Sunday, December 27, 2009

The 10 most popular posts of 2009

I reckon most of you will be too busy with Christmas to read my blog this week! Full to overflowing with turkey and all the trimmings, it’s hard to get off the sofa to switch on the computer. Besides which, computers might remind you too much of work!

melting snowman

photo by IngaMun

Rather than a normal post, I thought I’d list the most popular reads from 2009 in case you missed them first time around.

So . . . a very merry Christmas and happy New Year to one and all and thanks for reading. I couldn’t do it without you!

  1. Preparing to sing: physical and vocal warm-up ideas for choirs
    After considering why you should bother with warm ups at all, and what kinds of things you might include in a warm up, this post lists some specific physical and vocal exercises that I use with choirs.

  2. How to teach (and learn) a song by ear
    Some techniques and tips for teaching and learning songs without written music.

  3. Preparing to sing: what should a warm-up consist of?
    Having decided that warm ups are a good idea (see next post), this post considers the elements that need to be covered in any good singing warm up: body, voice and mind.

  4. Preparing to sing: why bother?
    Why bother with warm ups any way? 10 good reasons why it makes sense.

  5. But I can’t sing that high!
    How to find a comfortable place in the choir for your particular voice.

  6. How to be a good choir member
    What makes a good choir member? Things like punctuality, commitment, self-awareness, trust, sense of humour, etc.

  7. Learn how to sing in tune – matching pitch 1
    Once you’ve figured out whether you’re singing in tune or not, here are some basic tips on how to go about improving your tuning.

  8. Singing in harmony 1 – how do they do that?
    Singing in harmony with others needs a whole set of skills which are different from singing solo or with a backing band. Here are some hints on how to sing harmony effectively as part of a choir.

  9. Singing the same note – differently!
    The thorny question of matching male and female voices! The introduction of the tricky concept of ‘octave’.

  10. How do I know if I’m singing in tune?
    It’s all very well for your choir leader to tell you you’re out of tune, but what does it actually mean to ‘sing in tune’?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

You are what you sing

In many ways, we are all defined by the songs we choose to sing. Our favourite ditties say a lot about our tastes, background, age, religion and culture.

singing dog

photo by rgdaniel

Songs and singing help to define our very personality and sense of identity.

singing and the self

There is some very deep-rooted connection between our singing voice and our sense of self.

People with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia withdraw into themselves, they lose the desire to engage in conversation. It’s as if their personality has got lost somewhere.

They struggle with finding the right words and remembering incidents from the past. Many people with dementia no longer have the ability to recognise even those closest to them.

But somehow their memory for songs and singing is preserved. The parts of the brain that work with speech and episodic memories are different to the parts that process music.

It seems that the musical part of the brain can remain intact long after other parts have stopped functioning properly.

singing for the brain

The UK Alzheimer’s Society provides a service called Singing for the Brain. There are numerous anecdotes of people who, after just a few verses, seem to ‘come back’ to themselves again and are able to express themselves socially.

You can read more about it in How singing unlocks the brain.

musical memory is different

I’ve discussed before that remembering songs and song lyrics is very different from, say, rote learning a poem (see my post The singing memory). The words are linked to the tune and hence stored in the musical part of the brain rather than the word part of the brain.

People with extreme cases of memory loss can often still remember music in great detail. One of the most famous cases is that of the British musicologist and conductor Clive Wearing. Due to an illness, he suffered a profound case of total amnesia. Because an area of the brain required to transfer memories from working memory to long-term memory is damaged, he is completely unable to form lasting new memories – his memory only lasts between 7 and 30 seconds.

Yet Wearing recalls how to play the piano and conduct a choir – all this despite having no recollection of having received a musical education. As soon as the music stops, however, he forgets that he has just played and starts shaking spasmodically.

You can watch him in action in a BBC documentary: The Mind – life without memory. It is remarkable to see the transformation when he becomes involved with music.

You can also read an account by the neurologist Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker: A neurologist’s notebook – The Abyss. Sacks has also written at length on music and the brain in his 2007 book Musicophilia which includes a chapter on Wearing.

you are what you sing

It’s as if a fundamental part of our identity is tied up with song and music. Even when our memories are failing and we withdraw from everyday life, a familiar song or piece of music can reawaken us. We come alive again, our personality reasserts itself and we live once more through the music.

It seems that singing touches a very deep primeval part of ourselves. Humans have sung for many thousands of years (see The singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithin) so perhaps it is song and music that ultimately defines us.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Does your singing voice reveal the real you?

We’ve all seen it: a timid, unkempt, nervous person approaches the microphone. We expect disaster. They open their mouth and the most amazing, beautiful sound comes out. They transform before our very eyes into a confident, charismatic singer.

open mouthed singers

Which of these is the ‘real’ person? The singer or the nervous wreck? Is the singer revealing anything about their true self which lies behind all the nerves and lack of confidence?

what you see is NOT always what you get ...

With the rash of talent shows on TV at the moment, transformations like this are seen almost every week. Someone walks on stage and chats with the judges who quickly form an expectation of what their singing will be like.

Crudely, if they seem a little bit dumb (or have a working class accent!) or don’t look traditionally attractive (or young!), then the judges (and us?) assume they will have a bad singing voice.

But what you see is not always what you get. It’s a joy to see the judges’ mouths drop open when their preconceptions are shattered.

Susan Boyle is now an international phenomenon. The look on the judges’ faces when she first sang on Britain’s Got Talent is a joy to behold.

Another example here in the UK is of Stacey Solomon. Again, just watch the judges’ expressions at her first audition on The X Factor.

... and what you get is NOT always what you saw

The opposite also holds true.

A young, attractive singer bounces onto stage oozing confidence and we have great hopes of hearing a fine singing voice. Until they open their mouths: Kyle, Onkar, Krisztina, The Dreamgirls, James.

A fantastically wealthy, supremely confident, handsome CEO picks up the karaoke microphone and belts out a song in the worst singing voice ever.

A beautiful, well-dressed, smiling, relaxed woman takes to the stage with ease and confidence. She announces the song in a husky, sexy voice, then proceeds to sing like she’s a little girl on helium.

which is the real you?

This raises the question: which is the real you? The person who is singing, or the person who is chatting beforehand? The person whose voice is soaring and who is clearly transported by the music? Or the person who’s scared of the audience, not bothered about how they look, worried that they’ll get the notes wrong?

Singing in tune is a skill that can be learnt quite easily. So if someone sings badly, we know that they can just go away and work on their singing voice. We don’t assume that because they have a ‘bad’ singing voice, then they are somehow ‘bad’ too. Next time they come back, we hope they will sing better.

But what about those people who can sing well, yet appear awkward, inarticulate and under-confident beforehand. What is their ‘true’ nature? Are they revealing the authentic person through their singing voice? How can they appear so confident whilst singing, but not whilst speaking?

Perhaps singing such a different mode of communication from speaking that two types of person can co-exist within the same individual: the confident singer and the shy speaker. Yet for most of us, public speaking is just as scary and difficult as singing in public. And for many, many people, singing is the scarier thing to do!

our singing voice makes us vulnerable

When we make music with our voices, we are using ourselves as an instrument. If a violinist plays badly, we can blame the poor quality of the violin itself, or argue that the player isn’t up to the job: she’s a bad violinist. But if we think someone doesn’t sing well, we tend not to say she’s a bad vocalist, but she has a bad voice.

We are our instrument, so any criticism of our singing voice is felt as a criticism of our self.  Because of this, we are often frightened to open our mouths, to sing out, to improvise and experiment with our voices. We stand at the back of the choir and sing very quietly until we are absolutely sure we have the tune right.

Our voices are very personal to us, more so than our bodies.

I used to teach at drama school and university and every time I would ask the students to improvise some crazy dance they would have no problem throwing their bodies around in the strangest of ways.

