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Intonation: Solutions for Flatting

Below is compilation of responses to the problem of my choir flatting on accapella

The response was overwhelming. When I told my students that I had gone online
for help they immediately wanted to know, "Well, What did they say to do?".
They want to fix the problem as much as I do.

I printed hard copies of all responses and am trying as many ideas as possible.
Thank you to all who responed. What a wonderful resource this is. Why did it
take me so long to find you? Thanks again!

Kevin Kosiak
Perham High School Choir
Perham Minnesota

Here is the original post:

I am the director of a very nice high school choir. However we flat a 1/2 step
almost everything we do. Yesterday in rehearsal I raised our starting pitch a 1/2
step and they did sing the entire piece without flatting. However raising starting
pitches a 1/2 step may not be advantagious either as one of the pieces already
has the 1st sopranos singing a high Bb. Since the II basses have to sing a low e,
we can't go flat a half step either.

What am I doing wrong?


Some thoughts on the flatting choir: some times due to lack of energy or
lack of breath support. If it is the latter, I have a choir sing sections
of the offending piece on a continuous and smooth 'z' or 'bbbbbb'. For the
energy thing, I might have a group pulse the underlying beat as they sing
(usually 8th notes).

formerly FFCC
Doug & Ruth Bachorik


Kevin - we heard a great technique at our all state choir this year. The director
challenged us to end a half step higher than written. We start on the exact
pitches, but keep that 1/2 step in mind the whole piece and VOILA - it works!

Sheryl Snow
Dixie High School


There are many reasons why choirs go flat. Often, young singers will sing
madrigal literature with a sustained legato rather than with a more detached
and bouncy delivery. As a result they find themselves pushing on their vocal
folds rather than lifting and "letting" the sound out lightly. Their energy
needs to be focused on the consonants rather than vowels. It also helps
enormously, if you are singing renaissance literature, to think and conduct
in two rather than four -- it lightens the whole texture and gives the music
a much more natural flow.

When that does not work, call attention to any descending lines, and ask your
singers to sing these lines up into the roofs of their mouths as if they were
singing ascending lines. They should also be made aware that both descending
lines and repeated notes tend to go flat unless attention is given to keep
them supported and light.

Your experiment in changing key is a good one. It does not have to be
permanent, however. Often, it is simply the change itself, whether up or
down, that produces the result and requires "new ears." After spending some
time in the new key, experiment and see if the old key (which now represents
another change) is now in tune. Sometimes it is a matter of avoiding the
vocal break in some of your singers, and they are happier in what would
appear to be an excessively high key which avoids those awkward places in the

And then, there are just some days, with high humidity or the wrong
atmospheric pressure, or too many late hours, or stress...

Good luck.

Frederic Ford
East Brunswick NJ


I obviously don't know how your choir sings but...

I have found that most all out of tune singing is not pitch problems but
vocal production problems of some sort. Many times lack of energy is the root
of flatting problems. To get more energy in it try;

- Walking, marching or any kind of motion while they sing.
- Pick up the tempo, (even if just for practice.)
- Sing it with more volume. (even if just for practice.)
- Sing it on staccato eighth notes. (eg. Mah-ay cuh-uhn-try-ee ti-i-is of
thee-ee.) This is a fabulous excersize that solves lots of tuning,
production, syncronization problems. USE IT. (I need to remember to use it
more myself.)
- Brighten up the tone quality, bring it more forward.
- Have them overdue the diction.

Hope some of these help. I would love to hear what works for you.

Greg Lapp
Centennial High School
Bakersfield, CA


Get some information about Rodney Eichenberger and his work with gestures (U
of Florida). Having your chorus lift their hands (palm up) in an upward
motion especially on descending scales can amazingly help to keep the pitch
steady. Make them do this several times in rehearsal. Then you can begin
to repeat this motion as a conductor and they will respond... try it.

You can also ask them to literally "pick up" a pitch that seems to be
sagging. Mime it with your hands. The pitch will center itself as they do
this motion.

