Do You Need a Tune-Up?

Opera critics and competition adjudicators agree; increasing numbers of professional-level singers struggle with pitch! Classical Singer discussed this phenomenon with voice teachers who offered some insight and solutions.

Some suggest that “perfect” studio recordings have spoiled our ears for “normal” pitch variations in live performance. Beverley Rinaldi (Cleveland Institute of Music) theorizes that young singers are influenced by and surrounded by the vocally “flat” sound of today’s pop music that doesn’t have full overtones and vibrato. “They don’t have the roles models that we did.”

Others blame acoustically “flat” halls that are intended for amplified performances. Most, however, agree that there are technical solutions to out-of-tune singing.

Nico and Carol Castel, from the Metropolitan Opera and “Making it Professional” classes believe that “pitch problems are a direct result of faulty technique which can occur in even the most experienced singers. Pitch problems may be due to a voice built around a flaw or flaws ‘slipped into’ after singing professionally for a period of time. Usually this can be categorized as not producing or releasing the sound in a manner compatible with the acoustic nature of the instrument. In other words, pitch problems occur when the voice is produced and controlled in a way that includes some interferring pressure or holding in the vocal articulation or support.”

The Ohio State University’s Dr. Karen Peeler says “It is usually a registration problem and/or a breath problem. Chronic pitch problems in established singers are almost always a mass vs. length vs. tension imbalance with the vocal cords; with young singers, it is usually breath, but also can easily be registration if they have sung belt a lot.”

“Sometimes the singer’s ear is simply not good enough, but that is rare at the professional level,” reports Dr. Kathleen Spillane Wilson, of the University of New Hampshire, recipient, Voice Foundation Van L. Lawrence Award. “A simplistic answer is that when singers are flat they are usually not supporting properly and when they are sharp they often have too much tension somewhere. In addition, on rainy days when the barometric pressure is falling, I’ve noticed that singers tend to sing flat. That’s it in a nutshell.”

“Assuming that the singers in question are in fact talented, and well-trained, we must assume that the problem is not one of ear, but rather is related to vocal production.” writes Dr. Paul Kiesgen, Professor of Voice and Vocal Pedagogy at Indiana University School of Music. “We have all observed that the voice is the most difficult of instruments for the performer to hear since it is encased in the performer’s own body. This problem is compounded by the conditions of performing on the opera stage where the acoustics may not give much sound back to the singer and where there is a considerable amount of sound from the orchestra and in some cases other singers on stage. Theaters are much larger than they were in past years and orchestras seem to be playing louder than ever; we are asking singers to put out more and more sound and many are simply not well-enough equipped to know how to do that without upsetting the delicate balance which produces the most beautiful singing.”

“Singers often resort to pressing the voice in an effort to make the sound louder,” continues Dr. Kiesgen. “Ironically, the sound which results from pressed singing only seems louder to the singer and is not in fact as loud as the sound which is produced by good, free and well-balanced phonation. The frequent by-product of pressed phonation is a tendency for the voice to become heavy and thus the tone tends to become flat. The same adjustments which had previously produced perfect intonation are not sufficient to tune up the now thicker vocal bands and the result is a tone which seems to sag below pitch.”

“The resonance is often affected as well by the heavier approach and the overtones also become lower, giving the impression of flatness. Some who notice the problem of flatness or are told that they are flat often attempt to compensate by tightening the vocal bands and/or sending more breath to raise the pitch. The instrument is still out of adjustment because of the misdirected attempt to sing louder and the tone now may go sharp. The answer in every case is to rediscover the proper balance between breath flow and vocal band adjustment.”

“The emphasis must be on breath flow and on clear, well formed vowels.We must teach singers from their earliest lessons how to feel their voices and how to listen to them under various conditions. Of course, we all listen to ourselves as we sing. We need to hear ourselves, to monitor pitch, tempo, etc., but we must learn to recognize how our voices may sound under various conditions and understand how the sound we are hearing differs from what the audience hears. We also need to develop our kinesthetic awareness to the point where we can depend on the sense of feel for more of the vital information we need about the timbre of our singing. We can learn to monitor the vibratory sensations we experience in our faces, our throats and our chests to tell us how the voice is being produced. We must learn to know exactly how the muscles of the body feel when they are working to produce the most efficient and thus the most beautiful sound we can make.”

Dr. Kiesgan concludes, “Singers who have reached the professional level and who have difficulty with intonation should seek help from a teacher of singing who can help them to acquire these skills. Only by re-working their techniques in this way can they beat the problem of flatting or sharping in performance situations.”

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.