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?

Silence: Exploring 4’33” by John Cage

Where Does Silence Begin?

Claude Debussy famously quipped “Music is the silence between the notes.”

Or consider this wisdom from an old Zen koan: “It is the silence between the notes that makes the music; it is the space between the bars that cages the tiger.”

Holding silence is difficult, musically and personally.

As a music teacher, I have noticed that the most common rhythm mistake is not counting rests correctly. We want to make the rest too short or add extra time. The correct silence, entered with intention and ended with beauty, is not easy.

In the headlong rush of our lives, creating space for silence requires effort. We turn on the TV or radio to create distraction. The noises of the house, office, people, and street are constant. Inward quiet is even more elusive.

4’33”

Composer John Cage has said that his most important work is 4’33”, an exploration of silence. In this composition, John Cage has written three movements of no music lasting exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The musicians simply sit on stage without playing instruments. The video below shows the soloist tuning her instrument and the conductor beginning each of the three movements.

The Musical Rorschach Test

How do you feel when listening to this piece? Impatient for it to be over? Curious about the sounds? Angry that people couldn’t be quiet in the hall? Perhaps you thought about the people at the concert who paid money to attend this concert.

I would argue that your perception of the piece reflects a bit of your subconscious. It’s like a musical Rorschach test. Everyone will see/hear something different. Your perception may change over time or with repeated hearings.

Rorschach test ink blot silence

Rorschach image

I first became aware 4’33” by John Cage in graduate school. A friend programmed it on his master’s recital. My reaction was, “That’s brilliant! Five minutes of music that he doesn’t have to prepare on his recital. Why didn’t I think of that?!” It seemed like a trick, a joke.

Now I am much more interested in the audience’s participation in 4’33”. In the video above, we hear noises during each movement and an explosion of sound between movements. This piece is successful because the audience has preconceived notions of what they are to do in a recital hall, ie. sit still and listen. But the hall is not silent. It never is. This helps me to remember that the audience is part of every performance. The audience creates an energy in a concert hall. Indeed, the audience is integral. Without an audience, the performance is just a rehearsal. Sometimes the audience is adding to the soundscape, as is made clear in 4’33.”

Finding the Stillness

In the days ahead, I challenge you to find some silence, realizing that it is never truly without sound. The beating of the heart, the hum of machines, are with us always. It is not necessary to silence the world, only to find peace among the sound. This is the spiritual practice of silence.

Find a stillness, hold a stillness, let the stillness carry me.

Find the silence, hold the silence, let the silence carry me.

In the spirit, by the spirit, with the spirit giving power.

I will find true harmony.   -Carl G. Seaburg (based on a Unitarian Transylvanian text)

 

The 5 Spiritual Lessons From Choir

Being a member of a choir can be a deeply spiritual experience.

Every choir is an intentional community of individuals with a common purpose. We come together to inspire and be inspired, to create music, and to be moved. The choir seems the perfect metaphor or symbol of community and shared vision.

We come to rehearsal as a single voice, then merge it with others to create something powerful. A single voice is amplified in when we sing together, but the choir doesn’t exist without each and every voice. Breathing together, speaking together, moving together, becoming louder… together.

The five lessons we can learn from being in a choir:

1. Show Up

It’s impossible to have a choir with just one or two or even three people. Choir requires personal commitment and trust. We have to trust that our friends are also going to show up for rehearsal. Members must be reliable and committed. It’s a good place to develop and practice grit, which has resonance in other areas of life.

2. Be Prepared

The singers sitting next to you will appreciate the time and effort you have put into preparing your part. Perhaps more importantly, you will have confidence and will enjoy the rehearsal better. When the director doesn’t have to teach the notes, she can use rehearsal time to craft a musical performance. Together, we can study the phrases for the proper dynamics and breaths. We can discuss the words and the text painting the composer used. Music is so much more than the right notes and the right rhythms. Your home practice will make rehearsal easier and the performance more meaningful.

3. We Need Every Individual Voicechoir

A choir needs the high voices and the low ones. We need the ones that project and the voices that blend. Directors love the folks who sight read flawlessly and those that practice the music at home. Sometimes a young, clear voice is right for the solo; other times we want the voice that is a bit rough around the edges but experienced. Each week, the choir sound may be slightly different depending on who is singing (and who has a cold.) But that’s the beauty of the choir: it is a living, expressive entity that requires a crowd and always has room for one more.