Jane Ramseyer Miller
Music Director, Calliope Women's Chorus
Artistic Director, One Voice Mixed Chorus
Minneapolis, MN


I doubt if you are doing anything wrong. Often after working on an
acapella piece for a considerable period of time, the piece will begin
to flat. I often raise the pitch a half step but only very near to the
concert. The novelty of the new sound will help the kids keep the piece
on pitch. Do not tell the students that you are raising the piece a half
step. Some students will be able to tell, but most won't.

Charles Claiborne
North Cobb High School
Kennesaw, GA


In my view, flatting is attitudinal and physical. Good attitudes and good
posture and good vocal production efforts help a lot.

John R. Hall
Freed-Hardeman University
Henderson, Tennessee


Your practice room is too warm. 65-68, although horrid for the body, is great for
singing in tune. NASA, for example, found that 65 was best for the brain, while
70 was best for the body. Flatting is a support/fatigue issue, esp. with students
who burn the candle everywhere except in school!

Anne Musselman


It TOTALLY depends on what key you are starting in. I know this sounds
weird, but things written in F major (one flat) almost ALWAYS go flat, even
with my highly polished professional ensemble which rarely flats on anything
else. We ALWAYS transpose Renaissance music in F major up a half step to
F#, and it virtually always works.

There are several techniques for improving this sort of thing. I do clinics
from time to time and can address this particular problem, as well as doing
specific things with the tenors and basses to have them both HEAR and then
SING pure fifths and octaves so the rest of the choir has a clear overtone
series to lock into. It does work.

Let me know if you're interested in discussing this further -- your questions
are great!

--Jonathan Miller
Founder and Artistic Director
Chicago a cappella


Perhaps nothing wrong. Sometimes choirs will sag because of lack of support,
sometimes because tuning to various modulations in the piece takes them away
from equal tempered intervals, and sometimes because some keys, notoriously
F, just seem to drag voices down. Since young sopranos can often navigate
above high C, and since they seem to hold in tune better at the hgher pitch,
I think your solution of 1/2 step up is a perfectly reasonable one. Dan
Ratelle, San Diego


It's what *they're* not doing, I think. Part of their vocal technique *must*
include constant reminder to support the tone, and that requires a great deal
of concentration on breathing--getting it into the lungs, then using it. And
constantly keeping the rib cage lifted, the roof of the mouth lifted, the
focus of the tone forward ("...right out through the eyes!"), and all those
good things.

The WNYC, which I direct, sings unaccompanied about 90% of the time. In
rehearsal, I use the piano only for checking pitches. It took about a year
to fully wean them away from piano support in the learning process. Now,
they rarely "slip" and ask to hear a line played for them; instead, everything
is presented to--and from--them vocally. After establishing a solid breathing
technique, getting away from depending upon the piano is probably the most
important single thing they have accomplished in building their technique.
They simply don't sing out of tune. By the way, the WNYC is a community-based
group of about 28 singers, drawn from all walks of life, with varying levels
of reading skills; being a basically amateur ensemble (albeit, working on a
professional level--everything from plainsong to Gorecki), we spend about 20
minutes at the beginning of *every* practice, working on breathing and vocal
technique. As the old saying goes, "When all else fails, your technique will
save you!"

Good luck, and best wishes!

Herb Tinney
The Western New York Chorale: Music Director
Buffalo, New York


I have the same general problem, not necessarily one every piece, but
often enough to be a concern. It happens with warm-ups, scale exercises, and
selections. Some of our problem is technique but some is also our dead
rehearsal room which has a low ceiling and carpet. When we sing in a more
live place, like our mim-auditorium (too small for performances - used by
various classes during the day), things tune much better so we rehearse
there just prior to performances. It may help psychologically more than
anything else. Sorry to not provide an answer but I do understand the

How do you select All-State participants in Minnesota? We're evaluating our
audition process and are trying to make comparisons. Thanks!

Phil Suggs
York Comprehensive HS
York, SC


There could be many many reasons why your choir is going flat. It could
be a simple as posture and breath support to the proper placement and
formation of your vowels. And there is always the possibility that your
conducting getures are making them go flat. There are too many reasons
why choirs go flat to give you advice in an e-mail without seeing or
hearing your group. I suggest having another conductor come in and hear
and see your group with a new set of ears and eyes and work together on
fixing the problem.

