Sunday, October 06, 2013

Help! How to deal with choir members who sing out of tune?

In open-access choirs (which don’t audition), you often find one or two singers who struggle to pitch notes accurately.

black sheep
photo by Jesus Solana

In a large choir, a few individuals singing out of tune won’t usually notice. But if it does become a problem, here are some actions you can take.

learning to sing in tune

Pitching accurately is something that is learnt, like riding a bicycle. It’s a small miracle that a singer can engage exactly the right muscles in exactly the right way in order to produce a specific note.

Many of us do this without thinking, but it’s taken lots of trial and error and feedback mechanisms for us to be able to do it well. Just because it comes easy doesn’t mean to say it’s not clever!

“It’s kind of amazing that any of us can vocally control pitch enough to sing well,” says psychologist Peter Pfordresher of the University at Buffalo, New York (see article in Science News below).

In the same way that we don’t expect somebody to be able to serve in tennis or ride a bicycle or score a goal or drive a car the first time they try, we need to be patient and give people time to learn how to pitch well.

In an open-access choir, you’ll get singers of all abilities and experience – from complete novices to those who’ve sung in choirs for years and had singing lessons.

when bad pitching becomes a problem

There have been many happy singers in the choirs I’ve run over the years who sang out of tune most of the time. They loved coming to choir and performing and because they were in the minority (and didn’t sing too loudly!) it didn’t really matter as they disappeared in the overall sound of the choir.

Occasionally though you will get someone who sings very loudly and not on pitch. It can stick out in performance, but more importantly it can put off nearby singers. In this case something needs to be done for the greater good of the choir.

Here are a few things you can try if you have a few singers who are consistently (and loudly!) out of tune. Most of these can be done whether you’re a singer or a choir leader.

  • be patient – put up with it and hope that they’ll get there in the end.
  • sing in their ear – either the choir leader or a confident choir member can sing into their ear to try and keep them on track.
  • work with their section – never single anyone out (it will destroy their self-confidence). Focus on the whole of their section or a smaller group who sing the same part and spend time on detailed work.
  • stand next to someone else – sometimes it’s hard to sing next to a particular individual, something about the quality of their voice can put you off. Some people can pitch off one person, but not another. Try moving singers around within their part.
  • use a piano – if songs are normally taught by ear, try picking out the tune on an instrument. Some people find it hard to pitch from other singers, but are fine when they hear their part on an instrument. Or vice versa – if you normally learn from a piano, try learning from someone singing the part.
  • create warm up challenges – introduce lots of pitching exercises in the warm ups. It will benefit the choir as a whole as well as training up individual singers.
  • pitch from the same gender – most of us automatically make the adjustment when someone of the opposite gender is singing to us. We realise when someone is low or high in their own range, then we adapt for our own voice. Some people can’t do this though and need a note at the same absolute pitch as they’re going to sing at. So if a singer finds it difficult to pitch from someone of the opposite sex, find another choir member they can get the note from.
  • change parts – it could be that the singer who can’t pitch is singing the wrong part and the notes are not comfortably within their range, or maybe they would find it easier to sing the tune rather than a harmony. Try moving to a different part.
  • give individual tuition – there is a danger here that you might give an individual singer a complex if you pick them out. Maybe offer a series of one-to-one or small group sessions to the choir as a whole. Perhaps invite those who think they don’t sing in tune to come to choir sessions a bit early as a group and work on pitching. 

the biggest problem of all

If you ask a singer who sings out of tune if they think they are pitching correctly, often they will say “No” and realise that they need some help.

But if they say “Yes” you have a bigger problem! Self-awareness is the first step for anyone to improve their singing ability. This person will need a lot of individual attention.

In the worst possible case (and I have only ever done this ONCE in my 15-year choir career) you might have to ask a singer to leave the choir for the greater good. This is only if everything else fails, they have little self-awareness of their problem, and they’re putting other singers off.

The way to develop self-awareness is to focus on LISTENING skills rather than vocal PRODUCTION skills. I suggested that the singer concerned spent plenty of time developing their accurate unison singing and listening skills by, for example, singing hymns at their local church. When they felt they could do that well and easily, they were welcome to re-join the choir.

further reading

You might find these other blog posts of interest. Just click on the title.

I also came across an interesting article on Science News the other day: The Tune Wreckers about a rapidly growing field of research which is beginning to untangle the mechanics of off-key singing.

other ideas?

Have you had singers in your choir who sing badly out of tune? How has it been dealt with? Have you ever had to ask someone to leave a choir? Do you have any other useful suggestions for dealing with singers who struggle with pitch? Do leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you.

Chris Rowbury’s website:

Chris Rowbury


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