When asked to deliver a speech from a play, they would speak loudly and confidently.

But ask them to improvise with their voices and they would all clam up! Somehow people seem to feel that their voices are more revealing of their innermost being than anything else.

This is not just about singing though. Over the years I have been able to free myself of many vocal inhibitions so I can just let rip with my voice in weird and wonderful ways. But when I'm supposed to be singing a recognisable tune, then doubts can creep in as to whether I'm 'getting it right' or not.

musical vs. primal voice

There are many ways to use our voices in a free and natural way. Some people are able to let rip and improvise the strangest sounds. Some actors can howl and wail and speak their lines so they can be heard at the back of the upper circle.

There is something known as voice therapy which attempts to unlock the voice and set our voices, emotions and spirits free. Many alternative therapies involve screaming, shouting and chanting.

But I’m concerned with the singing voice, the voice that makes music. I believe that there is something deeper and more connected with our essential being when we’re singing, than when we’re simply freely exploring our vocal capabilities in a non-musical way.

feedback loop

As we become more confident with our singing, does that spill over into our everyday lives? Or do these two personas live in different worlds?

It doesn’t necessarily work the other way round. We’ve seen that people can be over-confident in other areas of life and over-estimate their singing abilities. So maybe singing confidence doesn’t carry over to other areas.

Why the mismatch? How is singing so different from real life and vice versa?

I realise I’ve asked more questions than I’ve answered here! I’d be really interested in your feedback. Do you think your singing voice reveals the ‘real’ you? How do you account for the mismatch between your everyday persona and your singing persona? Can learning to sing confidently spill over into other areas of your life?

next week

In next week’s post I will look at how singing helps to define the self and how our sense of identity is intimately tied up with our voices: You are what you sing.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Why basses can’t remember their part

It always seems to be the basses who forget their part. I used to think it was a bloke thing, but now I realise that there is often a good reason why it’s so hard to remember.


droning on

The bass part often follows the root notes of the chords as they progress through the piece. If it’s a relatively straightforward song, then there will sometimes only be three chords. This means that the basses only  get to sing three notes!

Even worse, if the basses are singing a constant drone to a song, which often happens in Georgian singing for example, they may only get two notes!

dude, where’s my tune?

With just two or three notes, it’s very hard to create any kind of interesting, memorable memory. Most of the time the basses are wondering how long they have to stay on this note and when they have to move onto the next one. There are often no clues for when to change, and no easy way of remembering.

The tops and the altos usually have an interesting melody to remember (with lots of notes!). The tenors can too, but in any case usually have some sexy blues notes in there to signal where they are.

But the poor basses have no road map of where to go. No wonder they find it hard to remember a featureless landscape.

the invention of musical notation

In the majority of community choirs that I’ve run, most people can’t read music. Give them a written score and it’s like hieroglyphics to them.

But very often I notice that singers in the bass section all have scraps of paper in their hands covered in scribbles. On closer inspection, the scribbles are a series of horizontal lines of different lengths, some above others. Something like this:

bass notation

“Blimey!”, I say, “musical notation.”

“Oh, no”, they reply, “just some scribbles to make it easier for me to remember. I can’t read music.”

I ask them to explain how their scribbles help them.

“Well, the higher the line, the higher the note. The longer the line is, the longer I have to stay on that note. When the line changes, that’s when I change note. And the size of the gaps between the lines tell me if it’s a big jump in pitch, or a little jump.”

As I said before: musical notation!

Of course, these scribbles need a little tweaking before they become accurate enough, but it suffices for most bass parts as an aide memoire. You can see a more advanced version of this pictorial representation in my post Complex songs and learning by ear: musical maps.

quality time

Since the bass part often doesn’t have that many notes, choir leaders sometimes leave the teaching of the bass part until last. They also maybe don’t spend that much time on it since they believe it’s an ‘easy’ part. Sure, it might be easy-ish to learn as it doesn’t have many notes, but that can mean it’s fiendishly difficult to remember!

I always make sure when teaching a harmony song that I don’t always start with the tune (whichever part it’s in). Especially if it’s a brand new song that nobody has heard before, it doesn’t really matter which part you start with. So sometimes we kick off with the bass part.

If it’s one of those simplistic bass parts with very few notes, it’s hard to teach in isolation as there is no melody to anchor it to. On the other hand, it’s a great opportunity to really nail the rhythm of a piece before all the other parts come in. And when they do, they will have the benefit of a solid bass part to work with.

If you leave the bass part until last, it means they will have heard the other parts repeatedly so will often end up with some kind of melody locked in their heads already. So when they come to learn their own, relatively monotonous part, they may well go up and down in all the wrong places!

Treat your basses well and they will return the compliment.

not enough voices to go round

Certainly here in the UK many choirs find it difficult to recruit enough men. Which means that the bass section can be quite sparse.

Now the other sections have no problems remembering their parts. Or do they? There are lots of them, so as long as, say, 75% of them can remember, you don’t really notice those who are struggling. If someone is not too sure of their part, they can hide a little and take their time without being noticed.

But if your bass section only has six singers, it can be quite exposing. And if 75% of them can’t get it right, it can easily put the others off.

So maybe it’s not fair to judge the bass section in the same way as those other burgeoning sections of the choir.

confound those singers!

If you have a choir who are up for it, and a relatively straightforward harmony song, you can teach all the parts to all the singers. This will often give other parts an appreciation of the difficulties faced by the basses.

Another option is to switch parts around and give the bass part to someone else. This isn’t always possible, but giving the basses the tune from time to time can boost their confidence.

I’ve just taught a three-part version of The Water of Tyne. It has a lovely bass part which meanders all over the place. Too good not to share! So on different verses I have the basses singing the tune, and the tops singing the bass part an octave higher.

good arrangers write good tunes

You may be a lucky bass who has never had any of the problems I’ve outlined. This probably means that you’ve only ever sung songs that have been arranged well.

Any really good choral arranger will make sure that every part is singable and memorable with a good, interesting self-contained melody. Every singer will have something meaty to learn, and every part will stand on its own.

I learnt an arrangement of The Copper Family’s Christmas Song arranged by Alison Burns some years ago (available in Raining Bliss and Benison). I was taught the bass part and for years – until I came to teach the song myself – I assumed that the melody was in the bass. It turns out that the melody is sung by the tops, but the arrangement is so good that the bass part feels like a melody of its own!

or it could be a man thing!

Of course, I could be completely wrong and maybe after all it's just thing about men and their bad memories.

What’s your experience? Are you a bass who has trouble remembering their part? Does your choir have to wait while the male basses get reminded of that they’re supposed to be singing?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Singing out of tune isn’t always a bad thing

There was an article by Alex Petridis in The Guardian last week in which he claimed that:

“singing out of tune can convey emotions that being in tune can't”.

fingers in ears

La, la, la, I'm not listening! by Jennoit

It made me wonder, in these days of Auto-Tune, whether singing out of tune is always such a bad thing.

There’s more to singing than just being in tune. Getting the notes right is just one small part of singing. Singing is about expressing feelings. It is a means of communication.

imperfection is being human

The norm in much of recorded music these days is studio-based Auto-Tuned perfection. This was maybe a laudable aim in the beginning — tighten up a few off notes here and there to make the song sound better. But now it is so common and so artificial that we crave some ‘real’ singing!

Humans are imperfect creatures. It is what gives us our individuality. If we all sound the same – perfectly in tune all the time – then we may as well just use machines to do our singing for us.

When listening to a choir, it is the small imperfections, differences in vocal quality and tiny errors in tuning that give the overall texture and richness of sound that we all love.

being entertaining

In the current UK series of The X Factor, there were a couple of impish Irish twins called John and Edward (Jedward). They can’t sing in tune at all, and yet they were voted in week after week, much to the confusion of some of the judges. But after a few weeks, even Simon Cowell reluctantly admitted that he was beginning to ‘get’ them and could understand how entertaining they are.

