Tuning is a Performance Indicator, not a Goal

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So here’s another one in the genre of ‘if you haven’t got time to read the post, the title says it all anyway’. I’ve had a few conversations recently about my preference to avoid talking about intonation in rehearsal if I can possibly avoid it, and it seems that some people equate this with not caring about intonation. So I wanted to clarify things a bit.

First off, I love the sound of in-tune singing. And by this I mean both singing that maintains tonal integrity (key note staying in the same place) and singing in which all the parts are in tune with each other. Both horizontal and vertical in-tuneness, if you like. And it’s not just the way that good tuning is more consonant and cleaner to listen to at an acoustic level, it’s all the way that it brings with it beauties of tone colour - clarity, ring, luminosity – and expressiveness that you may not hear at other times.

And this is because, good tuning is a symptom of all being right in the choir’s world. It says the singing skills and musicianship skills they need for the music in hand are securely in place, and it also means that they are happy in their task. You only get really good tuning in the absence of anxiety. Which is the primary reason I try not to talk about it, as choirs so often are anxious about tuning.

But I’m listening for it all the time. And if I hear (and indeed feel) the tuning being compromised, the question becomes: is this a skill deficit issue, or an emotional state issue? Of course, the two are often intertwined, as skill deficits undermine the confidence. But still, diagnosing what kind problem the compromised tuning betokens, and dealing with that is the job of the director or coach. You don’t need to point out the symptoms to treat the problem, and doing so may distract from the solution.

In the terms of general rehearsal technique, this is a particular instance of getting intervention cycle right: the goal is not to verbalise the diagnosis, but go straight to the intervention. It takes discipline to do this, but it keeps your vocabulary positive and your rehearsals feeling purposeful. This is good for the spirits of all, and good spirits mitigate towards better tuning.

And, beyond the singer experience and its effect on the sound, is the effect that this discipline has on the director/coach. If you hear someone say to a choir, ‘Something wasn’t right there, do it again, but right this time,’ you might think that feedback wasn’t very helpful, and that the singers would be forgiven for not knowing what to do differently.

(To be fair, you don’t always know exactly what was wrong in what you just heard and need to hear it again. And some of the time it fixes itself in the process. So ‘let’s do that again’ remains a useful rehearsal activity. But it is usually a means to arrive at a more useful diagnosis rather than a direct fix for the problem.)

Telling someone that their tuning is off is somewhat more precise in that it identifies something about the perceptual impact of the problem, but it is still very general in character. We can be of more help to our singers if we listen beyond pitch into the tone quality. That way we can diagnose whether this is below pitch because of tongue-tension or inadequate connection with the breath or tiredness or too thick a contact between the vocal folds or not fully understanding the note’s role in the chord or lowered soft palate or an insufficiently overtone-rich vowel shape or over-articulating the preceding consonant or unhelpful bodily habits in the conductor, to name just some of the more obvious things that pull people off true.

And then of course if we learn to listen for the type of pitch problem, not just its existence, we are all set to offer solutions that will actually help, rather than just making the singers feel bad for singing out of tune. And once you can do this, you don’t actually need to mention pitch, except perhaps to celebrate when it’s particularly good.

Which it will be more often when the singers can stop feeling bad about themselves, and get some practical help instead.

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