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.


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