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Soapbox: Stop Messing with Pitch

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I once knew a singer who had spent some years working as an organ builder and harpsichord finisher. He had a pretty reliable sense of pitch - as in the kind of pitch memory that often gets labelled as 'perfect pitch', but appears in many musicians in a somewhat imperfect form. That is, perfect enough for practical purposes - if you wanted to sing something in the right key but had no fixed-pitch instrument to hand, he'd usually be able to set you right.

But if he'd been doing a lot of tuning of keyboards recently, he lost the knack. He reported that constantly tweaking up and down confused his internal gauge for pitch and he had to revert to external prompts again until it settled down.

This anecdote came to mind when I was contemplating a set of rehearsal habits that have been irritating me for years and I finally took the time to articulate why I object to them. They are all methods people use to address the problem of habitual dropping of tonal centre in choirs, and they all, in my view, address the symptoms while compounding the causes. Examples include:

  • 'Make the steps up big and the steps down small'
  • 'Always aim for the top of the note'
  • Checking intervals sung a cappella with an equal-tempered device

Now, while all of these may, in the short term, 'fix' the problem of dropping pitch, they will not supply the skills to stop it happening again, and should the choir (despite their use) ever acquire the knack of singing with a stable tonal centre, their continued use will spoil it.

The first two are examples of contextual instructions presented as absolutes. People may need to make the steps up bigger than they have been, and the steps down smaller, but that is relative to their bad habits, not a generalisable truth. What they actually need to do is make the steps the right size for the harmonic context. Likewise, if people are habitually dangling off the bottom of notes, they need to aim higher, but if they are singing in tune they do not. It is a useful check to consider the effect your instructions would have if somebody singing correctly tried to follow them.

The third one is ignorant as well as counter-productive. If you get people to imitate an equally-tempered fifth, you are actively encouraging them to sing flat. And semi-tones come in all kinds of different sizes according to harmonic context, so comparing one just sung with a pitch-pipe or keyboard just confuses the issue.

If a choir is consistently losing pitch, it will have developed this habit through a combination of vocal and musical skill deficits. The vocal ones will involve excess tension, inadequate support and problems with placement. The primary musical issue will be a weak sense of tonal centre. (The choir will then maintain these mistakes through habit.) You need to sort out the vocal production to solve the problem, but you also need to develop the singers' inner ears.

And you don't do that by using methods that actively destroy their relationship with pitch stability.

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