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Intonation: Solving Intonation problems

Dear Listers:

Less than 24 hours and I have the most fabulous advice in the world. I
can't wait to try it all out on my women's choir.

Here are the responses. Hope I got them all.

Thank you, everyone.

Rachel Grantham
Whitehorse Community Choir
Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada


It sounds like you have tried many things...have you
tried transposing your pieces? Also, if any of the
singers know solfege, ask them to sing their piece in
solfege first. Another interesting exercise to get
them to listen is to change a major key piece to minor
listening for the different placement of half steps
(or vice versa).


I recently conquered the same problem after failing with virtually
every solution you mentioned!
The problem ended up being that I was doing all the thinking and
listening for them.
As long as I continued to think for them, they were never able to fix
the pitch problem themselves.
Require only that they listen to the whole group while they are singing
and make it their responsibility to adjust the pitch.
Pitch is one of those things where the more you chase after it, the
more elusive it becomes.
If the singers truly listen to the WHOLE CHOIR while they are singing
and are still unable to sing in tune, they will simply not be able to
sing in tune.
At that point, you really do have a problem!


My first recommendation is to have the ladies sing and pull out one
each time. When they don't go flat, you know that soprano out may be
problem (then have a private talk and suggest a bit more sotto voce from
her). The next step is to have the ladies sing into a wall (they can
themselves better that way). Sometimes that helps intonation as well as
timbre. The last suggestion is to have the ladies reach out to a wall
that they are on their toes, while practicing. This forces the singer
breath lower and have a lower center. All of these techniques I use
frequently with my ladies, as well as singing in a circle.

I suppose depending on the size of your ensemble, you might try
the choir using a blended sound (e.g-voice matching from darkest to
lightest, timbre etc. and bury the poor ones) OR, you could seat them
in a
mixed/scrambled arrangement instead of S1S2A1A2 you could re-seat every
S1A2S2A1 etc.....this may alleviate some pitch issues, especially if the
women have been diligent at trying other things. However, the scrambled
setup is only useful if you have excellent readers, or after the notes
learned. Consistency in Vowel shapes is the biggest culprit. Specific
imagery that helps my group which is SATB, is thinking they have bitten
an apple, or have a hot egg in their mouth. Being relaxed as a singer
another helpful hint. If you wish to find who exactly has the pitch
I often 'audition' the sound by narrowing it to groups of two to three
individuals. Then, I fix the issue and move on. My singers realize
are not being singled out because they are 'bad' but because 'they don't
know how'. That is a very useful tool.


Oh yes, one flat singer can and will pull everyone down and it becomes
slippery slope. Often the sinking will stop at about a
semitone...well. I
have been grappling with this issue forever with 14-18 year old singers
but this a bigger issue than hearing in tune. There is a physical
sensation of being in pitch derived as much from awareness as from
memory or other factors.
I presume that you are conducting adults of all levels of training.
the less trained (or not formally trained...I'm trying to be's
hard sometimes) You become the voice teacher and your warm-ups are the
voice lessons. It is worth the ten minutes per rehearsal. Use your
technique as a model but the singers must be told how to do what ever
are asking them to do. Have them think in terms of support, resonance
focus. You may, as well, think of your pedagogy in these catagories.
are mysteries in singing but the physical facts of vocal technique is
voodoo. Just as your leg has the reasonable expectation to perform in a
certain manner, so does the voice.
Are you rehearsing strictly a cappella? are you at least feeding notes
so that there is a reference to the pitch? Or, this a violation of the
adage,Never try to teach pigs to sing. It frustrates the director and
annoys the pig.
Last month I found myself in the oddest place, a Saturday Physics
lecture at Syracuse University. The discussion was Chaos Theory. There
were a lot of "Gee whiz, Mr. Wizard" demonstrations but the one that
really made me sit bolt upright was this:
The professor displayed a two gallon bucket from which was sticking a
slender, glass pipette. He filled the bucket with water and magnified
resulting stream of water with the video camera. The thin stream was
coherent for a certain length after which the stream began to break
and spit. This spitting was governed by Chaos. The next step was to
feed a
pitch (it seemed any pitch would do) across the stream of water. The
camera showed that the spitting had completely stopped and the stream
coherent along its entire path. It was if the pitch had wrapped itself
around the stream of water thus, in a sense, tuning it. This, finally,
the analogy of singing in tune which I had been seeking.
Good Luck.
In my experience, the magic ingredient that keeps the intonation good is
placement of the voices. The two "tricks" I use to get this are:
(a) constantly asking the singers to "smile with their eyes" when
singing. This is
further reinforced by my doing the same at all times.
(b) Have the singers breathe in through their noses and feel the "cool
between the
eyes, ie where the cool air "hits" the sinuses. I then encourage them
to sing
"from the
cool spot" sending the sound forward from between their eyes.

As for warm-ups, I develop this forward placement with an exercise in
they sing
down so-fa-mi-re-do with "mee-aw" on each pitch. I ask them to "snarl"
on the
"mee" part.
The sound can be a bit ugly. The goal is to get a REALLY bright forward
sound; I then
ask them to put that "ee" into the dark "aw." We work downward by
B- major, Bb-major, A-major etc), getting the brightness into the low
notes on
the dark
vowel. I often refer to this search for brightness down low as "mining
diamonds, not
for coal."

