Many years ago I acquired an old St. Gregory Hymnal. On the back inside cover, there's a note in a woman's handwriting. It says, "Herb, you don't open your mouth enuf! Consequently, you are flat." She wrote "flat" using the musical symbol shaped like a lower case b. I thought it was a perfect little comment. I imagined this soprano (how could she be anything else?), frustrated by his fumbling the "Gloria" again, finally snapped and fired off a note to poor Herb while Father intoned the Gospel. She couldn't take it anymore, but she was respectful of Herb's feelings. The "enuf" was her way of softening the blow.
What can you do when member of your singing group is so off key -- or sings with such tension -- that he or she destroys the blend you've worked so hard to create? I have never seen an ensemble director or group member accuse an individual singer of "sticking out," but I've heard sad stories from grown ups whose music teachers ordered them to lip sync, rather than sing. The hurt lingers. When these folks are brave enough to take voice lessons later in life, it's therapy as much as it is training.
Can anything be done to help the "stick out" singer, without hurting feelings? I've observed the following remedies and results.
1. Ignore it. It will go away. This works about once a year, and never while performing. If an obvious problem is continually ignored by a director or fellow members, listeners will question your hearing and/or your sanity. "Good grief, can't she hear how BAD that sounds?"
2. Call out the entire section. "Tenors, we are screeching on that note like cats in heat!" Sometimes the off-pitch singers get the hint and make the fix, while the rest of the section wonders what they did wrong. There are two pitfalls here: A. Well-meaning singers, singing correctly, may overcompensate and become new problems to ignore (see no. 1). B. Well-meaning singers, singing correctly, will deduce that you're not accusing them of pitch problems. They will tune out your criticism altogether, even when they really deserve it. This reduces a director to the musical equivalent of Chicken Little.
3. Change the key of the song. This can alleviate a problem in the short term, but it drives perfect-pitchers like me insane. I have been forced to transpose on sight because a couple of singers needed a lower pitch. Their problem was gone, but mine was just beginning, and I resented it.
The best way to respectfully address vocal faults is by assessing and improving vocal function. Improving the function often alleviates the problems.
Be dispassionate when someone keeps hitting a clunker. Simply note what is happening, and ask for information. "We're under the pitch at measure 17. Mackenzie and Malcolm, what do you feel happening when you sing that note? What happens in your throat before you sing that note? Singers, what can we do when our throats feel tighter on these kinds of pitches? Okay, good answers. Let's have Mackenzie and Malcolm demonstrate those last two suggestions, and then we'll all try it together."
Mackenzie was never directly accused of not hitting the note, she was simply asked to report what was happening before and during her singing. A few singers demonstrated the correct practice, and then everyone tried together. It's also fun to have everyone actually sing a melody "the wrong way" and then switch to "the right way." It's like a mini-master class, and it's quick. I know it's not always possible to do this, but when there's time and the courage to try, the results are amazing.
Yes, addressing vocal faults uses precious rehearsal time, but fixing them benefits the whole group. In the end, it saves time and results in healthier singers and better performances. Do it before you've had "enuf."