Sunday, May 01, 2011

Do you need perfect pitch to lead a choir?

Question This post is part of a series of occasional Questions and Answers. Just use the contact form if you want to submit a question.

A budding choir director writes:

“Last year I got involved with helping to lead a community choir. I have a musical background in that part of my degree was in music and I play the piano and cello. However, I have never had any singing lessons or led a choir before or even been in a choir — except a school choir — so when I was asked to help I was quite nervous!

“I found that I really enjoyed conducting and teaching new songs. However, I’ve been getting a little stressed recently because when I come to teach parts, I can’t always think what the note is that I need to give the section of the choir when we’re rehearsing. Or when I need to help out a part by singing along with them, I can’t always come in with the correct note.

“Does this suggest that I haven’t got a good enough ear to lead a choir? I’m beginning to fear this is the case. I can usually pitch A and get a note from that, but I certainly haven’t got perfect pitch.”

My first response is “Gosh, you’re more musically trained than I am!”

Just like you, when I first started leading choirs I had never had singing lessons and hadn’t been in a choir since school (and even then we didn’t sing in parts)

I too was very nervous when I first started out, but it does get easier. Even so, I still get nervous before a new season or a one-day workshop. I think that’s healthy as it means I never get complacent and keep doing the same old stuff.

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “I can’t always think what the note is”. I always, always write down the start notes of each part of the song I’m teaching. I have a chromatic pitch pipe that has all the notes in the scale and I just dial up the appropriate note and blow into it.

I don't have perfect pitch by any means and, given an ‘A’ for example, I’m rubbish at finding, say, an ‘F’. In which case you are far more accomplished than I am!

Use an instrument to get the start notes and write down what they are. Even the best professional conductors do it!

Even though I teach by ear and don’t hand out sheet music, I always have a copy of the score myself when I’m teaching. I often don’t have to refer to it, but it’s good to have it in reserve if I get confused or make a mistake. I’ve taught over 600 songs in the last ten years so it’s very hard to keep every part of every song in my head. The score is useful if you need to find the right note to come in with a part half way through a song, say.

If you need to, just stop, check the note on an instrument or pitch pipe, and then carry on. It will get easier as you (and the choir) become more familiar with a song.

I think you’re being far too hard on yourself. You don’t need perfect pitch to lead a choir.

You might like to check out an earlier post: Start as you mean to carry on (about giving out starting notes — read the comments!)


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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