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?

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.

Grit for Musicians: Practicing and Parenting

Is Grit the Secret to Success In Music?

I first heard about Angela Duckworth and her research on “grit” on a Freakonomics podcast. Duckworth talks about how persistence, not talent, is the secret ingredient for success. It got me thinking about how grit translates to music, especially its application in practice.

What is grit?

According to Angela Duckworth, grit is “passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals.” It seems clear that studying music is a gritty activity. Learning to play an instrument is a long-term commitment if any success is to be achieved.

From the book review of Grit in Scientific American: (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/review-of-grit-the-power-of-passion-and-perseverance/)

In this standardized testing culture, Grit is a good reminder that an exclusive focus on ability and potential can distract us from the importance of other variables important for success.

Grit may be more important than talent.

There are plenty of musicians out there with natural talent. Some even have the almost mystical ability of perfect pitch. Yet not all people with perfect pitch become professional musicians. It seems that talent can kick-start a musician because it creates a positive feedback loop. Talent says, “I’m good at this. It’s easy. People recognize my innate ability.” But talent can also be a hinderance. When music practice becomes difficult (and it does get hard at some point for everyone), only the gritty will push through and learn new skills. Of course when a student is endowed with both talent and grittiness, the chance of success is high. As a music teacher, however, if I had to choose between a student with lots of talent or lots of grit, I would choose the grit. Every time.

Want to find out how much grit you have?

Take THE GRIT SCALE quiz

Even if you score low on the “grit scale,” the good news is that grit can be cultivated, even increased.

What do gritty people have in common?

By studying people who are particularly gritty, Angela Duckworth has observed four things the grit paragons display and cultivate:

grit in musicians

Cincinnati Symphony – paragon of grit

  1. Interest
  2. Deliberate Practice
  3. Purpose
  4. Hope

Duckworth observed that people who pursue one interest for long periods of time “learn to substitute nuance for novelty.” I love that. As a musician, I’m not constantly switching instruments. I’m delving more deeply into the repertoire of the flute and perfecting the craft of teaching. There is always more to learn about a subject.

Deliberate practice is something I have discussed many times on this blog. Brain research is helping us understand that some kinds of practicing are better than others. Good practice habits include being able to isolate a mistake and employ solutions to remedy it. Another “grit” researcher, Anders Ericsson puts it this way: “So anytime you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the most effective way of improving performance.”

How can parents help kids become more gritty?

As a parent (see my admission on this blog about being a Tiger Mother), I want my kids to grow up to be gritty. How do we foster resilience in kids? Perhaps studying music is one way to cultivate grit. When your child studies an instrument, there will be opportunities for improving grit (theirs… and yours!)

Don’t let your child quit music. Teach your child that playing an instrument is a long-term commitment. Everyone comes to a point when things get hard and quitting seems the only way out. Help your child understand that music, like many other pursuits, will seem really hard from time to time. Remind your child of other times they have been frustrated but persevered and overcame the challenge. If your child is just beginning to study an instrument and wants to quit, don’t give in! Set a reasonable time period (6 months – 1 year) after which you will discuss the possibility of changing instruments.

The Atlantic Magazine recently published an article “How To Teach Students Grit.” The author wondered about the role of grit in academic settings. One of the most interesting findings was the role of intrinsic motivation in achievement. Behaviorism, using rewards and punishments to change behavior, is proving to be a colossal disaster in the classroom. A 2011 study of behaviorism in New York public schools (“Financial Incentives and Student Achievement“) showed that incentives such as money had no effect on changing student performance.

In Dallas, students were paid to read books. In New York, students were rewarded for performance on interim assessments. In Chicago, students were paid for classroom grades. I estimate that the impact of financial incentives on state test scores is statistically zero, in each city. -Roland G. Fryer, Jr.

Behaviorism relies on the ability of external forces to change behavior. When students are motivated by rewards, it is called extrinsic motivation. Students who are intrinsically motivated do things because they want to or because they know it’s the right thing to do. As parents, we must be careful of using too many rewards, thereby discouraging intrinsic motivation.

I’ve discussed motivation in music in other blog posts (Motivation: Parenting and Practicing, Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective), but if you are going to use rewards like a sticker chart or money to reward your child for practicing, do it for a short period of time.  Recitals, positive feedback, and continued success in music will foster intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is critical for finding purpose (see #3 in the characteristics of gritty people list.)

