Handling a singer who Sticks out
Well, I never dreamed I'd get so many responses...Thanks to all of you who
took the time to respond to my questions. To re-cap, for those of you who
may have missed it, I asked what I might do regarding one of my church-choir
sopranos who has an extremely heavy vibrato and who doesn't blend with the
choir at all. I also asked if having a "voice lesson" (led by a
teacher/clinician) during choir might help.
I must clarify something, simply because my fragile ego requires it: I had
stated that I wasn't a "voice teacher, per se." I didn't mean to imply that
I wasn't a trained musician (believe it or not, non-solo-voice vocalists are
musicians too!) I have a music degree that included vocal training. I
still don't consider myself expert enough on voice production to be a voice
teacher, however. Just wanted to clarify that. ; )
The summarized version of the comments:
1. Yes, hiring a teacher/clinician is beneficial. Many of you do this on a
fairly regular basis.
2. Suggestions for dealing with my Diva:
Talk to her directly.
Move her to alto.
Talk to the choir about good vocal production/breath support/etc.
Record the rehearsal in hopes of her discovering how badly she "sticks
out" for herself.
And, if you want the detailed version:
Tell her that real operatic dramatic sopranos ALWAYS sing alto when they
have to do choral gigs, because their voices are just so sumptuous that they
stick out singing soprano. This is actually true, BTW!
Having a guest clinician come in and work with your choir might work - I
know with my choirs that when some one else tells them to sing staccato they
will actually do it. If you go this route maybe you could find another
church choir director in the area who you respect to come in and work with
Another idea...have you tried recording your choir? Perhaps if you record
your group and play it back for the choir to hear, you can evaluate your
sound together as a choir. If your soprano sticks out as much as you say
she does I'd bet good money that someone is going to point out that the
sopranos need to blend better. Furthermore, I'd be surprised if your
opera-wanna-be didn't hear this herself. Hearing herself stick out might be
just what the doctor ordered.
I have never really been a big advocate of singling out singers in a church
choir, because most are giving of their gifts as a service - however, there
comes a time when, for the benefit of the entire choir, you must speak
individually with the errant singer. I'm sure it is no secret to your choir
who is the offending party and they would probably welcome you approaching
this individual. Any kind of voice lesson to the group will probably not
work with this individual. She obviously hasn't clued in to your
admonitions to blend (She probably is looking around the choir wondering who
is the out of tune singer). Speak kindly with her and explain that she has
a wonderful (stretching the truth a little) and big instrument but that its
size is creating problems with ensemble. Could she please back way off the
sound. Then suggest private voice lessons to help her with control. This
shouldn't be offensive to her. The best singers in my church choirs have
always studied privately. Hope all goes well. Good luck.
Try: "sopranos, less weight in the voice." Tough problem, good luck.
Murder or death both work. There are truly some people who won't get it
unless you're really direct and then they still might not.
Get in a "choral specialist' (a friend, local colleague) who could do a
Master Rehearsal with the choir. Heck - I can be tactful, in spite of the
overall tone of this letter. Bring me down! ;-) Actually, all joking
aside, get in someone who, like me, is a singer and a conductor to help with
the Master Class thing.
Borrow or buy a decent tape recorder and tape the choir...then play it back
for them. That may fix it right there.
Pull her aside and talk frankly about how nice a voice (LIE!) she has and
you're eternally grateful for her never missing a rehearsal (rats!...) etc
etc, but that in a choir setting, you simply cannot let only one voice
dominate the sound. It is unfair to the others who give their time so
freely and happily.
If you don¹t' do something, you will have people who will leave choir, and
I'm sure you know that, too.
Common Thread is a non-audition community choir that aspires to invite
everyone to sing, no matter how inexperienced or shy. Many of our members
have not sung or performed before and many do not read music. As part of
our ongoing efforts to help people improve their musical skills we hire a
vocal coach every year who comes regularly to our rehearsals and retreats.
Sometimes she works with the choir as a whole on general aspects of voice
production; sometimes she works with individual sections on specific skills
(e.g., the sopranos had a session of exercises on learning to blend...it
included exercises like going around the circle and passing a sound so that
the transfer from one member to the next was as unnoticed as possible); and
sometimes the conductor asks her to help us with exercises that focus on
difficulties in particular songs we are singing. We are lucky to have
someone who is supportive and enthusiastic and choir members generally love
the sessions she does. It has helped our overall sound tremendously.
It doesn't seem you've tried the obvious. Tell her: Susie, you're singing to
loud. Try to blend with the rest of the group.
She may not get "sing lightly", but telling her she's too loud during
practice should help. If you're worried about hurting feelings, you'll have
to get past that. You're trying to make music after all. She's not helping
you nor the rest of the choir.
By telling her that she's singing too loud (in front of the choir-do this
during a song, obviously) you're not making a personal attack and you're not
being petty!! You're just stating a fact. You can't make good music if you
can't be direct [sic].
1. Anyone who oversings an ensemble is not being musical.
2. Any conductor who harasses (in their own mind) a volunteer is not long
for that job.