4. Synergy

The choir is much more than the sum of its parts. We blend our voices and are carried by the music. We’ve all had the experience of a performance that was astonishingly better than the practice. “Performance magic” is one of the most spectacular things about being a member of a musical group. I don’t know where the magic comes from but without warning it tuns a song into a holy anthem.

5. Make the World a Bit More Beautiful

The choir is a microcosm of the world we want. It is a group of individuals coming together, people transforming dots on the paper into art that resonates in the soul. We sing when we are happy, we sing when we are sad, we sing when we are angry, and we sing for inspiration. We lift each other up in a spirit of caring and of shared purpose.

When we raise our voices together, we can change the world. And when the revolution comes, I’ll be singing with the choir.

Con Text: Poetry and Music

Context

What makes vocal music different from instrumental music? Of course there are obvious differences like the lack of fingerings or bow marks. But the most profound difference is that vocal music has words. Singers are interpreters of text.

Vocalists breathe with the phrases of poetry. We must know what the important words are to highlight them musically. And we must also understand the content to build to the climax and resolve the falling action.

As performers of poetry and prose, we have an intimate relationship with the subject matter. Rehearsing the song, the words implant in the mind. Later, the subconscious brings the words to our lips when we are cleaning the house or driving in the car.

Music is a memory device

The other night, I was listening to Bryan read poetry to the kids before bedtime. He began reading an Emily Dickinson poem. I joined in the recitation, the poem readily spilling out, though I had no idea that I knew this poem. It is the text to “Hope,” one of the anthems our choir loves to sing. For the rest of the night, I couldn’t get the words and music out of my head. It’s strange how musical memory works – one little nudge brings back the whole thing in an instant.

Or consider too how you know your ABCs. To this day, I still can’t alphabetize files without hearing the Alphabet Song in my head. It’s so much harder to recite those 26 letters minus the musical cues.

The blessing of practice

text

Seasons of Love

This week, my church choir is singing “Seasons of Love.” I can tell you there are “five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes” in a year. More profound questions lurk behind the text. What would it mean to celebrate and remember every single moment? If we measured in love, how much would there be?

It is a gift that vocalists have to think about the text. We, perhaps more than the audience, benefit from the profound mysteries revealed in the poetry. We have time, through rehearsal, to take a deep dive. Vocalists have the unique pleasure of understanding text painting (the composer’s use of melodic and harmonic devices to color words with a particular emotion.) The music is in our bodies, goes through our bodies, resonates with our bodies. It’s physical, emotional, intellectual work.

I am reminded of Jason Robert Brown’s song “The Music of Heaven.”

“I come with my armor in place,
Emotions in check.
And thinking I’m smarter or just more realistic.
I sit with my frozen smile,
All the while reluctant to trust what I’m told,
Cynical, cold.

Challenging music of heaven to open a crack in my chest.
And let something glorious in.
Music of heaven should puncture me, suddenly blessed,
Let the music begin…

And I sit there with dry eyes and cold hands
Judging and standing apart
Dry eyes and cold hands,
Waiting and wondering, when will it open my heart.
When will it open my heart?
When will I open my heart?”

Music breaks us open. It finds its ways into the smallest crack of our hearts. But it is also possible to stay indifferent, to not let that crack open up. Musicians have to turn toward the music, to be vulnerable, to open our hearts. That is the only way that we can have a truly meaningful performance. This is a gift we give the audience, of course, but I wonder if it isn’t something we do for ourselves too. Aren’t we changed by the study, rehearsals, and performance?

The voice within

I know I’m not alone in experiencing music that comes to me unbidden. When my grandfather died, the family was at his bedside. I don’t know where it came from, but the song “I’ll Fly Away” began in my head. I started humming it, then quietly sang the words. My sister joined in, then our mother. We opened a window. Singing with my family in that moment felt so right.

There have been other times of heartache that other songs have come to me, rolling in like a storm or like sunlight breaking through the clouds. Unexpected. Perfect. Songs like “All Will Be Well,” “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, or “Something Told the Wild Geese.”

There seems to be a song in the jukebox of my head for every situation, every emotion. There are days when I feel like my life is one big musical. There’s something magical about the subconscious finding the right song for the moment.

A picture in my studio has this poem:

“An awe so quiet I don’t know when it began.
A gratitude had begun to sing in me.
Was there some moment dividing song from no song?
When does dewfall begin?
When does night fold its arms over our hearts to cherish them?
When is daybreak?” -Denise Levertov

What songs are playing in your head? If you turn up the volume and listen, is the song trying to tell you something, trying to open some crack in your heart?

A challenge to my choir and all vocalists

choir practice- I'm on the left with a drum

NUUC Choir

The church choir offers the perfect opportunity for spiritual growth through music.