Sometimes a song is just one small element of an entertaining act. It’s the context that decides whether we expect singers to focus on being in tune, or whether it’s part of a greater entertaining experience.

tuning is in the ear of the beholder

Sometimes I watch a singer on TV and I wince because I think they’re terribly out of tune. Yet other people in the room don’t see the problem. It can also happen the other way round: my friends think a singer is just off, whilst I just can’t hear it.

There are objective ways of measuring whether a singer is off pitch, but we listeners aren’t that accurate and often hear people in different ways. Remember your Mum not understanding how you could possibly listen to that whiny, out of tune young singer? And sometimes a particular singer in your choir always sounds off key, but it’s the quality and texture of their voice that’s throwing you and not their pitching.

revealing your soul

There’s a beautiful Georgian healing song that’s been doing the rounds of community choirs for some years. Every time I’ve heard it it’s been slow and beautiful, but somehow a little too polished: Batonebo.

Then one day I came across a recording of a bunch of old Georgian men sitting in their village. They slowly (and not very surely!) stunble into the song, each one slightly out of time with the others and hardly anyone in tune. But it is one of the most moving renditions of the song I have ever heard.

The song was just a vehicle for these men to reveal their souls. We often forget this when we just stick to the notes or when we give a ‘performance’.

who are we singing for?

Most singing (and definitely most choral singing) in Western culture is done for an audience. The songs are ‘performed’ rather than just being sung for the sake of pleasure and expression. As soon as we are in performer role we begin to worry about how we are being received. Are we getting it ‘right’? Will they like us? Are we as good as other singers?

It’s in situations like this when too much attention can be paid to being in tune rather than trying to express the soul and heart of the music. We’re in danger here of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

we want expression, not perfection!

Many choral directors lose sight of the human side of music-making and treat their singers as just a bunch of instruments. Their focus is on creating the best possible realisation of a particular piece of music regardless. They fret about the tiniest details and get really bothered about vocal blend and being in tune.

I don’t believe that we should be here to just service the music at any cost. It’s all too easy to lose sight of why we are making music. I’ve written more about this in the post We are not here to serve the music.

more people are out of tune than you think

Although we live in an age of doctored and synthesised vocals, some of the most famous and well-loved singers throughout history have not had the most beautiful voices. We love them for their personality, humanity, imperfections, honesty and soul, not for their note perfect renditions of songs. Singers such as Bob Dylan, Edith Piaf and Tom Waits spring to mind.

but if you still want to sing in tune ...

Of course, we all aim to be in tune and if we can naturally sing accurately it’s just another tool we have to express our feelings through song.

If you find it tricky and want some hints on how to sing in tune, you can check out my recent series of posts to Learn how to sing in tune (after first figuring out How do I know if I’m singing in tune?).

which do you prefer?

Do you have any examples of wonderfully expressive singers who technically sing out of tune? Or maybe you prefer a perfectly in tune choir? Do let me know.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How many songs can you teach in an hour?

First I need to fess up: I have a low boredom threshold and always try to squeeze in as many songs as possible. Not always a good idea!


In an average one-day workshop (six hours with an hour for lunch), I can get through eight or more songs, all quite complex. I have been known to teach four songs in a single hour (including a warm up before I start teaching).

But am I trying to cram too much in? What is a reasonable number of songs to teach in a given time period?

how many is too many?

Obviously it depends on how complex the songs are. You can get a very simple round or chant up on its feet in a few minutes. A harder harmony song with four or more parts will clearly take longer.

Any good workshop leader will get a sense of whether they are going too fast or slow for the particular group they’re working with. You can’t always suit everybody, so you pitch your speed at the abilities of the majority. You’ll soon get an indication of how the group responds after you’ve taught your first song.

am I going too fast for you?

Rather than getting hung up on the actual number of songs, it’s important to be sensitive to how the participants are responding.

It’s no good soldiering on with a song at break-neck speed if people are finding it hard to remember their part or stumbling over the words. Also, it’s important to not move onto the next song too quickly. After all, people have come to sing and not just to learn.

The teaching of the songs is just a means to an end when we can all have a jolly good sing!

always assume the best in people

Having chosen appropriate songs for a particular workshop, I always assume that the participants will be brilliant singers, will catch on quickly, and will learn the songs with ease.I always make sure that I have plenty of extra songs in case they learn really quickly and I run out (which has happened).

Of course, it may turn out that people are having a bit of an off day, or I’ve over-estimated their experience of harmony singing. In which case, I will adjust, slow down, and teach at a pace comfortable to the majority of participants.

But you’d be amazed how seldom I have to do this. By assuming that people can do what you expect of them, they usually rise to the occasion. Even if a few singers are a little slower on the uptake, the majority will sweep them along with their enthusiasm.

Often, at the end of a workshop people are amazed by what they have achieved. But not me. I never under-estimate the participants’ abilities.

One participant summed it up thus:

“Chris has got the ability to make you feel you can do anything ... you have a go at the seemingly impossible and then you DO do it!”

It’s nothing clever – I just behave as if everyone can do anything and they usually deliver.

how to be patronising

The opposite of assuming that people can learn fast is to assume that all participants are beginners, will need spoon-feeding, and the teaching will have to be slow and easy. Sometimes this is the case, especially with complete beginners or people who have never sung before.

But in the majority of open workshops and choirs, most people have some singing experience and you will be amazed at what they can achieve. The danger is that if you set your sights too low, the participants can end up feeling a little patronised. If you set the bar high, people will be challenged but end up with an enormous sense of achievement.

I was a punter at a singing workshop a while back and the leader was just so S  -  L  -  O  -  W! I felt that I was in a kindergarten class, as did many of my fellow singers. So much so that we started to be silly and misbehave which I’m sure didn’t help the leader. She went over and over and over the words, then the parts so often that we lost the will to live. We certainly felt patronised rather than being helped to learn.

quickly learnt, soonest forgotten

In any one-off workshop people will be learning songs very fast with not much time for repetition. That means that the songs won’t have had time to really bed in and it’s almost certain that the next morning, most participants won’t remember a single note!

I believe that it’s important to point this out. If you don’t, many people might end up thinking that they’re not ‘real’ singers because they couldn’t retain the songs. You need to make it clear that learning a song in depth takes many, many repetitions (see Papa’s got a brand new song).

I am not a song factory!

As I said in the introduction, I love to keep introducing new songs. I have so many to teach that I just can’t wait to get them out there! I get a little bored hearing a song too often, so am keen to get onto the next one. This can create a big problem.

Lots of my colleagues have said the same thing: they feel like song factories. Week after week, we feel that the choir needs feeding and we constantly have to come up with new, exciting songs to teach.

But if we sit back for a moment, we realise that we’re making a rod for our own back. It’s not our boredom threshold that is low, we fear that our singers will get bored doing the same old songs and will only come to choir each week if we keep introducing new material.

The truth is usually the opposite: most choir members love to sing the old familiar songs rather than learning new stuff all the time. As I said earlier, people come because they want to sing, not to be learning all the time.

So us choir leaders need to slow down sometimes and go over the old stuff. Spend time revisiting and polishing older repertoire before moving onto the next shiny new song.

quality not quantity

I’ll leave you choir and workshop leaders with this thought: we worry that we need to give participants a good time for their money. This often translates as delivering loads of songs. But we have far more to offer than just song teaching and people have come to sing, not just to learn.

how was it for you?

Have you attended a workshop and felt that the teaching has just been too fast? Have you taught a workshop and realised that people are becoming bored because you’re going to slow? Have you been to a workshop where you’ve learnt lots of songs, but the teaching hasn’t felt rushed? Are you guilty of always introducing new songs to your choir?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What’s the point of live music performance?