Conducting wise, it is upward gestures that will help the intonation.
In 4,
even beats 2
and 3 must have an upward, pointed quality. This combined with those
eyes will
really ensure better intonation.

All the other things you're saying about keeping the tone light are
too, but I
think these added ingredients will really help.


Breath support?

Frequently the problem with flatting is support. Try incorporating lip
trills and other support exercises into your warm-ups. When flatting is
happening, have the group sing the phrases on lip trills.

Also, I always do tuning exercises during warm-ups. I ask the choir to
sing an A 440, on oo, without the piano. They can usually do it after
the first rehearsal or two. Then I do third-tuning exercises
(1-3-5-3-1, on vowels, listening for the thirds).

Yes, one person can take the whole choir down. But until everyone really
starts to listen, they will never sing in tune. Demand that everyone
and sing in a way that they can both sing and listen at the same time.
not a difficult task, just one that most people are not used to doing.

have you tried changing the key? I've found that where a piece lies in
relation to the passaggio can affect tuning. I avoid F major, and
prefer sharp keys. Perhaps you'd be interested in my article on the

"Choral Flatting: Sometimes It's a Matter of Register Transition." The
Choral Journal 29 (February 1989): 13-18.

[Note: The Choral Journal is a Canadian publication. The article is by
Mel Unger.]

Have you tried changing the keys of the pieces that are the culprits?
Every ensemble has at least one key in which they cannot stay in tune.
Why? Who knows? I have most frequently had trouble with a cappella
pieces in F major. Sometimes moving the piece a half-step in the
direction away from the natural migration helps.

You may also want to look at your own conducting. The gesture we use
(too heavy, not bouyant enough, too high, too flaccid, or whatever) can
adversely affect the tuning. Are you modelling appropriate breath and
line in your gesture? Video taping yourself can be painful, but it
sometimes reveals our unknown sins.


Do you mean they can't tune chords, or that it drifts flat? If it's the
latter, consider having them sing with a reference tone for a while
(i.e. a pedal point from a keyboard, or have one part just sing a
monotone while the others sing a melody). Learning to come back to the
same point they started is a trainable skill.

Take the time to have them stand according to how the various timbres
fit together (Weston Noble idea from decades ago). Start with one
person (a voice you like) and have her sing with each person in the
group (stand in a single line). Let the singers help you decide whose
voices "fit" together based on tuning and colors that are compatible.
When that first person has the right partner, the partner then goes
through the same process. I use this process at the beginning of the
year and then redo the timbre placement as needed throughout the year.
It'll fix your problems, I hope! One other thing. Movement with
singing (Doreen Rao idea) solves lots of intonation challenges. All
the talking in the world sometimes only makes things worse.


The answer to such a question is very difficult to find without actually
being there and hearing the singers and the group. Yes, one or more
could be pulling down the pitch. Vibratos could cause problems. Balance
the group is often the culprit. Have you tried having the group sing in
quartets, matching voices, placing sections differently with perhaps the
Altos in the middle instead of on the outside? Have you tried tuning

Great questions! ( And I would like you to forward a compilation.) I
try to
audition on a piece we will be performing at the first concert and hear
a cappella at auditions.
Have you tried having them sing in trios or quartets to isolate the
offenders? Also, singing quarter and even eighth steps, especially
helps singers start to feel wider half steps and sing them in tune.

Dangerous perhaps, but have you tried taking out one singer at a time?
on April 30, 2004 10:00pm
Dear Rachel,

Try abandoning the use of piano during warm-up and rehearsal. Make each singer accountable for pitch.
Put variety and challenge into the patterns you use for warm-up by changing the intervals e.g. ask for a semi-tone where there was previously a tone, etc. try using a minor scale instead of a major scale for warm-up. (or a whole tone scale, chroamtic scale)This will wake up their ears. Sometimes singers become de-sensitized to the challenges of warm-ups when they sing the same ones repeatedly. The basic "unit" of tuning is the semitone - they must be able to reproduce this accurately. When this is achieved, move on to whole tones, minor thirds, major thirds, building complexity and increasing challenge.
When trying to improve tuning on particular chords in the repertoire, start with the root, then add the fifth. (Nothing will be in tune if that isn't accurate.) Then proceed to the third and other chord tones. When that chord tunes, move to the previous chord and practise changing from one chord to another. This is not only a listening exercise, but a kinesthetic one, and it works well.
Of course, all of this pre-supposes that the singers are using sound vocal technique, which will have a profound impact on pitch.
These ideas are certainly not new ones, but I hope they might be of some help to you.
Good Luck to you in the Yukon choral scene!

Katie Kirkup-Ortolan
Iroquois Ridge High School,
Oakville, Ontario
on May 17, 2007 10:00pm
Hi all, another major issue giving rise to intonation problems is the placement of the voice. As i encounter with my own choir, one reason why certain sections keep flatting is because their voices do not have enough forward resonance, and there is too much space in their mouths. This gives rise to a dark choral tone as well. I find that by developing forward upper resonance in the singers, coupled with good breathing and support will often help to reduce intonation problems. Just some views. Hope it helps.