Flattening And Singing Out Of Tune

The trainer of adult voices has constantly before him the problem of

making his pupils sing in tune. With boys this matter is less of a

trouble, for this reason. Many adults have fine voices which, if their

intonation can be improved, will do great things. Others have incurably

bad voices, but possessing the ambition and the means for studying

singing, they come under the hands of the professor. In the case of

boys, ho
ever, there is a preliminary process of selection by which the

teacher rejects at the outset any defective ears and voices. The trainer

of boys chooses his pupils; adult students of singing, as a rule, choose

their teacher.

Even, however, when a good set of boys has been chosen and trained,

every choirmaster is troubled from time to time by the evils which I

have named at the head of this paper.

What are their causes? Probably no cause is so fruitful as a misuse of

the registers of the voice, a straining upwards of the lower register

beyond its proper limits. This may be placed in the front as a perpetual

cause of bad intonation and loss of pitch. This straining is usually

accompanied with loud singing, but boys who have formed this bad habit

will not at once sustain the pitch if told to sing softly. Their voices,

under these circumstances, will at first prove weak and husky, and will

flatten as much with soft singing as they did with loud. A slow process

of voice training can alone set them right. But as boys' voices last so

short a time this treatment is not worth the trouble. Boys who have

fallen into thoroughly bad habits should therefore be dismissed, and a

fresh selection made.

Some choirmasters imagine that practice with the organ or the pianoforte

will cure flattening and uncertainty. This, however, is not the case.

Probably the effort to keep up the pitch which singers make when

unaccompanied keeps their minds and throats tense and active, while the

consciousness that the instrument is supporting them makes them

careless. An instrument reveals loss of pitch, but does not cure it. No

good choirmaster rehearses with the organ. A pianoforte, lightly

touched, is commonly used, but the teacher should frequently leave his

seat, and accustom the choir to go on alone.

It is a mistake to suppose that boys flatten because the music is too

high. This is very rarely the case. They are more likely to flatten

because it is too low. Boys attack high notes with greater ease than


Nervousness will cause a singer who has sung in perfect tune at home to

sing sharp or flat at a concert. But nervousness does not greatly

trouble boys.

Carelessness will sometimes cause these troubles. The way to cure this

is to increase the interest of the rehearsal, to make the boys feel

bright, happy, and comfortable.

To mark the breathing places is a good way of preventing flattening,

which is often caused by exhausted lungs.

Singing is a mental as well as a physical act, and unless the boy has a

clear conception in his mind of the sound of the note he wants, the

intonation will be uncertain. Here comes in the Tonic Sol-fa system with

its "Mental Effects," which give a recognisable character to each note

of the scale, and guide the voice and ear.

Bad voice production, throaty and rigid, must always go with flattening

and wavering pitch. The act of singing should be without effort; the

muscles of head, neck, and throat should be relaxed. A boy inclined to

these faults should be told to smile while singing. The tone will then

become natural.

But in spite of all these hints, flattening occurs from time to time in

the best trained choirs, and seems to defy the skill of the

choirmaster. All agree that a half empty church, a cold church, an

ill-ventilated church promotes flattening, and it may be added that

certain chants and tunes so hover about the region of the break that

they invite false intonation.

Mr. H. A. Donald, headmaster of the Upton Cross Board School, tells me

that he has not much flattening, but that when it comes it seems to be

beyond control. The discipline of his school is excellent, but on a

given day there will come, as it were, a mood over the boys which makes

it impossible for them, try as they will, to avoid sinking. Sometimes,

but not always, this will happen in warm weather. He has more than once

abandoned the singing lesson, and taken up some other study because of

it. One day recently the boys were most attentive, and their vexation

and disappointment with the flattening was evident. Another day it does

not trouble them in the least. This is a school where voice-training is

exceptionally well looked after.

Several correspondents have favoured me with experience on this point,

and I now proceed to quote their letters. Mr. W. W. Pearson, of Elmham,


"Ordinary flat singing is the result of want of practice and experience.

Chronic flat singing is incurable, as it is due to a defective ear. A

new lot of choir boys will be liable to sing flat, and to lower their

pitch at any time for the first year or so; but after they have been in

training for a considerable time, I never find that there is any

inclination to sing flat. The notes most liable to be sung flat are the

third and sixth of the scale, or any high note that requires courage and

increased effort. One of these, having been sung flat, is taken by the

singers as a new departure, and being used as a standard, the pitch is

lowered, and all succeeding notes are flat.

"When I first formed my present choir I was very much plagued with flat

singing, but I am seldom troubled in that way now, and I think the

reason is that a large proportion of the members have been under

training for a long time.