Music and singing are auditory experiences. We don’t need to see the musicians or singers to appreciate their music. So why do we bother going to live music events? Why don’t we just stay at home and listen to a recording?

Photo by shaggy359

I can think of plenty of good reasons not to leave the comfort of your own home so the live performance had better be very good to persuade people to go out and spend money.

I can only think of a few reasons (but not many) why going to a live music gig might be a good idea.

Yet despite this imbalance, I still go (sometimes) to live concerts. Why is that?

It reminds me of that scene in Kramer vs. Kramer when Dustin Hoffman’s character makes a list of pros and cons for seeking custody of the kid: his cons far outweigh his pros and yet he still goes for custody.

There some deep down instinctive need to see music performed live, and no amount of logic can tease it out.

Or maybe you can? Do let me know if you can think of any really good reasons why bothering to go out in the cold and dark to a live music performance might be a good idea.

I’m mainly talking here about choral performances and other live music events which are mainly sit-down gigs. I think pop and rock concerts and summer music festivals are a whole other beast.

If we are going to ask members of the public to leave home and spend their money attending one of our concerts, we’d better know what we’re offering them!

Here are my two lists of reasons – pros and cons. Let me know what you think.

8 reasons why not to bother going to a live music performance

  1. sound quality

    The sound quality at a gig can often be appalling. Either the venue/ auditorium has lousy acoustics, or you end up sitting way in the back, or some technical wizard has put the microphones in really stupid places and the balance is all wrong, or the guy on the sound mixing desk is having a bad day.
  2. nothing to see

    You’ve made all this effort to come out, so you expect to get something extra to just staying at home listening to the CD. But no, there’s nothing going on, just a bunch of singers or musicians on the stage in their own little world making sounds. You begin to count the ceiling tiles or shut your eyes to concentrate on the music.
  3. too expensive

    You can get a CD or download an MP3 for very little these days. But if you go to a concert hall you are expected to pay an arm and leg for a half-way decent seat, not to mention an over-priced programme full of adverts (and not much else) and interval drinks way above normal bar prices. Not to mention the parking costs.
  4. not the best version

    They may be having a bad day. The principal violinist might be off sick. The solo soprano might have a cold. For various reasons there are a few bum notes this particular evening. The perfectly balanced, accurate, director’s cut is on the recording, not necessarily in the concert hall.
  5. too many distractions

    Police sirens outside, popcorn munching, chatting, coughing, knees in the small of your back, people pushing past to get to the toilet – you get the idea.
  6. uncomfortable

    Sitting still for a couple of hours is hard at the best of time, but in tiny seats designed for people of five foot and under with a shared arm rest is nigh on impossible.
  7. inconvenient

    You have to find the venue, brave the weather, travel several miles, pick a parking spot, find your friends, remember your tickets, queue for the toilet, find your seats (in the gods no doubt) – you still get the idea.
  8. not what you expected

    You might never have seen the musicians who made your favourite CD, but you have a pretty clear image in your mind of what they might look like and how they might be if you saw them live. Then you get to the gig and they are a deep disappointment! Not what you expected at all, and now it’s spoilt it all for you. You will never be able to listen to them in quite the same way. 

4 reasons (and one bonus reason) why going to a live concert is a good idea

  1. can’t hear the music any other way

    Going to catch the live performance might be the only way to hear the music. There might not be a recording available or the choir might be singing new songs or new versions of songs, or it might be a bunch of people brought together for this one-off concert.
  2. shared experience

    There is something about sitting in the dark with a group of strangers and experiencing the same event. It’s like a communal witnessing of something. Even if you don’t end up talking with anybody else about it, the fact that you all shared the same live experience at the same time gives it an extra dimension.
  3. extras

    Like DVD extras, only live. Not included on the recording are things such as lighting, staging, choreography, costumes, between-song banter.
  4. in the presence of greatness

    In our celebrity obsessed culture, we sometimes enjoy being in the presence of someone famous. So when the world-famous orchestra or choral conductor is in town, we like to go to see them just because we can. Like touching the hem of the powerful – maybe some of it will rub off.
  5. magic

    This is the main reason why I go to live music performances. I have no other word for it and can’t describe it in any other way. There is something additional, elusive and special about being in the presence of a group of people making music live. It seldom happens to me in large auditoria or with large orchestras or choirs, but usually in a more intimate setting, often without special lighting or other effects. It maybe takes us back to those early days when there was no separation between performer and spectator, when everyone in the village was a music-maker and the experience was truly a shared one.

What do you think? Why do you go to live performances? As choir leaders and choir members we surely need to know why before we can expect an audience to bother to come to one of our own performances!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Avoiding the ‘C’ word: choir

If I say ‘choir’, an image will pop into most people’s minds.

  • a bunch of fidgety 7-year-olds screeching out a barely recognisable version of Once in Royal David’s City at the school nativity play
  • a group of loud old white men with fruity voices singing in Welsh
  • rows and rows of posh people holding music books and singing in superior upper-class accents
  • an angelic cluster of fresh-faced boys with ruffles around their necks facing sideways onto the congregation during a very serious, important service in a big, old church
  • a sea of exuberant black faces dressed in identical floor-length robes moving and singing with uncontained joy whilst battling against some loud guitars and an over-amplified drum kit

I may well have missed out your favourite image, but you get the idea!

These common images either leave me cold or make me feel excluded. They’re either really bad examples of what a choir can be, or seem to be a special club which wouldn’t have me as a a member.

the choral world

I flail around the web trying to find like-minded souls, but if I use search terms such as ‘choir’ or ‘choral’ I stumble into parallel universes that I simply don’t relate to.

This is the impression I get:

  • much of the choral world exists in the USA (with a small, but significant outcrop in Singapore)
  • most choirs are faith-based, usually Christian, and based in churches
  • most choirs use written music which is often referred to as ‘choral literature’ and is usually Western Classical music
  • choirs are formal, old-fashioned and predictable with an aging membership and aging audience
  • there are countless choral festivals across the world, many in Europe, but rather than just celebrating choral singing, they insist on measuring, comparing, testing and judging choirs through competition

OK, OK, you’re bound to tell me that your choir isn’t like that and there are exciting choirs out there who don’t fit these stereotypes. And I’m sure there are.

My point is that this is the impression created by the choral world, whether intended or not.

what’s in a name?

As soon as you use the word ‘choir’ in your group’s name, or say that you sing ‘choral music’, the danger is that all these stereotypes come into play. In which case, you may well be putting off potential choir members and audiences for your performances.

I mean, what impression would you get from:

The Anytown Ladies Institute Choral Society


The Somewhere and District Municipal Choir ?

what can we do about this?

It’s going to be really, really hard to change the cliched images that are associated with the word ‘choir’. After all, they have been built up over hundreds of years.

The thing that we can change directly is the name we give to our group. There are many ways of avoiding the ‘C’ word, some more successful than others. I’ll give a few examples below, but I’d love to hear from you about other solutions.

What’s you ‘choir’ called? Do you think using the word ‘choir’ puts people off? What other alternatives are there to the dreaded ‘C’ word?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The six qualities needed to be a good choral director

I wrote a while back about how to be a good choir member. But what qualities do you need to be a good choir leader?

young choral conductor

Musical director by spoedman

Lately I’ve written quite a lot about leading choirs. I’ve looked at the basic job definition, the roles and responsibilities and the notion of the ‘benign dictator’ (What the job of choir leader involves). I’ve considered how you might assess a choir leader and whether the ends justify the means (How to tell if your choir leader is rubbish). I’ve detailed the nitty gritty of a typical week in the life of a choir leader including all the admin. and background preparation that’s involved in the job (The job of being a choir leader).

What I haven’t done is consider what kind of person it takes to do all this well. What qualities does a person need to be good at the job of choral director?

six qualities needed to be a good choral director

This is the list I came up with. It’s what I consider to be the minimum necessary to be able to do the job well. I’d love to hear if you think there are any that I’ve left out. They are not in any particular order.

