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?

3 Listening Lessons for the Choir… And for Life!

3 Listening Lessons for the Choir

As part of an ongoing series about spiritual practice and music, this blog post will focus on the art of listening.

Music practice is an awesome place to explore larger ideas. When we practice music, we create time for working on ourselves as well as our songs. Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum, and so it’s my hope that these skills will translate into other parts of your life.  This deepens our connection with music and offers another kind of spiritual practice.

1. Listen to yourself.

With a critical, but not judgmental ear, listen carefully to the sound you were making. Ask yourself “Is this the best tone I can make today?” If not, play around with all of the variables to see if changing one thing makes the sound better or worse. Concentrate on the physical action of the body. Assess if you are moving from a place of comfort or discomfort. When practicing, focus your complete attention on the music. Can you relate to the mood of the piece? Always be searching for ways to connect breath to sound and stay active with your listening. Practice non-judgement by not allowing the negative voices to diminish you. Instead, turn the inner judges into voices that offer encouragement and gentle, constructive observations.

2. Listen to others.

Try focusing on a different vocal part, perhaps even one across the room. Or listen to the singers on either side of you. Can you listen so intensely that your neighbors sound louder than you? Be mindful of the blend of the entire choir. Notice when the group wants to change tempo, change dynamics, or where people are taking breaths.

3. Be playful and curious.

By engaging your inner child, the music will always stay interesting. Imagine that you have ears in the far corner of the room. Try listening from those ears, not the ones on your head. Listen to how the sound is bouncing off the walls or people or the furniture in the room. Maybe you will notice if something is sympathetically vibrating. Continue to play with all of the variables in your body that change the sound. Give yourself permission to think out of the box. For example, how does the sound change if you curl your toes in your shoes?

listening to a soprano on her head

A Soprano on Her Head

The playful approach to music-making is inspired by Eloisa Ristad and her book A Soprano On Her Head. It is an inspiring work that has been an inspiration for my teaching since I first read it in 1996.

Other blog posts related to this topic:

Hearing vs. Listening

Reinvigorating Flute Practice

Music as a Spiritual Practice

Music Humor: A Venn Diagram

Something Silly To Make You Smile

“Humor relies on the unexpected” and it “tickles the brain.” But I think good jokes have at their center a core of truth.

(Joe Moran as quoted in the NPR story “What Makes Something Funny?“)

I love music humor.

Perhaps playing the piccolo scrambled my brain enough to make jokes about musicians irresistibly funny to me. If you played in a marching band, this one will tickle your funny bone:

How many trumpet players does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Six. One to actually do the work and five to say how much better he could have done it.

I’m working on a long post to share with you in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s something silly that a Facebook friend shared:

music humor

so true

I’d like to add some adjectives of my own to the purple part of this Venn Diagram:

  • collaboration
  • accepting failure (and success) gracefully
  • flexibility
  • persistence
  • being comfortable when alone with yourself
  • knowing how to get two piccolo players to play in tune (you have to shoot one…)

What would you add?

Practice Session, Part 1: Warm Up

warm upWarm Up

This blog post is the second in a seven part series about the structure of a typical practice session.

In the blog post “Overview,” I outlined the six elements that should be a part of every practice session. You can think of these parts like a chest of drawers. Each drawer is a different size. Working from the top down, the drawers are

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales, short technical exercises.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation and revisiting old material.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

In every 30 minute practice session, you will want to spend about 2 minutes on #1: “Goal setting and warm up.” This part of the practice is important because it wakes up the mind, body and ear.

First, we warm up the brain.

I am in the habit of thinking about what I need to accomplish in the practice room before I arrive. Ideally, I have created new goals at the end of my previous practice session (practice item #6), but if not, the beginning of a new practice session is a good time to think about my goals. Many students find that a notebook can be very helpful for writing down this kind of stuff. (Unfortunately, I seem to lose notebooks faster than I can write in them….) The short term goals you set at the beginning of practice should be attainable in the amount of time set aside. For instance, you may want to work out tricky passages in your new solo and increase the tempo of the minor scales. Your goals will be different every day. Try to keep them realistic so that when your practice is finished, you feel like you have attained at least some of your goals.

The first thing I do when entering the practice room is silence my cell phone. I know from experience that a beep or buzz on my phone easily devolves into checking my email, then a quick glance at the weather, a reply to a text.., and then my practice time is over before I’ve played a note.

I consider how much uninterrupted time I have. Sometimes, I even put practice time in my online calendar to truly set it aside. When I begin, I tell myself that everything outside of the practice room will still be there for me when I’m finished. I try to quiet my mind and tell myself that this is the highest and best use of my time. If I’m feeling really distracted, I will take a moment to jot down a quick to-do list. Writing things down unburdens my mind because I don’t have to worry about forgetting.