"I used to find flattening prevail more in muggy, damp, or cold

weather, and in heated rooms. I never allowed the choir to go on in this

way, but stopped them at once, making them begin again after singing the

scale of the key a few times. This, of course, refers to practice. In

church I used to play the organ louder when I heard the pitch going

down; or I would put on a powerful solo stop for the melody, and

slightly prolong the final note of a cadence, in order that when the

choir ceased singing they might hear the difference. When flattening

occurred in the concert room I used to stop the accompaniment, which is,

I think, about all that can be done under those circumstances. When the

choir have been hopelessly bad in a hot practice room I have cured them

by bringing them out into a cold room adjoining."

Mr. C. Hibberd, of Bemerton, Salisbury, writes:--

"To prevent flattening I give great attention to the posture, seeing

that the boys do not stand carelessly. A careless posture, I think,

betokens a careless mind. I am careful not to overtire the children.

They sit immediately one piece is finished, and stand immediately I

sound the first chord of the next piece. I always start the practice

with a few simple voice exercises. When training the choir of a place

far away in the country, I spent more time than usual in giving ear

exercises (dictation), as well as voice-training exercises. I pay great

attention to 'mental effect,' and endeavour to let each boy or girl have

a Tonic Sol-fa copy of the music. The syllables recall the mental effect

to the mind. There should be no uncertainty as to either time or tune,

and both words and notes should be attacked or struck with confidence. I

always practise scales downwards, and have as little to do with the

harmonium as possible at practice. Boy altos I rarely come across. I

tried them once, but found they aided in flattening. We have two men

altos here, who sing in a falsetto voice. The boys here have a name for

singing well in tune, and they are very willing to do anything to keep

up their character."

Mr. Walter Brooks, in a paper in the Monthly Musical Record, expresses

the opinion that the 3rd and 7th of the major scale are often sung

flat. To cure this, each boy must tune up separately, then all should be

tried together. Minor passages are often sung flat. Loss of pitch during

service may, he says, be remedied, not by loud organ stops, but by

playing the boys' part an octave higher. Sharp singing, which often

arises from naturally defective or badly-trained ears, is cured best by

checking those who can only sing loudly, and by insisting on piano

singing. To put on more organ power makes the loud sharp singing worse.

Herr Eglinger, of Basel, whose qualifications I have referred to

elsewhere, considers that flattening is generally due to fatigue. The

membranes which produce the voice are not yet strong, and they relax,

producing flattening. He works on the principle that children are

quickly tired, and quickly rested, and gives the singing in small doses.

Unfortunately, in church work the length of the dose is not a matter of

choice. He notices, what others have noticed, that when the voices are

divided into three parts, it is the middle part that flattens most; this

is because it plays about the break. To choirmasters whose boys flatten,

Herr Eglinger says:--

"Give rest; require a proper use of the registers; get sharp and exact

pronunciation, especially of the consonants; and keep up with a strong

hand the attention and interest of the choir."

I close this chapter by printing a short paper on the subject kindly

written for me by Mr. W. H. Richardson, formerly trainer of the

celebrated Swanley Orphans' Choir, which gave concerts in all parts of

the country. Mr. Richardson, while he was at Swanley, obtained results

of the most remarkable excellence. At Swanley there was no selection of

voices: all were made to sing, and all were individually trained, as

well as collectively. "My conviction," says Mr. Richardson, "is that

there are no more defective voices than there are eyes and ears." The

Rev. W. J. Weekes, late Precentor of Rochester Cathedral, said of the

Swanley boys:--

"The smaller boys were first tested--some thirty or forty little

fellows, some of them new arrivals. Here the tone, though of course not

strong, was pure and sweet, such as would have done credit to cathedral

boys after a couple of years' training, and they 'jumped' their

intervals most clearly, lighting as full and fairly on the correct note

as a bird does on a bough. Thence we moved into the larger schoolroom,

where were assembled some hundred older boys, and such a body of sound,

so full and pure, so free from throatiness, and so true in intonation as

these hundred throats emitted, I certainly never heard from boys' voices


In 1885 I took the late Signor Roberti, teacher of singing in the Normal

College at Turin, and an Italian composer of eminence, to hear the

Swanley boys, and he afterwards wrote to Mr. Richardson:--

"I do not exaggerate in any way by saying that I found there a true

perfection in tune and in rhythm, but above all, in what concerns the

pure and correct emission of voices, the careful and judicious training

of which confers much honour upon you, and I would be happy to see it

even partly imitated by the teachers of the so-called Land of Song."

These facts are enough to prove the weight that attaches to Mr.

