Sunday, September 27, 2009

Learn how to sing in tune – matching pitch 1

Last week I looked at how you know if you’re singing in tune. It turns out that it’s quite complicated and depends on many different factors.

But what can you do to fix it if you are singing out of tune?

This week I’m going to suggest some things you can try so that you can improve your tuning abilities. Of course, I’m sure I’ve missed out loads of ideas, so please let me know if you have any other methods which have helped you stay in tune.

what do you want to achieve?

Do you need to be in tune with other singers, or with instruments? Will you be singing in unison or in harmony? A cappella or with backing? Practising for a karaoke night or a big performance with your choir?

I’m going to focus this week on the process of discovering how you can match pitch so that you can sing in unison with others. Next week I’ll look in more detail at things you can do to improve your pitch matching skills.

The week after that I’ll look at what can help you sing harmonies accurately, which means learning about the intervals between notes, how to recognise them, and how to hold on to them.

two sides of the process: listening and producing

In order to sing the correct pitch you need to be able to transmit a sound and also, at the same time, be able to listen to that sound and how it fits in with other sounds.

Most people jump right in at the transmission stage without considering the perception/ listening stage! There are so many elements involved in producing a sound with the human voice, and many, many different muscles are involved in vocal production. We have to learn to have some control over this in order to be able to consistently produce the sound that we want.

However, it’s not something that happens overnight. Think of how long it took you to learn to catch a ball when you were young, all that muscle control and hand-to-eye co-ordination. Now we need to learn some ear-to-voice co-ordination.

First off you have to learn to listen, and I mean listen.

  • listen to others singing,
  • listen to choral recordings,
  • go to live concerts,
  • spend some time in the country and listen to nature,
  • learn how noisy a ‘silent’ room can be.

This has to be the first step in being able to produce the right note at will: learning to really hear what is going on, to be able to listen attentively.

This is vital even for experienced singers. As well as warming up the voice, we also need to warm up our ears before we begin to sing.

get some feedback

Now we move on to the stage of producing a vocal sound.

Somehow you will need to get some feedback as to whether you are hitting the right note or not. When you kick a football at a goal, you can see whether it hits the back of the net or not. As you begin train your ear, you will need some kind of feedback to tell you whether you’ve hit the right note or not. In the early stages of learning, your own ear is probably not the best judge!

If you’re on your own, you could practice singing with an electronic tuner that shows visually when you are flat, sharp or on pitch.

If you have a friend, singing buddy or teacher, then they can tell you when you’ve got the pitch right or not. Of course, the other person needs to have a good sense of tuning themselves!

working on your own

Play a note on an instrument like a piano, and try to match that pitch. Make sure the note is not too high or too low for you (see next week)! A good place to start is middle C in the centre of the piano keyboard. Then try to sing that note and look what the electronic tuner says.

If you’re sharp, then you’re singing too high (above the pitch) and will need to bring your pitch down a bit. If you’re singing flat, then you’re singing too low (below the pitch) and will need to raise your pitch a bit.

You will never get it exactly spot on – we are human after all! – so just aim to get pretty close.

A tuner is good place to begin, and will give you a rough idea of whether you’re near the note in question or not. You may get quite good at this, but matching pitch with an electronic tuner is not the same as singing with other people or with a band!

working with a friend

Perhaps a more realistic method is to have another person with you to tell you when you’ve got the pitch right or not. This could be a mate or a singing tutor.

There are several ways to use this other person. You can try matching pitch as follows:

  • against an instrument like a piano
  • in unison with another voice (not your friend’s)
  • in unison with your friend’s voice

Basically, you try to match the pitch accordingly and your friend/ tutor will tell you if you’ve got it right or not. They will indicate if you need to go a little bit higher or a little bit lower (whether you’re flat or sharp).

matching against an instrument

Play a note on the instrument. Try to match it with your voice. Possible problem: the note you’ve chosen is not within your singing range (see next week).

in unison with another voice

Try to match the other person’s pitch. Possible problem: finding the right singing buddy (see next week).

in unison with your friend

Try to match their pitch. Possible problem: if you’re both singing at the same time, it might be hard for your friend to hear accurately that you’re both singing the same note (see next week).

There is another way that you can tell if two people are singing exactly the same note. You will find that if you are spot on, it’s as if the air itself begins to vibrate. You have found a kind of ‘sweet spot’ which resonates in the room. The sound will appear richer and more textured and you might be able to hear other, sympathetic notes ringing in your ears. That means you’ve nailed it!

I’m getting it wrong – what do I do now?

Next week I’ll look at how you can learn to make the right adjustments in order to sing in tune with a given pitch.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

How do I know if I’m singing in tune?

When singing with others, it’s important to sing in tune. But what does that mean exactly and how can you learn to do it?

