difficult intervals

R – A couple of weeks ago I was getting ready for school thinking about how singers, at the heart of it, only struggle with singing specific melodic intervals. In other words, harmonic considerations completely aside for a moment, there’s no such thing as “difficult notes”, just difficult intervals. Then I thought about how much I’d love to have a warmup that truly isolates specific problem intervals for singers. And in thinking about it, I came up with one. I’ve never seen a choir do this before, though I believe I have seen bands do a variation on this.

Basically it has to do with pitch accuracy of reference notes in relation to all others around them. I routinely have students sing back random numbers of the scale to me so I can see if they can accurately do so, but this is more for making sure they have the correct note/number, it doesn’t really test their intonation of that correct note. This one does. Simply put: sing “1” and then every number that follows it: 1/1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5 etc and back down again on an eighth note/quarter note rhythm. Once they have done so on “1”, they do the same exercise but now utilizing “2” as their reference note. Then “3” and so on.

I tried this with my Chamber Singers and they did well (see the video of them trying it out for the first time), but it exposed weaknesses – predictably – when 4 was the reference note. “4” started to become “3”. I also noticed intonation issues throughout on “7”, both as the reference note and also when it was sung against one. Certainly I could have predicted these would be issues, but this exercise got them to work at the deficiency. Today I ran the exercise after having done so a couple of times since, and they did significantly better. They are now aware of the “4” and “7” deficiency to a unique degree, and are focused on keeping those notes better in tune. This translates powerfully to their music when I point out relationships in their voice part that are exactly the same as the interval they had problems with in the warmup. With that as their reference point, they can approach the interval with more thought and awareness of the issue at hand.

I also tried this with my non-auditioned choirs. I discovered that they aren’t ready for this level of minutia as they are still mastering assimilating the intervals at a more rudimentary level. My male singers for instance will still often sing “4” where “5” is being asked; they aren’t ready to be hammered with a warmup that addresses intonation at that level yet (crawl before you walk, walk before you run, run before you sprint).

The component of this warmup I REALLY liked was that MY ears had to be good enough to actually catch the intonation issues! Those who know me know that I have a firm belief that a choral warmup should be about developing the ears and the eyes as well as the voice. But a warmup that doesn’t also challenge the conductor’s skills in some way (aural or visual) is an inadequate warmup. Trust me, this warmup was a challenge for me because I had to truly utilize my ears (calling the students out on intonation issues THE MOMENT they occurred) for it to be successful.

Consequently, I like this warmup but I don’t think it’s for every choir. I’m gonna try it with the MSYM Chorus in July and my Community Chorus next Fall and we’ll see how it goes with those groups. It appears to be a useful warmup for getting a choir with finely trained ears to work on intonation when confronted with difficult intervals.

I would be curious to get your feedback. Watch the video if you get a moment (just the first half of it is sufficient) and tell me what you think. If you try it with your choir, please tell me how it goes! Let me know if you thought it accomplished anything, and if so, what. e-mail me at mllama4@maine.rr.com.

intonation warmup


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