Matthew Vanzini
Choral Dept. Head
Waynesboro High School Waynesboro, VA
Music Director
1st Presbyterian Church Waynesboro, VA


Sounds to me like the kids aren't singing freely, from a technical
standpoint. Which may be caused by text. Try singing the pieces on
pure vowels, like fa-fa-fa, or va-va-va. I like the 'fa' because it
requires a bit of a puff of air for the 'f' sound, which the vocal cords
need to initiate the sound. It also keeps the air flowing from note to
note with the constant repitition. Sometimes I will use feeh-feeh-feeh,
for the same reasons. The 'ee' sound really exposes intonation, and the
kids really start tuning up fast.

Harlen Miller
Shennadoah Valley Academy


Chances are you are doing nothing wrong. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven
couldn't be completely off base when they ascribed certain expressive and
emotional characteristics to specific keys. I have run into this problem
many times myself both in groups under my direction and in groups under the
direction of a host of other conductors, both unknowns and renowned

I believe certain pieces do better in a key other than the one in which they
are notated. Perhaps Bach, Mozart and Beethoven have a point and the reason
a piece works better when raised or lowered a 1/2 step is that the
characteristics of the key work better with the composition. I've noticed
before that if flatting occurs, especially in a flat major or minor key,
it's transposition to a sharp major or minor key seems to instantly solve
intonation problems. It starts sounding a bit like "voodoo choral
technique," but I've seen it work time and time again

Wayne P. Jones
Assoc. Prof. of Music
Abraham Baldwin College
Tifton, GA 31794


Study the videotapes of Robert Shaw's workshop/rehearsals. His method of
teaching intonation is very effective. The video's are available from the
Carnegie Hall Gift Shop, Carnegie Hall, NY (sorry, no address or phone with
me, but easy to find) and are called something like Building a Masterpiece or
some such. The earliest tape, involving the Brahms Requiem, will probably do
fine. You will see him drill the choir in singing 16 tones on a neutral
sound (nu will do), at a moderate tempo (conduct in four), starting on a
given pitch, with each tone sung higher than the previous, with the object
being to be only a half step higher by the time they reach the 16th tone. It
will take work with the teens, but eventually they will catch on. When they
do, it will be up to you to get them to relate that drill to their singing,
but you will have gone a long way towards getting them to realize that their
ears can hear those tiny microtonal pitch increments. There are many
variations on the technique - you need to see a master use it to fully
understand. Good luck! - Fred Wygal


Sometimes, flatting 1/2 step is just from muscle memory! We all get used to
singing it flat, and our muscles tune in there - after you raise the pitch a
1/2 step, try going back to the original key...They might just be in tune!
Good luck!


Depends on the key of course, flat keys to tend to flat. But I have found a
simple exercise done at every warmup will help. Sing descending unison
chromatic half-steps, down an octave scale accompanied at first, then w/o
keyboard. Insist they are done correctly. This will go a long way in
tuning the choir's ear. Practice descending scales and intervals, P4, and
P5's in your warm-ups also. Try to get them away from the keyboard as much
as possible. The more they sing w/o it the better. It may be very hard at
first, but after a while they will get used to the idea of not having that
support. Insist that intervals are sung correctly. Be sure you can hear
them in order to correct if they go astray.

> What am I doing wrong?

Sounds like you are on the right track!


Douglas L. Jones
University of Houston


There are several reasons for flatting: improper breath support; lack of effort or
energy; approaching pitches from the bottom side of the note rather than from
above; lack of head resonance; poor/incorrectly produced vowels; lack of
unanimity of vowel; faulty pitch sense; allowing the resonance to drop as one is
singing a descending line; and/or some combination of the above.

Probably chief among them is the latter, and I believe the least-known. In order to
maintain consistent tone quality and intonation, the placement/resonance of the
voice must stay the same. As one is singing a descending line, the tendency is
for the placement of the tone to drop and the support mechanism to collapse.
One must work to prevent the placement of the voice or resonance from dropping
and support from collapsing.