Be sure to show your child the world of art and music. Your child needs to see that he or she has a place in the arts, that she is part of something larger. Give them hope that there is more in the world of music than high school marching band. (Not knocking marching band– it’s awesome, but there’s so much more to discover.) A hopeful outlook is one of the hallmarks of a gritty individual.

A final thought

If grit is the secret to success in music, and music is the key to success in life, then grit and success have a direct relationship. The more grit, the more success. Not just in music. In everything.

Embouchure Variations

Embouchure Variations

What does the “perfect embouchure” look like?

I’ve been asked many times what a “proper” or “perfect” embouchure should look like. The answer is simple: There is no one right way to play the flute.

Go to Larry Krantz’s website where you will see 18 pictures of the lips of professional flutists. (http://www.larrykrantz.com/embpic.htm)

A quick glance of the pictures will show you that there is a wide variation of embouchure formation. Some are off-center. Some of the lips show a pronounced “teardrop” in the middle.

The “teardrop” is a natural feature of some lips. I’ve heard of beginning band directors who will not allow students with a “teardrop” lip to begin playing the flute. That is absolutely ridiculous!

Early in my teaching career, I was interviewed for a book (Sign Me Up!). I talked to the author about how I felt that a child’s interest and enthusiasm were much more important than their physical traits. I still feel that way after 20+ years of teaching.

With enough passion and careful instruction, students will adapt to whatever shape their lips happen to be.

How We Learn – applications for musicians

I just finished reading How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey, 2014.

From a musician’s perspective, it has obvious applications for practice.How We Learn

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I totally geek out on brain science. It really blows my mind (ha!) reading about the new research on our grey matter. I am savoring Benedict Carey’s book and carefully sifting through it to find wisdoms for the practice room. Let’s begin with a quote from the book:

“If the brain is a learning machine, then it’s an eccentric one. And it performs best when its quirks are exploited.”

In my work with music students, I have found that the best practice techniques are the ones that are unusual or humorous. For more on this topic, please check out my posts “Articulation Game,” “Rhythm Silliness,” and “Practicing Upside Down.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The book begins with a discussion of how we learn at the neurological level. As scientific study of the brain is aided by new methods, our understanding of memory is deepened. Author Benedict Carey delves into new research on how the brain makes and stores memories. It appears that there are two sides to memory: storage and retrieval. While the brain has plenty of room to store all of our memories, not all of them can be retrieved. In order to retain information, the retrieval system must be strong. It is strengthened and made faster with use.

Some of the research on how the brain learns confirms what we already know, but some is truly new and revolutionary.

