Soapbox: Stop Blaming the Singers for Pitch Loss When You’re Not Conducting in Tune

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So I seem to have produced a title today from the school of ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’ – i.e. one that gives the entire content in one sentence. So it you’re okay to say, ‘Right, got it, I’ll stop blaming the singers for pitch loss,’ then you don’t need to read any more of it. If, however, you’re not sure what I mean by this, then the rest of the post may yet be helpful.

As anyone who has worked with me will know, I very rarely raise the issue of the tonal centre dropping while rehearsing or coaching. It’s not that I don’t care about it, it’s just that I don’t regard it as helpful to draw singers’ attention to it. It just makes them worried, and the first thing that anxiety does to the voice is add tension around the neck and tongue and undermine connection with the breath – that is, it adds all the things that, vocally, make it more likely that you’ll go flat.

Also, pitch loss isn’t a single thing. It’s like pain: it’s a symptom that can be caused by many different things. The director’s (and the coach’s) job is to diagnose what the cause is and address that, rather than just stating that there’s a problem. Saying ‘Stop going flat’ is like your doctor saying, ‘If you hurt less, you’d feel better’. (See my posts on the Intervention and Enforcement Cycles for a fuller discussion of this dynamic.)

But more profoundly than this, much pitch loss arises from the director themselves. There are two dimensions to this, the physical and the psychological, though as ever in immersive experiences, the two interact.

It is a truism that a conductor’s physical set-up/posture has a huge impact on the choir’s sound – and if you’re wondering why that is, I wondered that too and so it formed one of the primary research questions for my second book. The humbling corollary of this is that if the sound coming back in response to your conducting is doing things you don’t want, such as losing pitch, you need to ask what it is you are doing to make that happen.

Any number of postural and gestural elements can be involved in this, and in the first instance it is often a case of trial and error in making adjustments to yourself to see what makes a difference to the sound. Listening to the sound quality as well as pitch is key here: is this tongue-root tension flatting, or low soft palate flatting, or poor connection with the breath producing loose adduction of the vocal folds flatting, or what? The solution may lie in releasing the tension in your own neck, or thumbs, or in changing the position and/or weight of your ictus. Though it’s a good generalisation that increasing your personal stillness and attending to the poise of your head is likely to be a helpful starting point.

And as you listen to the sound, listen out not just for the physical elements of vocal technique, but also for information about emotional state. Are the singers confident? Do they like and empathise with the music? Are they worried about what you’ll say if they get it wrong?

Here we are moving into the second aspect of the conductor’s impact on the sound, the psychological. It used to be very obvious in both of the last two choirs I conducted when the singers were experiencing doubt, because suddenly we’d start losing pitch, when mostly we’d maintain tonal integrity. (Once we’d got into our stride as ensembles, that is; both groups experienced times of transition and disruption, most dramatically when coming back into live rehearsing after covid, when this reliability disappeared and needed to be rebuilt. But once we’d got the voices working again and the bonds within the ensemble re-established, pitch stabilised.)

So, if anxiety and underconfidence are reliable triggers for pitch loss, it is about the most counter-productive thing a conductor can do to tell the singers off for it. In terms of its emotional impact, it’s like telling somebody they are unattractive, or that they smell. Telling someone they’re flat is a deeply personal remark that will encourage them into ever lower states of self-esteem.

If your goal is to keep them passive and needy so you can control them better, you’re onto a successful strategy, as is typically demonstrated in abusive relationships. But if you actually want to develop tonal integrity, you’re going to have to find a healthier approach that doesn’t involve gaslighting your singers by blaming them for musical behaviours that your conducting technique and rehearsal strategies have facilitated.

TL;DR - replace the sentence, 'You're going flat' with, 'Am I conducting in tune?'

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