As I put my flute together, I put the pieces together mindfully, grateful for the beautiful instrument and my ability to play it. I like to approach each practice session with a “beginner’s mind” because it allows me to stay open and curious. Judgement and negativity are not helpful.

This is a good place in your practice session to try out some of the concentration exercises I explained in a previous post.

Next, we bring attention to the body.

When I was younger, I didn’t need to do much to warm up my body. Now that I’m older, I find physical warm ups to be very helpful. If I’m feeling tight in my neck, I will make gentle circles with my head. Sometimes it’s my shoulders or hands that need to be stretched. Wherever there is pain or tightness, I’ll take a moment to move in mays that release the tension. While stretching, I also bring attention to my breath and begin to deepen the inhale and exhale.

This is a good place in the practice session to check your posture. Our goal is to always move freely without pain. The Alexander Technique has been very helpful to me in understanding how to use my body efficiently. My friend Lea Pearson has studied the Alexander Technique and wrote Body Mapping for Flutists: What Every Flutist Needs to Know About the Body. I highly recommend this book.

Finally, we wake up the ear.

Because I play a wind instrument, the first sounds I make on the instrument are long tones. It’s important for wind players to pay attention to embouchure, breath, and resonance from the very beginning. (If you are a string player, pianist, or vocalist, leave a comment below telling me what your first sounds are when you start practicing.) While playing long tones, I think about my posture, vibrato, intonation, beginnings of notes, releases, dynamics, and tone color. This begins to awaken my ear. Throughout, I ask myself “Is this the best sound I can make today?” I use a variety of tone exercises– the brain needs novelty to stay engaged– but I have my favorites too. I enjoy listening to my tone warm ups with my eyes closed. This helps me to really open the ear without any visual distractions. (I write about the difference between hearing and listening in this blog post.)

All these warm up activities happen in the first two minutes of practice! (Actually, some of the planning and goal setting can be done on your way to the practice room.)

Once the mind is focused, the body is moving well, and the ears are open, it’s time to get the fingers flying! Continue reading part 2 “Scales & Technique.”

 

Hearing vs. Listening

There is a big difference between hearing something and actually listening to it.

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman observes

“Sounds thicken the sensory stew of our lives, and we depend on them to help us interpret, communicate with, and express the world around us.”

Even when we seek to be completely silent, there are still noises.We are all born with the sense of hearing, but musicians must be especially sensitive to developing their powers of listening.

listening

ensemble members listen to everything

Hearing is a passive activity. Our ears are constantly taking in information, much of it background noise. Those little bones in our ears are vibrating whether we want them to or not. Our brains have been processing auditory input since the first day we were born. Most of us are pretty good about filtering out the unimportant noise like traffic and the sounds of the house/office/school. It doesn’t take judgment or discernment to hear a sound because it’s a purely a physical, unconscious process. If you’ve ever been woken up in the middle of the night by a loud sound, you know that you are hearing even when you are asleep.

Listening, on the other hand, is an active, conscious process. True listening only takes place when were fully aware of the auditory inputs. Listening involves making judgments, and it invites changes. Listening is dynamic. However, listening is a learned process and that’s why it is a skill that must be cultivated by musicians.

Why is deep listening important to musicians?

1. The sound we hear while playing the instrument is different than the way the audience hears it, especially the tone color and dynamics.
2. Because our art is guided by the ear, we learn by emulating teachers, recordings, concerts, masterclasses.
3. Musicians who play wind and string instruments have to make fast and accurate adjustments in pitch.
4. Identifying mistakes is the first step in fixing them.
5. The beginning, middle, and end of notes must be carefully shaped.
6. In an ensemble, the players have to be responsive to one another.

The next time you’re in a crowded place, try focusing on a single conversation. Can you block out the other sounds? This exercise will strengthen your powers of listening.

Parents can help their young musicians by being another set of ears in the practice room. Because listening involves concentration, having another person in the practice room can promote mindful practice. I talk about other ways you can help your child in the practice room in the blog post Helping Kids Practice.

Musicians need to be reminded that expressive elements need to be exaggerated to be heard by the audience. Actors apply heavy makeup when they are onstage. The lights and distance mute the effects of the makeup so that it seems natural from the audience. In the same way, musicians have to exaggerate dynamics, vibrato, accents, etc. for the listeners to perceive them.

The first time I ever recorded myself playing the flute, I was astonished. It was like hearing my voice on an answering machine – shocking and humbling. The sound was remarkably different and suddenly I realized all the little mistakes in tempo and intonation. In graduate school, I recorded all of my lessons. Reviewing the tapes, it was amazing how much information I had missed. Now that cell phones are ubiquitous, it is easy to make digital recordings. I believe all musicians should record themselves from time to time.

It takes discipline to develop mindfulness in the practice room. Cultivating deep listening skills has been invaluable to me as a performer and teacher. Beyond the practice room, I think good listening skills have helped me be a better mother and wife.

Happy practicing!