Richardson's utterances:--

"My experience has been that flattening will give the teacher very

little trouble after the pupils have been drilled with voice-training

exercises, but until the voices are built and strengthened, he will have

unpleasant surprises of all kinds. If he would have a reliable choir he

must begin, continue, and end with regular voice training based on an

undeniably good system. From the very outset the pupil should be taught

to fear flat singing as a demon. With my boys I was for ever laying down

the self-evident truth, 'People can endure your singing if it be

tuneful, even though all other points of excellence are low, but no one

can put up with your singing out of tune, except as martyrs.' The cause

of flattening is always lack of culture. In the choirs I have trained it

has ceased to trouble me after a few months. The habit of letting the

pitch drop fosters itself in a remarkable manner, until at last the ear

of the performer is perfectly satisfied with the production of a

monstrosity. In proof of this I would mention a case which has come

painfully under my own notice. A number of boys known to me have been in

the daily habit of singing the tune:--

l:-s &c.]

and as they have only had a 'go as you please system' to hold them in,

they now commence flattening at once with a crescendo which culminates

in the second line, and creates the effect:--

The original quite gone, they quite satisfied! The cause of continued

flat singing is allowing the bad habit. I am not, of course, dealing

with exceptional cases of natural inaptitude. These are rare, and I say

this after having had some years of experience in testing individual

voices. I could now with very little difficulty name the few pupils I

had at Swanley who were naturally unable to sing tunefully, and I doubt

not that nearly all my old scholars could do the same. They were in

reality exceptions, numbering, during the whole of the time I was with

them, not more than half-a-dozen.

"There is one stage in the voice training where the teacher finds his

pupils (boys I am speaking of, my experience with adults not having been

so extensive) habitually sharpen. In my own neighbourhood a teacher

who has commenced to properly train his boys to sing, in a conversation

he had with me told me of this, to him, unexpected difficulty. To get

good intonation in part-singing, I found the singing of chords a great

help. The class should be divided rapidly, and one note of the chord

assigned to each section. Then it should be sung softly. This should be

repeated with other chords, and followed by easy phrases. Voices do not

at once blend, and until they do the singing should be never loud. I

look upon the earlier work as tentative--a feeling for the beauty of

perfection of pitch, tunefulness, and intonation. A practice to be

condemned is that of learning the parts of a tune separately, and then

bringing them together. There are, of course, places where it is

absolutely necessary to give special attention to exceptional passages,

but it is a mistake to teach each part as though it were an independent

tune--to give the direction, which I have often heard, 'Now sing your

part, and never mind what the others are doing,' or 'Don't you listen to

any other part.' This system is answerable for the most offending cases

of want of tunefulness, in which one part will sing on with the greatest

of satisfaction in a key a semitone from that in which the part above or

below is moving. The ear should be prepared by a symphony, or by

thinking of the key before a piece is commenced. My own practice has

been to wait after giving the key-note for the pupils to do this. I have

recently come across a method of allowing the pupils to find the tonic

of a song about to be sung, which in nine cases out of ten will make the

opening as 'restless' as the sea waves. The teacher strikes the C fork,

and the tonic being F, all the pupils sing C', B, A, G, F--doh. The C',

B, A, G, F is, I think, as likely to unsettle the ear as anything that

could be imagined. The teacher should give the key-note. He may teach

his pupils to use the fork if he will, but not in a way so exquisitely

calculated to unsettle the ear when it should be strongly decided.

"With regard to Registers, I do not know whether the nomenclature I

employed with my Swanley choir will be commended by you, but as it was

successful I will describe it. The registers we called, perhaps

inelegantly, 'Top,' 'Middle,' and 'Bottom,' these terms being handier

than Upper Thin, Lower Thin, and Upper Thick. The earliest exercises

were in the Top Register--that is, the Upper Thin. Boys untrained are,

taken in bulk, unconscious of the Thin Register. Having got them to

sing, say C to koo, I have followed it by singing to the same syllable

the tune:--

('Now the day is over,'--A. & M.), and the delight has been intense

when the pupils have thus discovered how clearly and sweetly they could

sing. When this is done great possibilities seem to open, and the pupil

is on the road to perfection. B[b] and E[b] I found most convenient for

change. The Small Register must have been used, as my lads sang up to

C2 with the greatest ease and finish, though one of our foremost

teachers, in a conference I had with him on the subject, said he would

stake his reputation that the small register was not employed by them.

It received no name in our practices after that authoritative statement,

and ever afterwards I was in dread of being called over the coals for

allowing the Top register to get too high.

"Boy altos can be made to sing without flattening, though they

invariably give more trouble than trebles on account of their

willingness to let the lower register overlap the one above--to force

upward. They should practise with the trebles such exercises as:--

so as to strengthen this part of the voice, which may be termed their

flattening field."