Research on Learning May Change How We Practice

  1. Practicing in frequent, short sessions is better than a single long practice. It’s more productive to have three 20 minute practice sessions than a single one hour practice. Similarly, music practice should happen everyday. Your teacher will notice if you do all of your practicing the night before the lesson because your retention of the information will be low.
  2. Memories are encoded with snippets from our environment. It will come as not surprise that we can recall things best in the same place we learned them. If I had a nickel for every time a student has said, “But I played the music so much better when I was practicing at home,” I’d be rich. In the teacher’s studio or recital hall, the conditions are different than the practice room. Musicians should either try to create situations similar to the performance while in the practice room (dress shoes, imagining the stage, etc.) or vary the practice environment (different locations, different times of day) to take advantage of the “context effect.”
  3. Repeating something a set number of times does not make you learn it. The number of repetitions is not important. You must practice correctly and deliberately. (See my blog posts on “Hearing vs. Listening,” “Research on Effective Practice Skills,” and “Concentration Exercises.”)
  4. Testing is good for learning. Yes, you read that right. I know that there is a huge backlash against “teaching to the test,” but the testing Benedict Carey purports in this book isn’t a high-stakes national standards test. Long range studies show that frequent testing can help retain skills (p. 93). For musicians, I would like to argue that performances are “tests.” Maybe we can even think of weekly lessons as “retrieval practice.” You can create additional opportunities for performance. More ideas on finding performance opportunities can be found in the blog posts “Motivation: Parenting and Practicing” and “Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective.” Flash cards are a proven strategy for improving memory. I have a great “Scale Game” that uses flash cards and a neat game to learn scales quickly.
  5. Take a break. The mind continues to work on problems after you have stopped actively thinking about them. Sometimes a creative solution to a problem will come to you in a flash of inspiration. However, “people don’t benefit from an incubation break unless they have reached an impasse.” (p. 128) So when you’ve worked really hard on a difficult piece of music and you’re feeling frustrated, go for a bike ride, take a nap, or do some math problems. The distraction might be what you need to get unstuck.
  6. Set goals. There are many reasons to set goals – I will talk about some of those reasons in a future blog post – but for learning, goal setting is important because it focuses the mind on the problem. This book describes the goal-oriented mind as having “tuned perception.” We are better able to zero in on the solution, and block out the unimportant information, when the goal has been set and we allow for “percolation.” If your goal for the week is to fix technical problems in a sonata, you may pay extra attention to the scale in the same key as the sonata or spend more time on a technical exercise related to the same difficulties.
  7. Vary your practice. Several studies have shown that motor skills are enhanced by practicing an activity many different ways. Not only will the skill be learned better but it will be able to be transferred to similar situations. It’s important also to make sure you practice different kind of exercises – scales, etudes, theory, improvisation – not just a single repertoire piece. “The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the longer term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually. The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition.” (p. 164) My blog posts “Woodshedding: Grouping Game” and “Rhythm Spinner” offer some suggestions to help you vary your practice.
  8. Get plenty of sleep. We’ve only begun to understand how important sleep is to learning and future research will undoubtedly uncover more insights on the different stages of sleep, but scientists know that rest is important. Benedict Carey says, “I think of sleep as learning with my eyes closed.” (p. 212) Naps are showing promise in memory consolidation and integration. Just as eating a balanced diet will keep your body healthy, getting ample sleep is good for your brain.

What does research say about memorization?

How We Learn also looks at research on memorization. Granted, the scientists who create these experiments are asking subjects to memorize words, but I think that it is equally applicable to memorizing music. Psychologist Arthur Gates has spent his career trying to discover a good rule for the most efficient way to memorize. He asked the question how much time should be spent studying and how much time should be spent reciting? He found that the best ratio was 1/3 time studying and 2/3 time reciting. [Arthur I. Gates Repetition as a Factor in Memorizing (New York: The Science Press, 1917).] So, if you are trying to memorize a piece of music, play it with the music once and then twice trying to remember it without looking at the music. I’ll have more to say about this and the three types of memory in a future blog post.


It will take me time to integrate all of the information in How We Learn, but I find it seeping into my teaching already. At lessons this afternoon, I suggested that a student vary her practice routine in advance of a big performance.

A seed is planted. I’m curious how it will grow.

The first post

A blog about practice, for musicians and the people who love them.

The first post.

A couple of days ago a Facebook friend posted an article titled “Why Students Really Quit Their Musical Instrument (and How Parents Can Prevent It).” http://www.musicparentsguide.com/2015/02/17/students-really-quit-musical-instrument-parents-can-prevent/ . Among other things, the article suggests that kids quit playing a musical instrument because their parents don’t know how to support their practice.

That’s when I knew that I had something to contribute to the conversation.

You see, I have been a flute teacher for 20 years. Before that, I studied music since the age of 5, earning both Bachelor and Master’s Degrees in Flute Performance. Perhaps most importantly, I’m the parent of two children who take music lessons.

Practicing an instrument is something I think about… a lot. It’s something I talk about with other parents whose kids take lessons and it comes up daily in my private studio of flute and recorder students. Adults who take lessons have a lot of the same questions.

“How long should a practice session be?”

“Every day?”

“How exactly do you ‘woodshed’ hard parts?”

“What should I do if the practicing causes anxiety, anger, frustration,…”

“How do I motivate my kid (and/or myself)?”

“Is all this (effort, money, struggle, equipment) worth it?”

“What does the teacher mean when she says I should ‘mark the music'”?

These questions are good ones and the answers deserve thoughtful examination. Search the web and you’ll find lists of things to try, but this blog aims to start a conversation about ideas that are practicalinspiringcreative, grounded in research, and tested in the studio.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re self-taught, learning the instrument at school, the parent of a music student, or taking private lessons, this blog is here to support the very important work that is achieved in the practice room.

Let’s begin, remembering always that the journey is as important as the destination.

Marlene Metz Hartzler

Marlene Metz Hartzler