When you are working on choir music, I challenge you to think about the lyrics. What do the words mean to you? Can you relate to that experience? How does the music help carry the message? As a performer, how can you help the audience feel and understand the text? And finally, I wonder if we can find ways to be more willing to receive the blessings of music.

I think Jason Robert Brown was onto something. “Let the music begin.”

Healthy Brains Need Stimulation and Variety

Healthy Brains Need Stimulation and Variety

It seems that the field of neuroscience is exploding with research about how we learn, what our brains need to stay sharp, and how we can avoid memory problems as we age.

Everyone wants to have healthy brains. For many years, crossword puzzles and sudoku were the favorite pastimes of older adults. Music lessons, together with a healthy lifestyle, might be even better.

Consider this article:

Neuroscience says these five rituals will help your brain stay in peak condition

  1. Frequent small victories. Find ways to feel you have accomplished something – no matter how small – several times a day. I like to keep a to-do list but always include simple items that I can easily check off. Instead of writing “do laundry,” I will have smaller tasks on my list, like “gather laundry from kids’ rooms,” “start load of darks,” “hang laundry on line,” “take laundry off line,” “sort clothes,” “fold and put away.” Studying a musical instrument gives you the opportunity to make small gains everyday.
  2. Physical activity. The brain is healthier when our whole bodies are healthy. Take a walk, do a yoga video, ride a bike to the store. The exercise does not have to be intense or lengthy. Just 20 minutes is enough to keep the brain happy.
  3. Learn something new. The brain needs constant use to maintain its edge. This is why learning an instrument is extremely helpful for adults. Music study uses the whole brain. See blog posts “Brain Imaging on Musicians”  and “Practice Builds Better Brains” for more info.
  4. Consider your posture. An upright posture allows for more oxygen and has a subconscious positive effect on our bodies. Hunching, rounding the shoulders, and slouching in a chair inhibit learning and make us feel inferior. Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk on this subject is fascinating. Most, if not all, music teachers will encourage good posture when playing a musical instrument.
  5. Get plenty of sleep. Our brains need time to recharge. Researchers have two hypotheses about why sleep is necessary. Some have suggested that rest is necessary for the brain to organize the day’s experiences. Others argue that the brain needs resting time to flush out toxins. The book “How We Learn” also asserts the value of good sleep habits.

You’re never too old to begin music study. My most mature student was in her 60s when she decided to take up flute. If you are already a musician, be sure to change up your practice routine and learn something new every day. Healthy brains equal a long, productive life!

healthy brains

stimulation and variety – he usually plays piano but decided to try the bass flute.

Brain Imaging on Musicians

As brain imaging technology improves, so does our understanding of music’s effects on the brain.

Listening to music makes the whole brain light up. Playing music causes the neurons to fire even more brightly and faster. It’s easy to understand how musicians use the visual and auditory parts of the brain as well as the places that regulate motor coordination. However, musicians must also tap into the emotional, logical, and creative centers of the brain.

brain scans

brain imaging

My kids and I have enjoyed watching the cute, informative Ted ED video titled “How Playing An Instrument Benefits Your Brain” by Anita Collins.

Did you know that every time musicians pick up their instruments, there are fireworks going off all over their brain?

http://ed.ted.com/lessons/how-playing-an-instrument-benefits-your-brain-anita-collins

As I was watching the video, I started to wonder if all of the arts engage our brains in similar ways. Anita Collins says that scientists have discovered that

the artistic and aesthetic aspects of learning to play a musical instrument are different from any other activity studied, including other arts.

It seems clear to me that all children would benefit from learning to play a musical instrument. Sure, many kids learn how to toot “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on the recorder, but that’s just scratching the surface. Neuroscientists now know that kids’ brains are changed when they practice and perform a musical instrument.

Playing a musical instrument is good for kids, and it’s good for adults too.

In my private studio, I teach many adult students. Many of them report better mental acuity since beginning lessons. Older adults are encouraged to do keep their brains active by doing activities like crossword puzzles or keeping a journal. Brain games are thought to ward off memory disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease (https://www.alzinfo.org/articles/crossword-puzzles-alzheimers/). I wonder if playing a musical instrument might have even better results. Reading and writing activate discreet centers of the brain; the whole brain is highly activated by playing music.

Do you want your kids to excel in school? Perhaps your money is better spent on music lessons than a math tutor.

Do you want to stay mentally sharp? Dust off your old clarinet or learn a new instrument. It’s like taking your brain to the gym.