your eyebrows or raise your chin. Be curious about how body position will change pitch.

Once you have the hang of singing the same note as the tuner, singing in unison, try singing intervals. You may notice that octaves and perfect 5ths are the easiest to tune by eliminating beats. Other intervals are more difficult and require a bit more study. For now, work to match pitch accurately.

Exercise 2: Using a tuner

In the TE Tuner app, choose “tuner” from the bottom menu. Check these settings:

  • microphone button: don’t select any of the intervals
  • mode and range: set to VOICE-MEDIUM-NORMAL
  • Temperament: EQUAL

Sing any note and try to get the green smiley to light up in the center. Slide your voice up and down until the green light appears then try to hold the note as long as you can. It’s more difficult than Exercise 1 because now there is no reference pitch.

tune with TE Tuner

singing in tune with the tuner

Try singing a scale, but go slowly to see if you can make each note in tune. For a recent performance of “Quiet,” I worked with the tuner in this way on the opening intervals. I noticed that my low voice is unstable and I had to add a lot of air to keep the pitches in tune. Note that you will want to use very little or no vibrato when practicing singing like this. The tuner has difficulty with vibrato, especially when the vibrato is strong. Vibrato, after all, is a quick modulation of the pitch.

Exercise 3: Resonance and Overtones

In the TE tuner app, select “Analysis” in the lower menu. Now you can practice singing in. tune and play around with a visual spectral analysis of the voice. Sing with different vowels, change the position of the tongue, open and close the mouth, place the sound in your nose or aim at the teeth. Notice how different vocal timbres are reflected in the graphs. Do you like a sound with more overtones? Can you still sing in tune but project more volume? This is a vocalist’s sandbox for playing with the sound.

voice tuner

spectral analysis

Have Fun and Share Your Ideas

For more ideas on how to use the TE Tuner, check out this video.

Be sure to close out of the TE Tuner app when you are finished by double clicking the home button and swiping up. The app will continue operating in the background, using battery power if you don’t close it completely.

What cool things did you discover about your voice? What other ways can we use technology (this app or something else) to improve vocal quality and intonation?

Auditions and Life Lessons

Auditions offer life lessons

Auditions are like job interviews for musicians. We prepare for hours but have one shot in front of the judges. It’s frightening, thrilling, and weird.

My musical children have not shown interest in studying at a high level or performing in competitions, but I am familiar with the experience, having participated in competitions and auditions for music school.

Non-musician parents will appreciate the perspective of Penelope Trunk whose son recently took an audition at Julliard.

My 11-Year-Old Son Auditioned at Julliard. (http://www.businessinsider.com/my-11-year-old-son-auditioned-at-juilliard-2017-5)

I like her perspective on practicing, that “the art of practicing is finding a process of repetition without boredom.” Some ideas for this kind of practice can be found elsewhere on this blog in the following articles:

Resilience and grit are the new buzz-words in parenting, and music is one of the best ways to teach these skills. Whatever the outcome of Penelope’s son’s auditions, she is raising a resilient child. If you liked this article, another perspective to consider is Amy Chua and her book about being a Tiger Mother.

When we visited New York last year, we took the kids for a tour of Julliard. My husband’s mentor and friend is the head piano technician for the music school. Here’s a picture of my 11-year-old son at Julliard. We weren’t there for an audition, of course, but the building is impressive.

auditions

my son at Juilliard

We can debate the pros and cons of training children to high levels of musical aptitude, but I think Penelope Trunk is doing a good job teaching her child not just about performance but about life. Her perspective as a non-musician strikes me as healthier for parent and child than Amy Chua, whose children have drifted away from music.