1. enthusiasm

A good choral director needs to have an enthusiasm for choral singing, for song, and for music in general. But more than this, their enthusiasm needs to be infectious and inspirational. They need to sweep the whole choir along with their enthusiasm, excitement and vision.

2. fun

Any decent choir leader must have an excellent sense of humour and needs to maintain and atmosphere of fun in rehearsal and in performance. Most people join a choir because they want to enjoy themselves and have a good time. Excellent music-making will naturally follow.

3. decisiveness

A choral director needs to be prepared and know what they are doing and what they want to achieve. You can’t be clear if you don’t know what you want! It helps if your decisions are consistent and you don’t change from rehearsal to rehearsal. Choir members need to know that you’re in charge and that you have an end result in mind. They don’t want waffle and vagueness.

4. clarity

A good choir leader will be very clear with their instructions and directions. Choir members need to know what’s happening at all stages of rehearsal and performance without any confusion or ambiguity. They need to know that they’re in a good, safe pair of hands, that the director knows what they want and is clear in passing that information on.

5. musicality

A good choral director doesn’t necessarily have to have studied music, know music theory, be able to read music or play an instrument. But they do need to have a deep, intuitive understanding of how music and harmony works. They need a strong sense of musicality.

6. patience

Maybe this is the most important quality, especially with a community or non-professional choir. Learning songs and perfecting performances takes time. Not everyone learns at the same rate. Not everyone understands in the same way. Un-learning bad habits takes a long time. Some people may still be learning to sing in tune, whilst others are able to improvise harmonies.

You need to have a great deal of patience to be able to make allowances for all these different needs. That’s where a good sense of humour comes in!

leadership secrets from a maestro

As I was preparing this post, I came across an article by the classical music conductor Roger Nierenberg (Leadership secrets from a maestro). From his many years experience of conducting symphony orchestras and working with business leaders, Nierenberg  believes that a maestro and an executive face very similar challenges.

He then goes on to outline four basic things that a young conductor needs to know before stepping onto the podium. They can be summarised as:

  • have a clear vision for success
  • listen to your people
  • be clear and unambiguous with your directions/ instructions
  • it’s not about you: it’s about the music

These dovetail neatly with some of the qualities above, and some of the issues I considered in last week’s post on What the job of choir leader involves. Nice to know I’m in good company!

what do choir members think?

My perspective is obviously from the front of the choir. I’d love to hear from those of you who sing regularly in a choir: what do you think are the essential qualities of a good choir leader?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What the job of choir leader involves

Last week I wrote about who your choir actually 'belongs' to (Whose choir is it any way?). Does it belong to the singers, the committee, the arts centre, or the musical  director?


Of course, there are as many answers to this question as there are choirs. But all choirs have a leader (choral director, conductor, musical director — whatever you want to call her), and that leader has a certain minimum number of roles and responsibilities.

What might these be, and how can you make sure you are doing your job as well as you can?

no, no, no ... I'M the boss!

Many choir leaders think they are the boss. They rule with a rod of iron and are totally in charge. Nobody else gets a look-in. It's their choir and they will do with it what they choose (see Getting the best out of your choir 1: moderate or martinet?).

I don’t think this is the best kind of choir leader!

A choir leader certainly needs to be seen as ‘being in charge’, but they also need to take the needs of the choir into consideration, and not just their own needs (for glory, for ego, for adulation).

the benign dictator

I don't believe in 'art by committee'. Where artistic decisions need to be made, it's best left up to one person. Democracy and art don't go together but usually ends in an awful fudge that no one person really believes in.

It's best to leave all major artistic decisions to your musical director. You need to trust they know what they’re doing and that they have the best interests of the choir at heart. By joining a choir, you are basically buying into the choir leader’s 'vision'. If their approach doesn’t suit you, then you need to find another choir.

As with art gallery curators, maybe it’s a good idea to change choral directors every few years. Letting one person’s vision prevail for too long can give rise to a single, limited view of what a choir does or what they are capable of. Maybe choirs should arrange to swap leaders every now and then!

A good choir leader dictates repertoire, style (visual, vocal, etc.), rehearsal technique, approach to performance, commitment needed, standards, and so on. The singers’ belief in the leader and his approach leads to a sense of community, belonging and hopefully, great achievements.

This sort of dictatorship is benign because it needs to be inclusive, kind, supportive, fun, gentle (but firm!), and human, albeit with a clear over-arching artistic vision and ambition.

where to draw the line

The choral director is responsible for all artistic decisions, but the dividing line between what is artistic and what isn’t is a blurry one. Where do we draw the line?

For example, you can argue that accepting an offer to perform is an artistic decision and should be left to the choir leader. But another argument could be made on financial grounds alone, or simply whether any singers are available on a particular date.

If the choir leader has the benefit of administrative support from within the choir, such as a committee, you need to agree on what responsibilities are purely artistic and should be left to the musical director. As is often the case, there will be some decisions that are neither entirely artistic, nor completely administrative. That’s when discussion and compromise comes into play.

it's lonely at the top

The basic leading of weekly choir sessions (warm up, song teaching, conducting and refining songs, etc.) is entirely up to the leader of the choir. That's quite a lot of responsibility for one person and it can be a lonely place.

You know those dreams where you're standing in front of thousands of eager, expectant people waiting to be told what to do, only you don't have a single idea in your head? Well, that's what it's like sometimes standing out in front of the choir. You're on your own and expected to have all the answers.

The best choral director is someone who owns up to being human. Who makes mistakes and is the first to admit that they don't know everything. You still need to be in charge though, and can't open the decision-making process open to the floor!

Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it, especially with the ‘boring’ side of things such as money, room hire, photocopying, etc. You can get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a one-man band here: The job of being a choir leader. After reading that, you may want to ask yourself: Can I do it alone, or will I need help? (section 4 of How to start your own community choir 2 — Forward planning).

your M.D. may know the 'how', but not the 'what'

Being a choir leader is a bit like being a theatre director (a previous occupation of mine). I used to say that both jobs are rather like taking a bunch of (willing!) people on an expedition.

The leader knows all about maps, compasses, living off the land, the best places to camp, how to fend off wild animals, where to find water, etc. etc. They have all the skills and expertise to guide people safely on a journey and know what to do when they get lost. BUT they can't say where that journey will end up.

You will definitely have a good time on the journey, you will stumble across the unexpected, you will discover new things, you will get a little lost maybe, you might end up re-tracing your steps for a while. But you will end up safely, in one piece at the place you where meant to end up — it just might not be where you thought it would be!

You place all your trust in your leader and get on board.

you can't please all the people all the time

One problem that many new choir leaders face is when one or two singers just don’t like what you’re doing.

When I was first starting out, I was always a little nervous of running the warm ups: would they enjoy it? was it too long? would they understand the exercises? There were two particular women who sat in the front row and who always gave a big sigh and raised eyebrows when they stood up to do the warm up. It was clear they were doing it on sufferance and thought it was a waste of time.

I used to take this to heart and spent a lot of time trying to change my warm ups so that they would enjoy it. It didn’t work. Eventually I realised that they would complain whatever I did. They just liked complaining!

Ten years later they were still in the choir, came every week and pretty much performed in every concert. They loved it!

I have an allergy against those neat choirs who stand in rows and all wear exactly the same costume. In my opinion, it’s like having a choir of clones with no personality. It’s a way of evening out all the idiosyncrasies of each individual and removing the humanity from the occasion.

One member of my choir would always come up to me at the end of each term and try to persuade me that what the choir needed in order to be even more wonderful in performance was a choir t-shirt that everyone could wear so that we would all look the same. It really offended her that we each wore different clothes for a concert (although we have a clear colour code).

Every time I would say “No” and put on my best benign dictator smile. She stayed in the choir for many, many years and really enjoyed our concerts.