This week I’m going to look at what ‘singing in tune’ might mean. Next week I’ll consider some ways of learning how to sing in tune, and how you can improve your listening abilities.

why can’t you hear how bad you are??!!!

As the current run of X Factor clearly demonstrates, there are many deluded souls out there who believe that they are singing perfectly in tune, but in fact are way, way out! Surely they must realise? After all, it’s pretty clear to the audience when things are off. Why can’t they hear how bad they are?

Often, even when singers are completely out of tune, their friends and family think they are wonderful. Are they hearing something different from us?

If these awful singers can’t hear how bad they are, maybe that means we’re always off too!

One big fear that many singers in choirs have is that they are singing dreadfully out of tune, but the others around them are just too kind to point it out! Most of the time you have nothing to worry about, but let’s have a look at what’s going on.

what does ‘being in tune’ mean any way?

Before you can decide whether you sing out of tune or not, we have to look at exactly what we mean by ‘singing in tune’.

‘To be in tune’ implies that there is something to be in tune with. If you’re singing with others, then you need to be in tune with them somehow. If you’re singing with instrumental backing, then you need to be in tune with the instruments.

There are two ways of being in tune with other singers or with instruments:

  • singing the same note, i.e. matching the pitch
  • singing the right harmony, i.e. finding the right pitch relative to another

The ‘pitch’ of a note is the frequency of the sound being produced, i.e. the speed of vibrations of the sound waves arriving at your ear. We perceive this as a note sounding higher or lower than another. The faster the sound waves vibrate, the higher the note appears to be.

It’s made more complicated because no note from a human voice or instrument is ever pure. There are many other notes going on at the same time known as harmonics which we don’t consciously notice.

singing the same, sounding different

Two singers can be singing the same note, but sound completely different. Each person’s voice has a unique sound depending on gender, physical make-up, culture, singing experience, time of day, singing style, health, etc. etc. It is like a fingerprint.

When a particular person produces a clear, simple note (no affectations, no vibrato) well supported by breath, there are many sympathetic vibrations created in their bodies. This gives rise to a series of harmonics (extra notes that resonate at the same time, but which we can’t usually hear directly) which gives the voice a particular texture, ‘colour’ or quality.

It’s these harmonics which make different musical instruments sound different from each other. It is related to the size of the instrument and the materials it’s constructed from. In the same way, no two human bodies will be able to make exactly the same sounds. The unique sound of each human voice is what keeps impressionists in show business!

So, when two singers sing the same pitch (e.g. the middle C on a piano), they will not sound the same. Usually they are similar enough for us to be able to tell if they are singing the same pitch or not. But sometimes, their vocal qualities are so different that it may appear that one singer is singing much lower than the other for example.

This is why some singers seem to ‘blend’ in well with each other when singing (that’s why your musical director sometimes moves people around in your section) and others don’t. It’s also why you might find it hard to pitch a note from one singer, but much easier from another.


Perhaps, then, it’s not a good idea to try to pitch off your neighbour. Their colour, vibrato, vowel formation, etc. might make you perceive their voice as being too low or too high, or you might not even be able to ‘hear’ the note they’re singing clearly enough.

In this case, try to find someone who you can pitch successfully from. In extreme cases it’s almost like you need someone to translate the note for you. The choir leader sings a note to the choir, your friend then has to sing it to you for you to be able to pitch properly.

Some people find it hard to pitch from other singers and need to hear the note from an instrument, e.g. a piano.

And finally, trying to pitch across genders can be disastrous! I’ve tried to explain before the difficult issue of singing in different octaves (i.e. male vs. female voices) (see Singing the same note - differently!). Not an easy thing to understand or deal with, so try to avoid it when starting out.

harmony can be so perfect

Some harmonies sound blissfully wonderful. We are so used to certain harmonies (e.g. 3rds, 5ths) because we hear them so often in Western pop and classical music. We might not understand the theory behind them, but they seem so familiar that sometimes we don’t even notice them. Sometimes we don’t even realise that a group is singing harmony because the notes just seem to fit in so well with each other.

Which means that sometimes we may be singing harmony against someone else but think we are out of tune. This can be because:

  • the harmony is an unfamiliar one (e.g. 4th, 6th) so sounds ‘wrong’ to our ears
  • we are singing perfectly in tune, in harmony but because it seems to easy and natural we freak out and think that we’re singing the same as everyone else.

there’s nothing to see when we get it right

Suppose we think we’re singing out of tune. How do we know? Unless the person next to us wrinkles their nose and gives us a funny look, we have no way of knowing. But even if they do, maybe they’re wrong too!

If you’re practising for basket ball, for example, you have clear visual feedback – the ball either goes in the hoop or it doesn’t. You then make tiny physical adjustments until the ball does what you want. But when you’re singing, there is no such visual feedback. You might not realise you’re getting it wrong, but even if you do, you don’t know how much to adjust your tuning until you get it right.

be patient

Like exercising any other kind of muscle, it takes time for individuals to learn to be in tune. You might even be an expert instrumentalist, but using your voice is a whole different instrumental challenge.