The ways to overcome/prevent this is to work on vocalising the group from the top
down. Have them think of "attacking" each entrance from above. Two mental
images that are helpful is thinking of the tone and pitch coming from above and
landing lightly on the top side of the pitch, as a butterfly does on a flower.
Another natural tendency is to "sit" on pitches. Instead, one must be poised and
ready to move to another pitch and not "sit" on the pitch in an effort to produce a
bigger or more impressive sound.

Another approach is thinking of the inhalation and initiation of the tone (or attack)
as a cyclical movement. As one inhales, one's abdomen expands, one's
resonance cavities in the head and chest open, one relaxes the jaw, throat, and
at the top of the cycle, one initiates the tone.

Another approach that helps keep the tone light, energized, and keeps the
support engaged is to vocalize and to sing the a cappella pieces staccato on
"doo," "dee," "too," "tee," or something like that.

Pitch sense can be improved by having the group think the pitch before and during
the inhalation to sing. Working them in vocalises that begin and end on the same
pitch and having them focus to match those pitches (keep the resonance in the
same placement)also helps. One can also work through pieces phrase-by-phrase
and checking the intonation. Sometime it also helps to begin at the end and work
through the piece phrase-by-phrase.

Good luck!


Craig Collins


It probably isn't you at all. Your singers need to listen more intently.
Vary things in reheasal and tune, as you probably know, by tuning the octaves
in the chord then add the fifth and finally the third. Just work small
sections this carefully and over time, they will learn to tune the chords
much better. Or write some exercises that require them to move slowly by
half or whole steps. The simple intervals like this are often the real
culprit when choirs start having trouble with tuning.

I am sure you do all of the above. Just keep at it.

Good luck.

Ouida Taylor
Richland College, Dallas


I've been directing a cappella high school choirs for 21 years. My
senior choirs rarely flat or sharp - honestly. However, I rarely sing a
piece in the given key - and that's my secret. The Keys of C, F and G
are horrible keys to sing in. The Keys of C#, B, E and F# are great
keys. I experiment - shifting around until I find a key that connects
with the choir- and make no apologies for it. Good Luck.

Larry Nickel
British Columbia


Its a good idea to put the piece back in the original key after singing it
higher.... singing it higher trains them to lift more... then when the piece
is returned to normal key, the singers shopuld remember the lifting
feeling.... hence they will sing withpout flatting in the original key. I do
this in all my workshops and it works like a charm.

Brian Nutson


You are not necessarily doing anything wrong. After
you've made sure that everyone is singing an energized
tone with a relaxed, healthy technique, look to the
key! Pieces are often published in certain keys so
that the ranges look managable and/or for ease of
reading. Also, something written 300 years ago in the
key of F, does not relate to today's key of F.
According to modern research, our common tuning
reference (AD0) is way higher than it used to be
(AC5) and getting higher (AD4 in some orchestras)
In my experience, anything written in the key of F or
C goes out of tune. I believe that is mostly because
it will make the women singing through every passagio
they have! I'd take it up a half step. There's not
much you can do to make basses sing lower, but a high
B won't be any harder for the sops to sing than a Bb.
Mess with the key without telling them, If you don't
tell them it's a difficult thing to do, they won't


Try this. In warm-ups, have the choir sing a repeated note on "doo", with
each repetition a bit higher so that they have traversed 1\2 step at the end
of 16 beats. Try to keep the microtones even. When rehearsing the piece,
ask the choir to sing the first phrase so that they are 1/2 step sharp at
the end. They will invariably be on pitch instead. this will be good for a
laugh or two, but they will realize what they have to do to keep pitch. Do
this several times. They have learned the piece at a particular pitch level
(pitch memory can be an insidious thing), so you just about have to unlearn
the old habit before replacing it with a new one. Also, be sure they aren't
humming the pitch before you start. Choirs that do this generally start
flat to begin with. Just a few quick thoughts.

Mark Tuning
Director of Music Ministries
First United Methodist Church
Clovis, New Mexico


Flatting is very common on a cappella pieces, and there are several reasons
for it. Most vocal causes are tied to breathing and vocal/bodily energy.
One key reason that's often overlooked, however, is that choirs tend to tune
pure intervals rather than equal tempered as on the piano. The problem with
this is that the G# that functions as the third in E major is not
necessarily the same G# that functions as the fifth in C# minor, for
example. Singers are constantly readjusting tones to tune the intervals,
and over the course of a piece (particularly a Renaissance modal piece or
one that's fairly chromatic or modulates) the tonal center will tend to
shift down, even though each individual chord sounds in tune.