You certainly can’t please everyone all the time. You may not even take everyone with you on the journey and will lose some singers by the wayside. Don’t take it personally. Most people with stick with you if you have a clear vision, and just whinge every now and then because that’s human nature. Also, people don’t like change!

don’t focus on the negative

Fragile, under-confident people that we are, we can easily be shaken by a negative or critical reaction, even if it’s a minority views.

That one person in the back row of a concert who looks bored; the singer who never joins in with the warm ups; the audience member who asks for more upbeat songs; the tenor who rolls their eyes every time we sing that Georgian song.

These reactions play into our own fears and insecurities. We stop noticing all the positive things around us and only see the critical bits.

There will always be people who don’t like what you do, but they are in the minority. Ignore them! Focus on the happy smiling faces of your choir members and the loud applause at the end of each concert. You’re doing OK —keep up the good work!

qualities that make for a good choir leader

Next week I’ll look at the six qualities that I consider any good choir leader needs to be any good at their job.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Whose choir is it any way?

Your church or community centre sets up the concerts. Your committee deals with the finances and the social events. Your musical director teaches and conducts the songs. Your singers turn up every week to create the music.

But who does your choir actually 'belong' to?

role playing

The different roles involved in running a choir are often divided amongst a number of groups or individuals.

At the very least, most choirs have a musical director, a committee and an organisation which hosts them (e.g. a church or arts/ community centre).

However, some choirs — especially large, mature choirs — have many more roles: section leader, repertoire group, accompanist, assistant musical director, librarian, publicist, and so on. Each of these roles helps to define the flavour and public image of the choir as a whole.

i'm the boss!

Usually these roles can co-exist happily with everyone pull together in the same direction. However, sometimes one or more factions within a choir begin to believe that they alone are responsible for the choir's very existence. Without them, everything would fall apart. It is only because of their super-human efforts that the choir has achieved anything at all so far!

This is human nature and people are usually content with just 'knowing' the fact without it causing any friction. For example, all sopranos know that without them, any song will simply fall apart. But everyone also knows that the bass section is the vital element that holds every song together. There is no harm in this, and in fact, it may help people feel proud about their role in the choir and make more of an effort.

The problem arises when these views become outspoken which can result in conflict. The secret to avoiding such conflict is to always have the bigger picture in view.

always look for the bigger picture

If you're given a responsible role to play in the choir, it's obvious that your focus will be mainly on that aspect of the choir's existence. If you're the treasurer, you will look at the choir's activities in terms of money: how much will it cost? how much will we raise? If you're in the repertoire group, you will be concerned with balancing the types of songs that the choir sings: how many sacred songs did we do in the last concert? how long is it since we sang a Russian song?

Although it's necessary to have this focus, sometimes people lose sight of the bigger picture.

  • Just because a concert looks like costing a lot to put on, it may be worth it as good publicity and a confidence-booster for the choir.
  • It's no good planning the repertoire for the next season without asking why our audience numbers have dropped recently.
  • Agreeing to perform for the town's gala concert may well boost our profile, but we're well-known already and the amount of work involved is just not worth the effort.

creativity vs. nuts and bolts

Don't get me wrong: some kind of administration and organisation is necessary for every choir. You will find the type that suits you. But you need to be aware of the balance between the nuts and bolts and daily administration of any group, and the need to create beautiful music.

In any artistic organisation there needs to be a balance between:

fun, freedom, creativity, and artistry;


seriousness, structure, practicality, organisation.

The first of these is about having a good time, and the second is about making sure that things work.

We need both. If things don't function properly there won't be any good times!

Without creativity and music-making, there would be no concerts. Without a rehearsal space, there could be no singing at all. Without free-ranging, fun weekly sessions, people wouldn't want to join the choir. Without someone to collect the money each week, the choir wouldn't be able to cover its costs.

There are several different ways in which this balance can be struck, but the two most common models are outlined below.

different models: lots of cooks

One model of how to organise a choir is to hand out the many different roles involved to a range of individuals and groups.

Why this is a good thing:

  • spreading the load of responsibility
  • good for identifying the different jobs that need to be done
  • no one person is in charge
  • members of the choir feel more engaged

why it can be a bad thing:

  • too many cooks!
  • rivalry between different groups/ individuals
  • easy to lose sight of the bigger picture
  • can create jobs which aren't real

different models: going it alone

An easier solution, with less conflict, is to have just one person responsible for everything. Some choirs, especially smaller community choirs, just have a choir leader - no committees, no assistants, no treasurers.

Why this is a good thing:

  • everyone knows who is responsible
  • one-stop shop for complaints, suggestions, etc.
  • much easier for one person to keep the bigger picture in mind
  • the choir's identity is clearly defined

why it can be a bad thing:

  • that's a lot of responsibility for one person!
  • even control freaks need help some time
  • the job might just be too big for a single person
  • nobody else gets a look-in: it's more like a dictatorship

without whom none of this would be possible

Before we forget, there is one vital element of any choir without whom the choir would simply not exist: the singers!

It's very easy to lose sight of the fact that a choir needs singers more than it needs anything else. It's important to keep those singers happy and on board with any decisions that are made, whether they are about repertoire, finances, concerts or whatever.

But more importantly, each choir member needs to feel some kind of 'ownership' of the choir. They need to feel empowered and reminded of how important each and every singer is.

There are several ways of doing this, some more successful than others:

  • have a committee and regularly elect new choir members onto it
  • have a regular (annual?) meeting with the whole choir to discuss anything choir-related (if you have a constitution, then normally this will be your AGM)
  • make sure that whoever's in charge (committee, arts centre, musical director) can be contacted easily
  • encourage feedback from choir members
  • send out occasional questionnaires to gauge the views of the choir
  • keep the choir regularly informed of any decisions made on their behalf (a newsletter is good for this)

who keeps the balance?

In my view, it's the musical director who is the person best-placed to keep an eye on the bigger picture and make sure that everybody is happy (well, I would say that wouldn't I??!!). Next week I'll look at what I consider to be the roles and responsibilities of the musical director: How to be a good choir leader.

who's in charge of your choir?

Do you know who your choir belongs to? Are you happy with this situation? Can it be made any better? I'd love to hear how things work in your choir and if you have any other suggestions that I could add to this subject. Do leave a comment below.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Learn how to sing in tune - harmonising

For the last two weeks I’ve been focusing on learning how to match pitch with another singer or instrument. That will help you become better at singing in unison with others. But what about singing in harmony?

singing trio

Singing Trio by Walter Watzpatzkowski

I’ve covered many of the issues involved in harmony singing in a previous post (Singing in harmony – how do they do that?), but in this post I’m going to look in detail at how you stay in tune whilst singing harmony with others.

mind the gap

Basically harmony singing is when two (or more) different notes are sung at the same time. The gap between these two notes is technically called an interval.

Intervals can be of many different sizes. Two notes can be very close together (found often in Eastern European harmonies), very far apart (for instance, when men and women are singing together), easily found (because they are familiar from pop songs and Western classical music), tricky (because they sound a bit unusual like blues or jazz).

back to basics

I know for many of you out there this is very elementary and you all have music theory backgrounds and know your 7ths from your 2nds, but I want to go back to basics and really consider what we’re trying to achieve, so please bear with me!

climbing scales

Even if you don’t know what a scale is, you can practice singing in harmony. The easiest way is to find a piano or keyboard and find middle C (that is the white note nearest to the middle of the keyboard). This is note number one in the scale (of C). Play this note first, then the white note to the right and so on until you get to note number eight. These are the eight notes in the scale.

experimenting on your own

To begin to find out what singing intervals feels like, you can work on your own with an instrument such as a keyboard. Play the first note in the scale and sing a matching pitch (you’ve learnt how to do this from Learn how to sing in tune – matching pitch).

Keep singing this pitch (breath when you have to!) and play the second note in the scale. This may feel a bit weird as the two notes are very close together. Move onto the third note in the scale (whilst still singing note one) and it may feel a bit more familiar (this interval is called a third and is extremely common in Western harmony).

Carry on up the scale and just feel what the different intervals are like. You may prefer some intervals to others. It can seem like each interval creates its own mood.

You may need to keep going back to note one to check that you are still singing in tune.

experimenting with another voice

It’s more likely that you will be singing harmony with another voice rather than an instrument. If you’re starting out, it’s best to work with a singer who has some experience of being able to sing scales accurately and to stay in tune.

You can carry out the same experiment as you did with the instrument, but this time with a human voice. You sing (and hold) the first note in the scale and your friend sings each of the other notes in the scale in turn.

This experience will be different from singing against an instrument because the quality of the sound you are both making is much more similar. You will feel much more of a connection between the two voices and it may have a strong emotional effect on you. Again, depending on your personality and life experience, you will prefer some intervals to others. Each one will create its own mood.

it’s the same note, but it FEELS different!

You may discover an interesting effect at this stage: even though you are always singing the same note, it might feel different as the other note changes against yours!

That is a danger point since it can mean that you drift off towards the other note without noticing and are soon out of tune, especially if the particular interval is one that doesn’t feel ‘pleasing’ to you.

Often it’s the bass section in a choir who get the drone note and, even though on the face of it, it seems simple, it’s very easy for a drone (see below) to drift out of tune as all the other voices change around it.

moving on up

Basically what you’ve been doing up to now by sticking to the first note in the scale is singing a drone note. This is a very common harmonising technique in certain cultures (e.g. Scottish and Georgian). Now it’s time for you to move onto other notes.

Practising either with an instrument (preferably one that can sustain a note like an organ) or another singer, it’s your turn to move up the scale whilst the first note is being played or sung.

You’ve already learnt how to stay on pitch, so begin by singing up the scale with the instrument or your friend to check that you’re singing accurately.

Now, as the first note in the scale is being played, sing the second note in the scale, then move onto the third and so on. This is basically the same listening experience as when you were holding the drone note, but now you are changing pitch all the time.

choose your interval

So far we’ve methodically gone through all the possible intervals in a scale one at a time, in order. Now it’s time to pick specific intervals and see if we can sing them accurately.

Again, it’s easiest if you have something like a keyboard handy. Play the first note in the scale and then pick another note to create an interval. When you start out, the easiest, most familiar notes are the third and the fifth note in the scale.

Play the two notes in the interval. Choose one to sing and get your friend to sing the other one. Double check with the keyboard that you are matching the pitch correctly. Then get close to your friend to see what this interval feels like. If you think you’ve nailed it (the air will seem to shimmer and your voices appear to ‘lock in’ to each other), then try for each of you in turn to slide your note slightly up or down, then come back precisely to where you started.

Take turns at singing the first (root) note of the scale and the interval note. It’s amazing how different it can feel! Also, see what difference it makes sliding up as opposed to down, and then back to the original note.

working without instruments

Now that you’ve had some experience of singing against a keyboard or other instrument, we’ll now move onto just using voices without any external reference points.

Pick a comfortable note in the middle of your range and sing it. Let’s call this the first note of the scale. Now sing a scale, giving each note a number, i.e. 1, 2, 3, ... , 8.

This is the same as you did when singing against the white notes on the keyboard, it’s just that now note number one might not be a C. Make sure that the high note is comfortable for you. If not, choose a different starting note and try again.

Sing this scale a few times to make sure you’ve got it right. Get your friend to give some feedback on your accuracy.

Now we move on to building the scale up one note at a time. This is good practice for singing intervals accurately and is vital for harmony singing.

Sing note number 1, then 1, 2, then 1, 2, 3, then 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. Basically you are building the whole scale by returning to the root/ first note each time, then adding one more note of the scale at the top until you reach note eight (by the way, note 8 is an octave above note 1 if that’s of any use to you!).

finding the right gap

Once you’ve nailed the building a scale exercise, you can move onto singing just intervals without any help from an instrument.

Start by singing note 1 in the scale. Then sing note 1 followed by note 2 (easy and familiar so far). Then sing note 1 followed by note 3 (we’ve missed out note 2!). Then try note 1 followed by note 4. And so on.

This is an incredibly useful exercise, but can be quite hard at first. Even though you’re now very familiar with the scale, can sing up it with ease, and can even build it one note at a time, you will find that sometimes you will over- or under-estimate the gap between note 1 and the note you’re aiming at. This is when a friend (or a keyboard) comes in as useful feedback. Try it for a while on your own, then get some feedback to see if you’ve been getting it right.

You might find that some particular intervals give you more problems than others. You will almost certainly find note 7 hard to get (this is blues and jazz), and some people find 4 rather tricky. You may also find that you are consistent in the way that you get it wrong. For instance, you may always misjudge note 3 by going a bit too high. If you find this out through feedback, then you note this tendency and try to correct it each time.

Once you can do this interval exercise quite well, move onto a different key by choosing a new note number one, and repeat the exercise.

up or down?

There are two ways of singing an interval when it occurs in a melody (as opposed to a harmony where both notes are sung at the same time): up or down. For example, you can start on note 1 and go up to note 3, or you can start on note 3 and go down to note 1. It's a good musical training exercise to go back over some of the exercises in this post and do them in reverse, i.e. start from the top and work downwards.

well-known intervals

If you have no instruments or friends nearby and you need to sing a particular interval, there is a neat trick that can help you. Various people have compiled lists of well-known songs that feature specific intervals. All you have to do is to sing that bit of the song, and you’ve found your interval!

For example, a fourth (the interval between note 1 and note 4) is the beginning of Auld Lang Syne: “Should old ...”. As mentioned above, you might come across intervals in melodies going from up to down, rather than the other way round. These lists of intervals give you examples of both directions.

You can find examples of interval lists here:

singing with a friend

You’ve practised intervals on your own by singing the first note of the scale, followed by another note in the scale. Now it’s time to enlist the services of a friend to play the same game.

Choose an interval (e.g. that between 1 and 5). Take turns at singing a note, any note. This is note 1. The other singer then sings note 5.  Check that the interval is correct.

To move onto harmony singing, you then sing your notes at the same time. This should then begin to feel like the exercises you did when one of you sang a drone note. The main difference is that you have chosen a particular interval, and you have sung it without reference to an instrument. Again, try sliding in and out.

beyond two-part harmony

So far, you have just been singing two part harmony. That is, one part has one note and the second part has a different note, which then creates an interval.

Most harmony singing is in more than two parts. Three part harmony is very common. This is when three different notes are sung at the same time. These three notes then create what is known as a chord. A very common chord in pop songs is a major chord which consists of notes 1, 3 and 5 in the scale.

Of course, you’ll need another friend to sing three part harmony! One of you picks and sings a note (that will be note 1 in the scale). Another sings note 3, and the the remaining singer sings note 5. Take turns to sing the different notes to see if it feels different at all.

getting it right feels like getting it wrong!

Sometimes you are singing in harmony with one or more other voices when it feels so absolutely perfectly right. You’ve totally nailed the intervals and are spot on pitch and it sounds wonderful! But because it’s so perfect, it’s as if the notes are singing themselves. In fact, you’re no longer sure which part you’re singing. You listen hard, but each note fits in so perfectly with the others that you can’t remember which is yours. Maybe you’re singing the same note as one of the others and have forgotten your own part?

This is very common. Often when singing harmony in a small group I suddenly panic and think that I’m singing in unison with another voice instead of my own part. But usually I’ve got it right and it’s just working really well.

If you have a doubt (and it’s in rehearsal), then stop and double check. Most of the time you will have been singing the right note and just need confirmation.

carry on singing!