First off you will begin to notice large scale differences: you are singing the wrong note entirely whilst you are learning a new melody. You will soon hone in on the correct note as you become more familiar with the new song.

Next you will start to become sensitive to when you are slightly ‘sharp’ (a tiny bit above the correct pitch) or ‘flat’ (slightly below the correct pitch). The first step is to notice this, then you can begin to experiment with tiny adjustments until you feel that you are closer to the correct pitch.

Finally, in the advanced stage of learning, you begin to realise that you can express yourself (and each particular song) more clearly by varying pitch ever so slightly, bending notes, arriving at notes from slightly above for example. You will now have full control of pitch matching and can make fine adjustments at will.

This will all take some time, so please be patient!

maybe you need to sing out of tune

I had a friend once who had the most beautiful voice and could sing solo wonderfully. Her tuning was impeccable and she could hold a tune with no problem.

But as soon as she started to sing with others, even in unison, she went badly out of tune. She would sing the same melody as the rest, but ever so slightly out. It turns out that she was a bit of a control freak, and when she sang perfectly in tune she felt that she disappeared into the mix and couldn’t hear herself any longer. So in a sense she ceased to exist and began to freak out. The only way she could hang onto her sense of identity was to sing slightly out of tune with everyone else so she could still hear her own voice!

Singing together is a wonderful experience, and sometimes the music takes over and seems to have a life of its own. Individual singers disappear and the resulting sound seems to create itself. Learn to enjoy these moments and let your ‘self’ go. Give yourself up the selflessness of the music.

most of the time it doesn’t matter

We’re not machines. Nobody can sing perfectly in tune. It’s the slight variations between all the different voices in a choir which gives it such a rich, human texture.

Many singers, especially beginners, worry too much about being in tune. In my experience, most people are roughly in tune most of the time – or at least in the right neighbourhood. The beauty of a choir is that it averages out all the voices. So don’t worry if you think that you are out of tune in your section. Unless the whole section is consistently out, it probably won’t notice. It’s easy to lose sight of the whole if you’re just one person in a large choir (see The bigger picture).

it’s not just you!

Everybody has their off days. Not everyone can sing in tune every time. Some days the whole choir can be out. This can be to do with tiredness (too much rehearsal!), the weather, the key that a song is in, the difficulty of a song, etc. The whole choir might be flat or consistently be getting an interval wrong. But the next week, all will be fine, so don’t give yourself a hard time!

I may be wrong – it’s not an exact science

Sometimes when I hear a group or individual performing, I slightly wince because it seems to me that they are out of tune. Maybe consistently sharp, or just getting the tune wrong. But nobody else seems to notice!

Many times on the X Factor the judges mention that an act was out of tune, but I don’t agree. At other times I think a whole performance is badly flat, but the judges say nothing.

Tuning is in the ear of the beholder – both ourselves and our audience. Both parties don’t always agree! There is enough elasticity in the human voice that tuning can never be an exact science.

learning how to sing in tune

Next week I’ll introduce some simple techniques which will help you find out if you sing out of tune, and help you learn to pitch correctly: Learn how to sing in tune - matching pitch 1.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, September 13, 2009

How to tell if your choir leader is rubbish

A while back I attended a singing workshop and hated the way it was run. Was it just me, or was the workshop leader no good?

We all have different learning styles, so perhaps the leader’s teaching style just didn’t suit me. Or maybe there was some kind of personality clash – I simply didn’t like him as a person. How can you tell if it’s you or them? How can you know if your choir or singing workshop leader is any good at their job?

does the end justify the means?

One way of evaluating a teacher or choral director is if they get results. If we end up learning a song or performing an amazing concert, then we might say that a good job has been done. But does the end always justify the means? If you’ve had a really bad time and have been shouted at and belittled, then you might not think the job has been done well. If the group of singers you’re with is quite accomplished, you might end up with a good result despite the person who’s been leading you. So maybe judging the end result is not enough.

a good time was had by all!

