Why can’t the choir sing in tune?

Tuning Fork

How many of us have been in a choir rehearsal singing something A Capella (without accompaniment) only to find the choir master half way through playing a chord on the piano which doesnt match the pitch of the notes you are singing?

Why do choirs go flat?

Well I should be careful as I’m sure there are  many professional choirs who would tell me they never go flat.  However, in my experience a lot of amateur or community choirs struggle stay in tune when singing without accompaniment.  The most common thing is to go slightly flat, although it has been known for choirs to go sharp on occasion.

There are many reasons why a choir goes flat, a lot of which I do not propose to go into here. Probably the main influence on pitch is breath control. Inadequate breath support will often result in the pitch dropping. Coupled with this as a sings they often go flat due to running out of energy and poor diaphragm control.  To help this it’s important to always warm up before singing. You can often do a lot of this on the way to choir which will help you be more focussed during the rehearsals.

Another factor, closely linked to this which can affect pitch, is your posture.  I for one rarely let my choirs sit down for this reason. However, if you are slouching then in the same way your body is slumping down, the same thing will happen to your pitch.  It’s also important to pitch each note carefully relatively to the previous one.  I’m assuming that you have been given the first note or at least the key chord.  So in theory every other note should be related to that.

However, unfortunately this is not one of those scenarios where one can say, how hard can it be?  In fact it is often extremely hard, particularly when you consider how many voices there are in the choir and therefore just how many people have to pitch to the correct note.  Smiling  will often help with keeping the pitch up, although as a choir member once pointed out to me (quite correctly) it’s difficult to smile when you are singing “Oooh”.

How else can you fix tuning?

Sometimes humming in harmony and then moving up or down a semitone at a time will make singers listen closely to their notes in order to pitch them carefully.  It can also be useful to mix voices up and give people the chance to listen to other parts or even just other singers next to them.

One of the difficulties for a choirmaster is where you have 1 or 2 voices who are singing out of tune and taking the rest of the choir with them.  In a community choir, this can often be a delicate matter and how you deal with it will vary from choir to choir.  Often just moving people around and finding ways to get choir members to listen to each other will help.

Does it matter?

This is perhaps the most important question of all.  To some extent the only “problem” that might occur from going flat is the lower voices might suddenly struggle to pitch some of the notes, particularly if the last note of the piece was close to the bottom of their range if pitched correctly!  If you are making a recording then going significantly flat can cause problems. Firstly it makes it nearly impossible to edit a piece if it hasn’t stayed in time and secondly, it is likely to be noticeable if someone plays the track on repeat or the pitch isn’t in any way related to the start of the next track on the disc.

But otherwise, in a concert it probably doesn’t matter that much if you go slightly flat during a performance. The chances are the vast majority of people won’t notice anyway!

Keep everything in context

For me, music is about expressing yourself and not necessarily always about achieving perfection.  I know as a choirmaster I am often quite demanding of my choirs and strive constantly to make them be as good as they can be.  But, here’s the point.  What might be an excellent achievement for one choir may be mediocre for another. What’s important is that your choir does their best.  Putting expression in their singing and conveying a sense of enjoyment, for me will always win over a technically perfect performance which has no personality.  Particularly in a concert, it’s so important to engage with your audience. If you do this by showing them you are really enjoying singing and hopefully telling the story of each song, then quite honestly most audiences will forgive you for going slightly flat!