I'd be interested to know what keys your pieces are in. In my experience,
when my choirs flat, it's usually on a flat-keyed piece. F major is a
particularly hard key to tune because of the color of the key and where
voice parts tend to lie around passagio points. I've found that keying F
major pieces in F# usually solves any problems I have.

Hope this helps!
Ross C. Bernhardt, D.M.A.
Director of Choral Activities
Lambuth University
Jackson, TN 38301


Try working the a cappella pieces paying very close attention to the
half steps at 3 and 4 and at 7 & 8. I have been directing a cappella choruses
for about 25 years and this one trick, though a tedious one, has been a
tremendous asset to me. The other one is be certain the open vowels modify
correctly at the extreme parts of each voice part.
Good luck,


I wouldn't say that you were necessarily doing anything wrong. It is my
opinion that certain keys are more difficult to sing in tune than others. I
don't know what key the piece is in, but I think F major is the worst key
for keeping in tune. I understand your range concerns, but raising or
lowering the piece a half step may be your only recourse.

Alexa Doebele
Ranum HS


Changing the starting key was a good strategy, and you may find that this is
enough to get your choir to sing in tune in the 'correct' key in the future.
Also, consider the original key of the piece. My teachers at Westminster
Choir College (especially James Jordan) feel strongly that certain keys are
simply more difficult to tune.

Example: I did an a cappella piece in C major for my conducting recital, and
up until the afternoon of the recital, it wouldn't tune for anything. At the
last rehearsal, we did it both a step lower and then a step higher, both of
which were successful. I was reluctant to perform it a higher key, as some
of the parts were quite high, and the lower key just didn't sound bright
enough to my ear. Tried it in C at the warm-up that evening, and it went
great, so ended up doing it in C in the perfomance - with success.

Hope my $00.02 were helpful!
Florence Moyer


In nearly all cases, the type of problem you describe is the result of
inaccurate intervals and/or chord relationships. Sometimes it is
the result of not having enough breath to sustain the phrases and
they gradually sag.

If your singers know and use good breath support techniques, then,
the problem has to be that of pitch relationships and how the
students perceive them. The singers must have the pitches correct
in their minds' memory banks and then be very careful to reproduce
them correctly as they sing. This takes constant thinking ahead to
the next pitch/chord.

If I may be of more help, please ask.

Jim Loos, Music Program Chair, Instructor, Choral Director
Des Moines Area Community College
Ankeny, Iowa


DEMAND that the intonation of the group is always in-tune. When my group
during a piece, I ALWAYS play the correct chord (in the correct key) when we
They are so well trained now, that they cringe when they hear their intonation
mistake. I will ask them to have more energy in the sound, and to be accurate.
And I will stop them the minute I hear them going flat. I'll ask them questions,
like, "Why did we stop ?" Or, "What is wrong with the intonation ?"

[The one exception to my advice is singing in the Key of A Major: I have had
many groups sing pieces in A Major that they just cannot sing in tune without
flattening !
(I personally think that "A" is too bright a key, and this might be the reason for
this.) I am currently singing a piece in "A" with them, and for the concert, will
probably lower the Key to "Ab."]

The bottom line is, be tough with them. They will respect music-making a whole
lot more, too, in the end.

Good luck !

Lynda A. Maccini Pavloff
Choral Director, Walpole High School
Walpole, MA 02081


There are numerous reasons for out of tune singing in a choir, and I won't go
into all of them here. If you want me to expand further, write me directly
and I will. In the meantime, you might check out some standard choral methods
books. Ray Robinson and Allen Winold's The Choral Experience comes
immediately to mind, as would any book by James Jordan or Ken Phillips.

Raising the written pitch level by a half step can often improve intonation.
Sometimes lowering by a half step gives you the same result of better tuning.
They are not a substitute for actually learning to sing in tune, however.