Another way to assess a leader is if the whole experience has been pleasurable and rewarding. Surely if you’ve had a great time at a workshop or got a fantastic buzz from a concert, then you must have been lead well? But what if the music you’ve made is not really up to scratch? You might have had a good time, but the audience thought it was a lousy concert (see How was it for you?). You might have had a really fun day at the workshop, but have only learnt one song, and not a very difficult one at that. Was that money well spent? The danger of this approach to assessment, is that one person’s good time is another’s nightmare. This is where personality, taste, sensitivity, venue, personal life story, etc. come into play. “Having a good time” is too subjective an idea to use on its own.

growing and learning

Yet another means of appraising a choir or workshop leader is to reflect on whether you feel that you’ve learnt anything, or have grown in some way through the experience. This needs a certain amount of self-awareness. Some people lack this and simply won’t notice that they’re becoming better singers as time goes by! Others, who have a finely developed awareness, will almost certainly learn something from every experience, even bad ones. These people will learn despite the quality of the teaching. So assessing the learning outcome is not enough either.

there are no absolutes

The conclusion I have come to is that it is impossible to evaluate objectively whether a singing workshop leader or choral director is any good. Teaching styles, personality, choice of repertoire, gender, context, goals, are some of the many variables to take into account. Which implies that out there somewhere is a leader who will suit you perfectly, but not necessarily your friend.

good and bad

Good choir leading and song teaching – as with beauty – is in the eye of the beholder. A good choir leader for one singer might be a nightmare experience for another. A life-changing singing workshop for one singer might be a lame, simplistic waste of time for another more experienced singer. A teacher/ leader has to suit the singers they’re working with. Which is why people choose different choirs and different workshops.

Really bad leading and bad teaching will usually be found out. If someone is that bad at what they do, then nobody will get anything out of it. People will stop going to their workshops and stop joining their choirs.

getting away with it

For me, the worst things are mediocre or abusive leaders. Singers get used to a lacklustre or an angry approach. They start to believe that that is the only way of doing things. They get used to the leader’s style and find it hard to adapt to other approaches.

Some people actually enjoy being shouted at and believe that this somehow represents “hard work” and a “serious, disciplined approach”. Others like the safety and comfort of a lame leader – they don’t like to be stretched, challenged or threatened.

do no harm

As long as a choir or singing workshop leader is doing no obvious damage (to throats, to confidence, to music, to enthusiasm), then let them carry on. Just be sure to choose one that suits you, but don’t get complacent: use a certain amount of self-reflection (am I getting the most out of singing that I can?), and try out different experiences regularly (new workshops, choirs with different repertoire, challenging master classes). There is the right leader out there for you. If you’re not getting what you need or want from your current leader, then go and find a new one!

qualities of a good choir leader

If you’ve had experience of bad choir leadership, you may be interested in what I consider to be the six qualities that any good choral director needs.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Is your audience just friends and family?

Does your choir actually have a public following, or are you just kidding yourself?

When a choir first starts performing in public, most of the audience will be made up of friends and family. We hope that they will then tell their friends how wonderful we are and they will come to our next show. Word of mouth will spread like wild fire until we have a huge following.

But is that how it is for most performing choirs?

Looking at a breakdown of our summer concert audience this year and last, it turns out that many familiar names pop up. In fact, a large proportion of last year’s audience came again this year!

Does that mean we have a core audience who follow us around? Or maybe some people only come to our summer concerts rather than, say, our Christmas ones. Or are we kidding ourselves, and this ‘core’ audience is our only audience? Is it, in fact, the same group of friends and family (and maybe a few other ‘fans’ thrown in for good measure) who have been following us from the start?

Although we are a largish choir (80+ voices on the books), we don’t really play large venues. Our audiences usually only number between 100 and 130. We have become used to this, and possibly this is normal for a typical choir performance.

Not only does the word ‘choir’ conjure up a particular image and perhaps put off some punters, but we also don’t sing the usual choral repertoire. So even if there are choral enthusiasts out there, they probably aren’t the sort to appreciate our repertoire (“We want more songs in English!”).

Now that you’ve read this far, you might be expecting some answers. I’m afraid I don’t have any though!

My hunch is that, yes, much of our audience is made up of friends and family. And yes, we do have a small, core bunch of fans who follow us around. Trouble is, what do you do when you’ve exhausted these people? After all there are only so many times your mum and dad want to come to the same concert!

I remember reading in Simon Callow’s book Being an actor about the time when he was in his first long run of a play. He talks about friends and family coming to his dressing room after the performance. Gradually, over the months, these visits begin to drop away as all his friends and family have seen the show. Eventually nobody visits his dressing room and he feels rather alone.

It is at times like this when we see who our audience really is. After the long run of a play, or a long concert tour, or many years of choir performances, friends and family may fade away and we are left with true fans of our work (if we’re lucky!).

So I guess my next question is: how can we widen our audience beyond just friends and family? Assuming that there is an audience out there for our work, how can we reach them?

Have we become lazy in promoting our work and presenting concerts because we imagine that there is an audience? But in reality it’s just the same core group of people following us. Time perhaps to rejuvenate our approach, brush up our repertoire, put some pizazz into the show, push our publicity. It’s never the wrong time to re-examine how you might reach a new audience. Complacency is the enemy of good work!

I’d love to hear of your experiences with your choir. Do you just have a following of friends and family? Have you found ways of widening your audience?


Chris Rowbury's website: