Back in 1996, when Highcliffe Junior Choir won the title of Sainsbury’s Youth Choir of the Year, I heard their founder-director Mary Denniss make a comment in an interview that has stayed with me ever since. She was asked if she ever had children join the choir who couldn’t sing in tune. ‘Well, yes, of course,’ she replied, ‘but they pick it up after a while.’
It wasn’t just that she was so pragmatic that struck me, it was the fact that she said it so kindly. It occurred to me that much of her success in turning ordinary school children into one of the country’s best choirs lay in this calm and confident trust in her singers’ ability to learn.
Pitch-matching is an issue for amateur choirs of any age of course, and can become an issue of anxiety or even contention with adults, who are often so much more impatient than children about learning. I tend to think that anyone who likes music enough to want to join a choir has the capacity to learn it, though. There may be people in the world who are congenitally unable to make sense of pitch, but I can’t imagine that they’d be volunteering to sing. If you like to listen to melody, you can learn to sing it too.
The standard way of addressing pitch-matching on a one-to-one basis is for the teacher to start with the notes the singer is producing and move from there, so that the singer gets to experience the match without having to create it for themselves at first. It is a classic example of the principle of meeting the learner where they are rather than where you think they should be, and is effective for that very reason.
Aside from one-to-one work, I think we need to be aware of the obstacles that people can encounter in rehearsals. It is possible to make life easier or harder for people developing this skill, and there’s no point belly-aching about our singers’ slow learning if our rehearsal strategies are getting in the way.
The first issue is one of speed. When we are developing a new skill, we need to do it very slowly. If we have singers whose pitch-matching is not improving week-to-week, the chances are that they are finding the pitches just too much of a moving target to get a handle on. Just as they are getting near wrapping their brains around something, the rehearsal moves on. I had a humbling and enlightening experience with a Playstation a couple years ago where I was just starting to find some control after a period of floundering in a state of panic and humiliation – when everyone else packed up to do something else. It was a very salutary reminder of what the beginner’s life is like.
Of course, we can’t necessarily slow everything down to the pace of our most novice singer. But we can make room in the rehearsal for activities that are useful for all singers without requiring speedy processing of pitch. For instance, exercises that use long notes to focus attention on the quality of sound - blend, vowel matching, etc - provide an opportunity for those who need time to connect to notes to do so. It’s important that people have the chance to succeed at the skill they’re working on at least a couple of times during a rehearsal if they are to improve.
And exercises that develop the choral tone will also help with the second rehearsal obstacle. It is my observation that choirs with a cleaner blend have less trouble with individuals pitch-matching than those with a messier sound. Now, I’m sure the latter would see the pitch-inconsistent singers as a cause of their blend issues. But equally, the difficulties singers have in matching a sound sometimes arise because the sound they are trying to match is too disparate.
The novice singer experiences singing ‘together’ as a visceral sensation. The concept of the ‘same note’ is an abstraction that relies on this experiential foundation. It’s an important concept, since it provides the means to make sense of and control our singing, but it doesn’t mean anything in the absence of the sensory experience. So the more ‘together’ the whole choir sings in terms of vocal production, diction and rhythmic precision, the more chance a novice stands of identifying when they’ve got something right.