The most often overlooked cause of out of tune singing [PART 2 of 3]

The most often overlooked cause of out of tune singing [PART 2 of 3]

Remember that old Food Pyramid you learned about in school? 

You know, the one that was actually incorrect all along?

Well, it actually works really well to depict the most important things in music. 

Here’s a drawing of the musical Food Pyramid. We’ll call it Dr. Pew’s Hierarchy of Musical Importance.

 Dr. Pew’s Hierarchy of Musical Importance

Dr. Pew’s Hierarchy of Musical Importance

Notice the foundation. RHYTHM!

It’s easy to fall into the trap of working on phrasing and dynamics too early. 

But if you ain’t got rhythm, you ain’t got nottin’. 

So try to resist the temptation of the higher part of the pyramid before the foundation is in place.

Fixing Loose Rhythms

This is a subtle thing, but poor rhythm can make your choir sound out of tune. Even if they are singing the correct pitches.

10 or 20 or 30 mouths chattering at even slightly different times causes a traffic jam of sound. It makes the pitch sound out of tune.

There are 2 simple fixes for this problem.

First, make sure the singers understand the rhythms they are singing. You only need to draw their attention to this if the rhythm is wrong in a specific spot. 

A common problem rhythm is the 'dotted-eighth-and-sixteenth'. Like the opening 2 notes of "We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet”.

Either the singers are a little lazy with the rhythm and it sounds more like a triplet. Or, some of the singers are aggressive and crisp. 

These two approaches don’t mix well. And though technically the notes may be sung on the correct pitches, the rhythm collision will make it sounds as though the notes are out of tune.

You might prefer one of these options over the other. I prefer a crisp 16th note. But we won't argue over this. Whichever you like, make your choice known. Ask the choir so sing it the same way, all together.

As long as the 10 or 20 or 30 mouths agree on the rhythm and sing the correct pitches, the sound will clear right up.

Sharpening up the rhythm sharpens up the intonation.

The second fix has to do with where the singers place beginning and ending consonants.

When we sing, we spend most of our time on vowel sounds. We'll talk more about vowels in tomorrow’s email.

When it comes to tidying up the rhythm of the text, it's the consonants that matter most.

A common issue is the ’S’ consonant at the end of a word. There are often as many lengths of ’S' as there are people in the choir. 

Help them to hear the serpentine “hiiiissssss" they are making. All it takes to fix this issue is an agreement of where to place the ’S'. On which beat. 

A short, crisp ’S', like the sound of a drop of water on a hot frying pan, is what you're listening for.

Sometimes the consonant problems is caused by a hard consonant like a ‘T', a ‘D' or a ‘P'. Again, all you need to do is draw attention to the mess and then instruct them where you want to place the consonant. Should the ’T’ come precisely on beat 1? Should it come on the ‘and’ of beat 3? 

Whatever the circumstance or context, be sure your singer clearly understand where they should place this final consonant.

The beginning of the word is a little different.

The goal here is to place the first vowel of the word exactly on the beat. To achieve this, you have to place the consonant that comes right before the first vowel of the word, right before the beat.

Take the word 'Lord' for example. The 'L' should not be on the beat. It's the ‘O' that should fall on the beat. 

Help your choir place the 'L' just before the beat so that the ‘O' lands right on it. This cleans up any consonant rhythm issues on the front end of the word.

These fixes may seem a little tedious. In reality, they take only a few seconds to correct. And there's no need to even bring them up unless there's a noticeable problem.

The more you draw your choir’s attention to these details, the more they will start to do them automatically.

But remember, you need to be a strong listener during rehearsal so you can recognize where the rhythm is the cause of out of tune singing.

Next week we'll discuss our final tuning fix. Matching vowels.

See you soon,

Doug