Without actually hearing your group, I cannot diagnose a problem or prescribe
solutions for you. Find another, perhaps more experienced choral conductor in
your area and have him/her listen to your group and even work with them in a
clinic setting while you observe. According to my map, you seem to be close
to the Fargo/Moorehead area: there are several good college choral programs
there, I'm sure. Contact one of those folks for a visit. They may charge you
or they may do it just for the good publicity of reaching out to an area high

Best wishes.

Rowland Blackley, D.M.A.
Director of Choral Activities
Ashland University
Ashland, OH 44805


I too, have always found that raising the pitch 1/2 step will invariably cure
the flatting problems. I think that happens because every singer is working
harder, singing with more energy, when in the higher pitch.

To me, this means you have to work with them to teach them to sing with
energy, to support the tone, breathe correctly--in short, teach vocal

When I was teaching as a choral director in high school, I had flatting
problems until I completely solved them by starting to teach good voice
production. I am convinced this is the answer. Likewise, no amount of trying
to get them to just "listen more" will help that much.

If you don't know much about teaching voice, get some help. Take a college
class in the subject. Learn all you can about being a good and effective
voice teacher, and you will be able to teach your students much more than
correct notes, blend and balance as you teach your music.

Good Luck!

Ron Markle, Director
The Columbus, Maennerchor & Damenchor
Clinton Heights Lutheran Church Choirs
Ohio Music Education Association Adjudicator (for 28 years)
Retired High School Choir Director


I honestly don't think you're doing anything wrong. I can't explain it but
I've observed that some groups seem to have their own internal
"pitch/tuning". My own small group has particular songs that only work if
the key is changed (F# seems to be their "key of choice" -- they don't like
to stay in pitch for songs in F maj at all!). I simply keep that in mind
when selecting music and work within those parameters. Perhaps your next
year's choir will tune to A440!

Would it be possible for you to move the key down 1/2 step (or even more) and
bump the low E's up an octave? Sometimes you just have to get creative to
make the music work for a particular group. (I record all of my songs in
Encore and then play around with transpositions as needed which allows me to
preview whether a particular key works or not and whether we can handle the
new range.) My group is a non-audition adult group, and many of them don't
read music, so they learn the music -- we specialize in Medieval, Renaissance
and Early American Shape-Note -- by playing back the midi files.

Don't beat yourself up -- sometimes it really isn't your fault. Blame it on
group dynamics (or in this case "group pitch anomalies").

Linda Hill
Director, LyonSong


I have perfect pitch, so I guess I'm more aware of where problems
are in a piece my adult church choir may flatten, and I don't know tricks
that people without this "gift" use to correct intonation. I know it's
difficult to get kids (and adults) to "support the tone." Can you hear
specific things that contribute to the flattening? Getting the imagery of
thinking big ascending intervals and skimpy descending intervals can help.

I also remember hearing a choral program on my car radio one day
(about an hour's drive) in which various choirs from all over the western
hemisphere were featured. It was very interesting to me that all the
ensembles had pitch problems in the a and b above middle c (down an octave
for the men, though the women were more guilty of this), be they American,
English, German, etc. The tuning of thirds can be telltale, but then any
interval can challenge some people. I try to get choristers to be more in
tune than even the well-tempered piano is and get into the differences of
enharmonic equivalents and how string players would treat them, as an
example. I could go on and on, but I imagine teenagers have vocal/pitch
problems I know nothing about so I'll shut up. Time doesn't allow me to go
on, at any rate. I sang in a madrigal group in high school (16 voices)
decades ago. We sang things as difficult as Kodaly's "Jesus and the Traders"
with good pitch. Those were the good old days.


I don't know what you are doing wrong but I know some techniques that will set
you right.

In your warmups, include a chromatic scale with one beat of rest between every
note. Identify the names of pitches, and get singers used to the difference
between F-sharp and F natural. When a single note is sung too low, have them
mark it with an arrow.

Have half the group sing, (rows 1 and 2) and have the other half listen, then switch.
Rehearse with the group singing staccato. Count singing, when done softly, often
increases the energy in the middle of the pitch.

Start at the end and sing that in tune. When they hear something is flatting, have
them decrease the volume. Work on glizzandi down and warm them up in
descending patterns.