Now that you can match pitch accurately, find intervals with ease, and sing perfectly in harmony, then check out the other skills needed to sing in a choir or with a small group (Singing in harmony – how do they do that?), and keep on singing!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Learn how to sing in tune – matching pitch 2

Last week in Learn how to sing in tune – matching pitch 1 I looked at the first steps you can take to help you to sing in tune.

You need to:

  • figure out what you want to achieve
  • learn to really listen
  • find some thing or some person to pitch against
  • get feedback on whether you’re pitching right or not

That’s all very well, but what if you find that you’re not matching pitch well enough? What can you do to improve your pitching ability?

make friends with your voice

Your friend tells you you’re not getting it right. What adjustments can you make so you can match her pitch correctly?

Before you can begin to make changes you need to become familiar with your own voice and its capabilities. Start by being playful with your voice:

  • experiment in the shower (nobody’s listening!);
  • try to sing as high/ low as you can (wow, that’s high!);
  • follow your friend’s hand as it rises and falls and try to slide your pitch up and down accordingly (fun, fun, fun!);
  • impersonate different singers (yes, even that one!);
  • have fun, and don’t take it too seriously!

learn to listen better

The pitch matching exercises I outlined last week might be too subtle for you if you’re a real beginner. Trying to match another pitch involves hearing the other pitch accurately, and then making tiny adjustments to your own vocal production. This may just be too advanced for you at this stage.

Another way in is to get the instrument or singer to try and match your pitch rather than you trying to match them.

reversing the process

Matching pitch is all about learning to listen in a new way. You may have got into a habit when trying to match an external sound (voice, instrument) of always singing above or below the pitch without realising it (see last week’s story about the guy who always sang lower than the pitch he was hearing).

By reversing the process, it puts you in control and emphasises listening rather than production of the note:

you sing a note and your friend either sings it back to you (or plays it on an instrument) at the same pitch.

At first you may be surprised and it may not sound like the ‘same’ note. But gradually, you will begin to recognise that the note your friend is giving you is the same note as the one you’re producing.

After you have perfected this listening training, you can then go back to trying to match the pitch as outlined last week, i.e. your friend produces a note and you try to match it.

finding the right singing buddy

You may be able to match pitch perfectly, just not with the friend you’re singing with!

Everybody’s voice is unique. Each voice has its own colour, texture, clarity, etc. Some people sing very straight, ‘pure’ notes, whilst others have a lot of vibrato. One person singing a note might appear to be singing a lot lower than another person singing exactly the same note. Some people always seem to be singing louder than everyone around them. One person might always sing slap bang in the centre of a note, whilst someone else may sing a little on the edge of the pitch.

This means that our perception of whether we’re singing the same pitch as someone else depends a lot on their individual vocal production (see How do I know if I’m singing in tune?: Singing the same note, sounding different). If you’re not getting it right with one singing buddy, it might be an idea to try another singer to see if it makes any difference.

maybe you’re asking for the impossible!

If you’re trying to match a pitch, there’s always the danger that the particular note being played or sung is outside the range of notes that you can comfortably produce. You’re aiming for something that simply isn’t possible!

This can very quickly put off a beginner, so very early on you need to establish that you’re inside your comfortable range. How can you do this?

When you first start singing, the range of notes that you can produce (i.e. how high or how low you can sing) will be quite small. Get a friend that you feel comfortable singing in front of and sing a note (gently!) on an ‘ah’ sound. It might take a few goes, but find a note that is comfortable and effortless to sing.

Once you’ve found this note, let’s assume that this is slap bang in the middle of your comfortable range. Then try gently sliding from this note up and up until you feel that it’s too screechy, or too much of a strain, or just uncomfortable. Go back a little way below this and let’s call this your highest note. Reverse the process for you lowest note. During this, your friend can write down what these highest and lowest notes are and then make sure that any pitch matching is done within this range.

If you’re working on your own, you can use an electronic tuner and simply read off the note names when you get to your highest and lowest notes.

not being yourself

There is a slight danger when trying to find the ‘natural’ range of your voice, especially when you don’t have much singing experience. Many of us when we start out get into bad habits by trying to impersonate singers we admire. This can result in us not using our own voices in the most ‘natural’, easy way, but can put strain on our vocal production. However, because we’ve been doing it for so long, it can feel very natural, even though it’s not really our own voice. Again, you can get a trustworthy friend to give you some feedback on this.

Also, have a look at earlier posts such as: But I can’t sing that high!, Everybody has a place in the choir, Why people think they can't sing.

breathe easy

You may find that you’re starting to be able to match pitch better and better, but not consistently. Sometimes you get it spot on, other times you miss entirely. Sometimes you hit it bang on at the start, but then you begin to waver and go off quite badly. This latter is probably caused by not having enough breath support.

I don’t have enough space to go into breath support in detail, but you can experiment on your own to see the results.

Imagine that you have a balloon living in your tummy. Now breathe in as deeply as you can (without lifting your shoulders) and imagine that the balloon is inflating inside you as big as it can be. Now sing a matching pitch (you might need to make a small adjustment at the start until you’re spot on) and keep on singing until all your breath has gone. Did you notice that towards the end your voice began to waver a little and you maybe went off pitch?

Now take a small, quick breath. Breathe out until most of the breath has gone then repeat the exercise above. Could you match the pitch easily at the start? Could you sustain it for very long? Did you feel that you were in control

Basically, the more breath you have deep down inside you and available to you in reserve, the easier and more controlled your sung note will be. So if you’re finding it hard to match pitch, maybe try different ways of breathing to see if that can help.

Play, play, play with your voice and breathing and have fun – that’s the secret!

too much going on at once!

If you’re singing with a buddy and there’s nobody else there to give you feedback, you might be asking to much of him.

Your singing buddy is having to sing a note themselves, which involves vocal production and listening to see if they’ve produced the note accurately. But they’re also being asked to listen to your note at the same time to see if it’s pitched correctly. This is very hard and might not produce the correct results. If your buddy is struggling, then this is the time to involve a third singer to listen to you both.

mind your vowels

As well as another person’s voice having different characteristics to yours, there are other elements at play in vocal production that can make a big difference. The most important one of these is how you sing your vowels.

You might hear a choral conductor talking about blend in a choir. This is the aim for a large number of voices to sound so similar to each other that it’s as if a single voice is singing. Because of the different colour, texture, etc. of particular voices, singers are often moved around within a choir so that they stand next to other voices with a similar quality.

But one variation that a whole choir can improve upon is vowel production. You can try this yourself at home: choose a vowel, say ‘A’ for example, and sing it in as many different accents as you can on the same pitch. Imagine that you are a very posh Londoner, an Italian diva, an oil man from Texas. You will find that each accent produces a very different sound, even though the note you are singing is the same each time.

This is what can help with blend. Now that you’ve begun to match pitch accurately, try changing the vowel sound whilst singing the same note as your singing buddy until you feel that you have matched the sound perfectly. It should feel like there is just one person singing.

Eventually, after lots of practice, it will become easier to match pitch, but often what is objectively ‘right’ (i.e. you are pitching correctly) might feel wrong.

matching your experience with result

It might seem very obvious, but when you eventually get it right and match the pitch you need someone to tell you!

When you begin to learn a new sport like golf, for example, you are taught about stance, swing, focus, etc. Sometimes you manage to hit the ball effortlessly and accurately, but don’t really know why. Gradually you need to get a feeling for when you’ve got the preparation right so that the shot will be perfect. For this, you need someone to point it out: “Great shot!”. Then you can begin to connect the experience with the result.

When you pitch the note accurately and correctly, you need a buddy to tell you: “Spot on!”, then you need to note how you feel and what you did so gradually it will become second nature.

next week

Once you’ve mastered the ability to match a given pitch accurately, you may want to move onto singing in harmony with other voices. Next week I’ll look at how to develop the singing skills needed to harmonise in tune.


Chris Rowbury's website: