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I'm doing a bit of choral work in a tiny choir - one each of SATB typically so often there's nobody good to follow!

I'm finding we might have a phrase which goes D3-A3-C4, E4-C4-A3. Up to the £ I can find the notes but then I can't find the C after the E even though I literally just sang it.

What causes this - they're hardly big intervals - and other than just doing interval practice are there any good tricks I can use?

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It probably has to do with the nature of the context. Many times jumping into a dissonance, even if you were just singing the pitch, will cause you to second-guess your concept of what pitch is coming next.

Harmonically, pitches can function differently based on context. B at the top of a e chord is different from B in the middle of a Gchord. Technically, this is because as a chorister you are blending towards a purer sense of tonality than the equal temperament that a piano might provide.

In your context, you're also jumping down to a note you just reached by ascending. Strangely enough, that change of context can cause the ear to misplace pitches too. A study of counterpoint may help you appreciate that a bit more.


So that is descriptive, for prescriptive:

  • Playing your part on piano or putting it into notation software is clearly a good first step.
  • I would recommend that you learn someone else's part on the piano and sing one part while playing the other. My general experience (and what I learned when in conservatory) is that it actually doesn't really matter which one you sing so long as you can put both in your ears at the same time.
  • You should also consider singing your part while holding down the notes you are having difficulty with. So If your are having difficulty with A-C-A, play A and hold it until you get to the second A.
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    Good point about practicing singing against a different part, that could be useful once I get it down in isolation. And an interesting answer, thanks. – Mr. Boy Nov 24 '15 at 16:41
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What I would suggest is to try it home on your own, using a piano or guitar or some other instrument, so you can clearly hear the note you are singing. If you are trying to sing without some accompaniment, you are bound to get some mistakes at first. Also, when there are many voices singing with you, you might get confused and this might be why you cannot find the note.

Singing along with a piano has helped me a lot. Especially when I first tried to learn how to sing intervals and short melodies, I used a piano and sung what I was playing. I played the melodies or the intervals and sung them. After I got better, I played the first note and sung the rest, then played them to see if I had gotten them right.

This must be happening because you need practice. So, keep practicing this part with the choir, but also do some homework on your own.

  • Yeah, it's much easier on my own but even then I often can sing the A, and the C, but then I can't find the A coming back down. Or similar - especially if I have to go from chest->head voice or vice versa I get totally lost! You're recommending good old repetition until it becomes engrained? – Mr. Boy Nov 24 '15 at 16:18
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    @Mr.Boy yup; nothing beats repetition in music. Try it again and again and eventually you'll get it right. But if even when you're on your own and you can't find the note, use a piano or guitar – Shevliaskovic Nov 24 '15 at 16:19
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Valuable technique:

If you have sheet music for choir, it usually shows you the parts for all four voice sections and for the piano accompaniment. If you have an entrance where you have to hit a certain note and you can't find it in your head, then look through the notes in the two or three bars before your note -- look in the other parts on the other staves. It may be that the piano is playing that particular note a couple of beats before you need to sing it. Or perhaps the altos or tenors are singing that note (in a different octave). If you can find it, then circle your note on your staff, and circle the same note that occurs earlier on another staff, and draw a line between the two.

Then the next time you are rehearsing that section, you can remind yourself to listen for that note to be played or sung by the other parts, fix that note in your head, and then you will be prepared to sing it.

Any time you come across a tricky section where you are making mistakes in your own part, circle it in pencil. Then during breaks, look for other parts in the sheet music that can help you figure out how to sing that particular problematic lick in your part. Make as many annotations (lightly in pencil) on your sheet music as you need.

Also, in rehearsal, during breaks in the action and when you are sure that you are not being disruptive and it is not interfering with the work of the choir director, you can lean over to your fellow musicians, point out a problem area you have circled, and ask them to explain or sing or hum the lick that is giving you trouble. Be careful, though, because a choir contains a lot of people sitting close together, and singing or humming out loud during breaks can be disruptive to others' concentration and thought processes.

Update: Each note depends upon a different context in the music. Finding the note you need to sing is always dependent upon the notes that the other vocal parts are singing at that instant, and the notes that the piano accompaniment is playing. The first time you have a particular note to sing, it might be one note in a chord where your note fits neatly into consonant intervals being sung by the other voices, so it's easy for your ear and your brain to find your note. The next time this note appears, it may be in a dissonant interval against one or more of the other voice parts. That would make it harder for you to sing it, because it might sound "wrong" to your ears even though that's the way the composer wrote the song. Now you don't need to analyze all the chords in detail -- that takes time, schooling and ability. But you can learn to become aware, in general terms, of consonance and dissonance at any given point. Your choir director might point out a certain note and say, "Hey, Basses, that particular note is supposed to clash with the tenor note. Don't be shy about singing it", etc.

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I recommend working through a sight singing book, step by step. Such books are written in a progressive way, and they show you the tricks you are looking for. It will take you a few months to work your way through it. It will be fun.

  • These days, would some online resource be better - a set of Youtube lessons for instance or a paid online video course? Wouldn't they offer everything a book does plus more interactivity? – Mr. Boy Nov 25 '15 at 0:20
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    @Mr.Boy - I don't have experience with the online resources. But I do have experience with sight singing books. I can't recommend them enough for what you want to accomplish. – aparente001 Nov 25 '15 at 2:40

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