I hope these are useful to you.


You may be doing nothing wrong-- some keys seem to naturally flat,
particularly F. A lot depends on where the piece sits in the voice.

Betsy Burleigh
Cleveland State University


Perhaps nothing. Some keys (like F major, for instance) have a tendency to
flat, as do some pieces.

Try -

(1) Rehearsing without the piano. Work on tuning -- and note correction --
without reference to the piano as much as possible.

(2) Tune the fifths slightly higher than piano tuning.

(3) Work on tuning large leaps of 2ds, 4ths and 6ths -- melodically these
tend to be just slightly flat.

(4) Sing the piece through with the piano playing a repeated (every 4 bars or
so) tonic or dominant note.

(5) As a last resort, record a couple of run-throughs with the choir. Then
play it back for yourself near a keyboard and check every tuning. It might
just be one or two places where there are tuning inconsistencies.

Good luck.

Alexander Ruggieri
Pasadena Classical Singers

The breath (incredibly active, dynamic, used from the right source) plus emotional
involvement in the music have been my two anwers to this problem for years. Kids
don't really breathe to sing when they sing. They are lazy at breathing and don't
know it! They don't know how to breathe correctly nor do they understand how
much energy it takes if the breathing process is working properly (especially

I'd recommend that if you haven't had voice lessons in the past 3-4 years with a
fine teacher, take some to renew what it takes to sing well (use of breath, etc.)


Terry Barham, Ph.D.
Editor, Common Times SW ACDA
Director of Choral Activities
Emporia State University
Emporia, KS 66801


The pitch problems to which you refer can only be
addressed slowly and painstakingly, as you have to
retrain their ears. I would suggest that only very
rarely should the key of a piece be changed, and you
will have to judge if the "darkness" of a particular key
is what is causing the problem. Instead, the singers
must be taught to think "high" whenever they are singing
descending intervals, especially stepwise; that is, they
should have the feeling that they are making descending
intervals "smaller" than they might be inclined to. The
other thing you can do, if they have any basic theory
training, is to reinforce in them the discipline to be
aware at all times of what position in the scale or in
the chord "their" note occupies. They should always be
thinking high on the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th scale
degrees, and likewise on the third of any chord, any
leading tone, etc. Lots of work for you, but with big
payoffs, and essential if they are to become fine choral
singers. Otherwise they will grow up to be the folks
which cause one, when one stands beside them in a
chorus, to feel as though one is standing on tiptoe with
eyebrows on the ceiling trying to keep the pitch up!

Robin Lynne Frye
Voice and Piano Teacher
New York, New York

Intonation is almost 100% of the time an
indicator of basic vocal production. Singers
at that age can create a decent tone by using
a production that emphasizes laryngeal pressure
to compensate for lack of lower body support
(good breathing techniques).

What happens at the point of phonation is that
as the vocal folds are squeezed together harder,
they either slow in vibration (when support isn't
there; i.e., flatting) or speed up in vibration
(when adrenaline starts pumping and the lower body
does start to kick in; i.e., sharping).

Changing the pitch of a piece will sometimes
help because now they have to work harder to get
some things, but it doesn't solve the basic problem.

James D. Feiszli, Director of Music Activities
South Dakota School of Mines and Technology


One way of answering this would be to say it really doesn't matter that much
although if it starts to go further than 1/2 step that could be a problem

My experience with church choirs is that the basses are often responsible,
sometimes not getting quite back up to their note when they approach from
below, being flat on leading tones, often just not supporting the tone and
singing on the vowel, and their pitch sags a bit. Then, if others tune up
to the basses, there goes your pitch center. This can be true of all the
sections of course. Try listening to your basses, that they are keeping
things focussed, and perhaps that will help you.

Good luck

John Helgen


You are doing nothing wrong.

Be aware of the passagios in each of your singer's voices. Choose an appropriate
key for their voice - not necessarily the one that is printed. Printed music is in
keys easy to perform for the pianist - yet most a capella pieces sound better in G-
flat than in G for example. (Gb is a warmer key anyways).

