What does it mean to sing in tune? Well, I can tell you that it is more than just matching pitches. Intonation is a fancy word that is used to let musicians know that they have to do something in order to fix what makes the sound “not right” or “out of tune.” The pitches also might not match because of unsupported breathing, too wide of a vibrato, no agreement on the shape of the vowels, or lack of unity in the color or quality of the sound.
Breath Management – Singers need to be vigilant about how they manage their breathing. They must learn to take deep efficient breaths and then be able to manage them so that beautiful singing tone can be maintained for entire phrases. Many singers take very shallow breaths that cannot produce sufficient power to support proper vocal tone. Proper posture and the muscles of the abdominal wall must be employed to manage the breath. With efficient breath management, many problems with intonation can be avoided.
Vibrato – The spinning, sometimes warbling sound of the singing voice (fluctuations in pitch - high and low on either side of the pitch) is called vibrato. Some voices develop vibrato naturally, some never, depending on the person’s concept of beautiful singing. Use of vibrato is a way for singers to have added resonance and also to be able to relax the vocal apparatus. Vibrato can make the human voice vibrant, warm, agile and fluid. But too wide or un-centered vibrato can cause intonation problems. A soloist can get away with using a wider vibrato than can a choral singer. Opera singers use vibrato to able to project over an orchestra. It gives them powerful resonance and also helps them relax while singing extremely long passages. But when solo voices using wide vibrato (pitch variations in amplitude, rate and volume) try to match pitches, the frequencies can collide and create annoying “beats”. It may also cause a disagreement in pitch when one voice spins over a wider pitch range than the other or if the vibrato spins on a lower or high side of center. That’s why choral singers or people who have “blending” voices do not use such wide vibrato.
Vowels – We sing on the vowels. Consonants, though necessary for diction, interrupt the singing tone. Vowel molds for a, e, i, o, u (and others) are formed by opening the jaw and using the muscles of the lips, tongue and soft palate of the mouth to create specific shapes. Classical singers learn to create perfectly consistent vowel shapes. Pop singers may use colloquial variations, but nevertheless are quite consistent when singing their vowels. Choral singers spend most of their time learning to shape and place their vowels so that they will agree and sound “in tune” throughout the entire chorus. Amateur singing groups suffer most intonation problems, such as singing flat, from not matching their vowel sounds.
Tone Quality – Because we are humans, our voices all sound unique. And what a blessing that is! However, over the centuries, certain voice qualities have proven more desirable to our ears than others. Still, some seemingly unpleasant singing voices have found their niches (such as in Hard Rock and Rap). Unlike an instrument that is constructed to consistently sound a certain way – we can easily distinguish between an oboe or a flute or a trumpet or a clarinet or a violin – we humans have a hard time describing vocal tone quality. One voice may sound a bit brassy like a trumpet. Another voice may sound reedy like an oboe or bassoon. Another might float effortlessly like a flute or be able to blend in unnoticeably like a clarinet. We might even say that the voice sounds breathy or nasal or hollow or harsh or mellow or dark or bright. Whatever we label the sound quality, we agree that each is unique. So how do we get all of these different sound qualities to harmonize and sound “in tune?” In choirs, the dark voices will need to learn to sing brighter and the bright voices will need to use less vibrato. The harsh voices will need to warm up their sound and the hollow voices will need to bring their sound forward out of their throats. The breathy singers will need to manage their breathing better. The nasal singer needs to focus on better breath support and vowel placement. And the solo voices will need to lighten up and not sing louder than their neighbors. A good director will work tirelessly to help his singers figure all of this out.
I have worked with many types of choruses, from children to adults, from amateur to professional. Let me tell you that not one of these groups had perfect singers. We all need to be reminded to pay attention to these basics of Intonation.
Audiences may not be able to explain why a singer or choir was hard to listen to, but they do recognize when something does not sound right. Singing as part of a congregation for worship or by yourself for your own amusement will not be scrutinized the way a performance before an audience will. Doesn’t an audience deserve your best effort? I really have a problem with “show up and sing” choir performances. I think the singers should put quality effort into each and every performance regardless of the size and nature of the audience.
If a song is worth singing, it is worth singing well.
If you have very little time or opportunity to prepare for a performance, then choose a song that can be prepared adequately in the time you have. And be sure to allow time for Vocal Warm-Ups! Listen to your sound and try to correct intonation problems by being good choir citizens. Then pay attention during performance and give your best effort.
I have been in a position to need some very easy choir pieces that can be prepared in very little time. Suggestions from my catalogue:
“Rejoice, the Lord is King” – mostly unison, some divisi (SATB or SSAA versions)
“Faith Hymn Montage” – SAB
“Come We That Love the Lord” – Mostly unison, some parts
“Come Rejoice” – 2 part Mixed
“Count Your Blessings” – 2 part Mixed
“The First Noel” – Unison or SATB from Hymnal and 2 part Mixed