The ultimate judge of a key is your ear - not the printed page. Also, pitch has
risen considerably over the past 200 years - and what is AD0 today was
considerably lower 200 years ago. There is talk of raising A to 442 today and
some instrument manufacturers have been making instruments to be tempered
around 442! (The Midland Symphony purchased a celesta pitched at 443)!

Excessive flatting is a vocal technique problem -not a hearing problem. Find the
voices who sing around their passagio and work with them to float their head tone
more in those areas. Your pitch will improve.

Good luck!

James Hohmeyer
Artistic Director, Midland Music Society, Midland Michigan
Adjunct prof. of Choral conducting and methods, Central Michigan Univ.
Conductor, Rochester Symphony Orchestra

In a recent Choralist post, regarding teaching choirs to sing without
flatting, someone mentioned the Robert Shaw Choral Workshop videos, but did
not know the particulars of ordering.

Shaw did indeed have methods for training in intonation. His warm-ups were
not about "warming up" the voice, and rarely about isolating the technical
difficulties in a particular piece. They were primarily about training the
singers to listen to themselves and the chorus as a whole, to become part of
the group sound. And the technical aspects of rhythm, intonation and
uniform vowel sounds were an important part of that.

The videos of his Carnegie Hall choral workshops go up close and intimate as
he conducts warm-ups, rehearsals and performances. There are individual
tapes about preparing , the , Requiems by Brahms,
Verdi, Britten, Hindemith and Berlioz, and other works. The order form I
have (which may be old and superseded) shows prices of $39.95 each, except
for the Brahms Requiem, which is $59.95, plus $5 each for handling.

They are available only through the Carnegie Hall Gift Shop and can be
ordered by calling 212-247-7800, fax 212-581-6539. Online ordering does not
seem to be possible, but you can see a description and list of the tapes at

Nick Jones

Nick Jones
Program Editor & Annotator
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

on February 21, 2007 10:00pm
I have found that some ensembles tend to settle into certain tonal areas, and will resist being dislodged. I have sometimes been able to cure this by 'voicing' each section, to eliminate undesirable timbre and vibrato interactions. By having neighboring singers sing in unison a simple melodic fragment with at least one sustained tone, you can spot these interactions pretty quickly, and change the seating to minimize them. It is also entertaining to watch as your singers become aware of what you are listening for, and by the end of the exercise (about 15 minutes with a choir of 50) the students are amazed to realize that they can hear these things, too.

In my quite un-scientific studies of my choruses, I have come to classify voices in two categories; 'core' voices, or those whose qualities become the dominant characteristics of a section, and 'support' voices, whose timbre tends to take on the color of those around them. You need both to make a good choir; all of one or the other is either brassy or bland. Fortunately, I have usually found enough of both to get by.

I have found that a frequent cause of poor intonation is having two 'core' singers in close proximity. If you have the personnel to put some support voices between them, many problems can be averted.

Failing that, a totally unrelated technique that I sometimes use is to have them sing in the dark. Dampening their visual stimuli makes them listen much more intently. Be careful trying this with high school kids; make sure they can be trusted in the dark :)

Good luck,

Christopher Hartel
Music Educator
Manchester Community College
Manchester, Connecticut USA
on February 18, 2009 10:00pm
I found several things that can cure the problem, none of this is "orthodox" though:

1. Consider doing the normal warmup exercises, that you usually do upwards half step by half step, also downwards, the same way. This seems to be wasting time, but it isn't, most people simply cannot intonate correctly descending melodic lines, because all the exercises are directed upwards, and they don't have muscle memory for anything else.

2. Do harmonic exercises without the piano, concentrate on fifths and octaves. The tempered tuning of the piano is useless here, when we are looking for natural harmonies.

3. This is totally unusual, but I found it useful: warmup exercises in minor modes. I found that many singers tend to lose intonation whenever the melody goes into minor, or it is in a minor key entirely.

4. In both major and minor, make them keep in mind the fundamental. Interrupt them, and ask them to sing the fundamental at random times. I found that a conscient tonal-functional approach is way better than an intervalistic one, by that I mean, that is better for instance in C major to think of an f - a interval as of a leap from the 4th to the 6th of the key, than only as of an ascending major 3rd. It is more difficult, but it really, really pays off.