3. The best way to deflect a problem from what needs to be said is to get
someone that both of you admire to come in and say what needs to be said.
4. If all of the above fails then have each listen to Birgit Nielson's
attacks from a point of no vibrato swelling into messa di voce notes with
the tone centered from the attack forward. Sometimes it is referred to as
a "thin" adjustment, sometimes it is called a "dead" sound that starts the
tone as it is brought "to life". You can do exercises with chords on
messa di voce tuning the fifths and thirds together.
5. You can also do unison activities within a section where you have two
singers hold a note and go in and out of tune feeling the beats and the
sense of satisfaction that comes with a powerful unison.
6. Have a choir workshop on a weekend where you play tuning games together.
7. Look at the tuning meditations of composer Pauline Oliveros.
Purely my opinion as a fellow church choir director with similar problems.
Moving them to alto or second has worked for me to a degree. I like the
idea of the professional voice instructor. I've not tried it but think that
might be an idea for me to use. If all else fails, could you speak with her
privately about the problem? You know her personality but done in a sweet
way using terms like "I feel certain you are unaware of this and would want
the choir to be the best it can be, etc. Good luck to you in this difficult
Yes, it will help, for a while.
Tonight I'm going to seat my singers in four circles, so they can hear each
other better and produce a blended tone. This is a chorus, after all, not 24
I think a new voice saying the same words works
wonders with adults. Strange but true.
As a church music neighbor to your north, I have dealt
with similar voice issues.
As a voice teacher, I have been able to sneakily work
around them by introducing new sound/production
concepts as "new and exciting innovations" in the
vocal performance world. Some seem to buy that.
I have also experimented with extreme music choices -
i.e., Gregorian chant/Hildegard for the ladies(!) and
said things like, "only for this piece" or let's try
an extreme sound, etc (match recordings, etc).
Also, I have given those particular voices solo work
and then asked them to come in for a coaching with me
in preparation for that (but it really becomes a
technique/voice lesson!)... You are usually dealing
with mostly breathing/support issues, but it can be
tension and even just plain darn awareness.
Don't you love this work? (that reads very sarcastic,
but I'm being completely genuine - I do love this
sounds to me like she needs the old "maybe there's another ministry in the
church..." speech. since choir is about "ensemble", blending, working
together.... yadda, yadda....
look at it this way... would you expect to see a man bring his toolbox to
the ladies' sewing circle?
about hiring vocal coaches... i have a friend who does that every year... i
come in and work with the choir on one or two very basic things... this past
fall it was "GOOD" unison and simple phrasing. i will go back again in
january to see how well they have come.... propbably have to work some more
on tit (they are sort of rough). also jhe has had a few women come in to
work with his gals. that has always gone over real well, too.
one warning.... let the person know what your expectatrions are. you
wouldn't want conflicting opinions to undermine your own personal goals and
efforts. here's an example.... the guy i workshop for believes the correct
way to say alleluia is "ah-LEH-loo-ya".... i cringe even typing it... but i
had to work on a piece that had the word in it... had i not known this...
well you can imagine.
also... these sessions should never have the goal of turning a sow's ear
into a silk purse... zero in on just a few.... maybe even one thing, and go
for it. be sure to pay attention to what they say... your choir might just
decide to quiz you on it... ;-)
Robert Shaw is quoted as saying, "Listen louder than you sing" and forte
singing destroys all previous detail work.
I just use arsenic!!!!
If it's not a PR nightmare, move her to alto......seriously.
Explain that it's not a "demotion," it's just you "need her voice there to
help lead the section."
Yes, I do it regularly Jennifer and it is a big help to me as director.
The singers love it also. If you can afford it maybe you could have a
series of say three lessons focusing of various aspects or broken up women
- men - all. Of course you must brief the teacher about your problem
We all are blessed with one or two of these, I think! I try to
spend a little time in each rehearsal on vocal technique - especially
exercises that engage abdominal muscles in the breathing routine. Telling
soprano with a huge wobble to "sing more lightly" may make the problem
The wide vibrato has developed after years of trying to support a big sound
with throat muscles instead of the diaphragm - and those poor muscles
eventually wear out! Trying to sing more lightly may translate to her as
using LESS breath, when she actually needs to be spending MORE air with
You may not be able to rehabilitate her voice, but encouraging good
will help it avoid getting worse. Try asking ALL your singers to inhale
feeling the breath fall heavily into the abdomen, and try to keep it there
while they slowly hiss out to a long slow count of 8, then 16, etc. The
tension should be in the body, not the throat! Vocalise on a tiny "sip
through a straw" oo vowel, focusing the tone into a "third eye" while
sustaining this low breath feeling, and see what happens.
If that doesn't work, try something else!
I'd also recommend getting Ken Phillips' book Teaching Kids To Sing. His
exercises teach good technique, and progress from basic to skilled. Some of
the exercises are "kids only", but an amazing number of them work well for
untrained group of singers. You can at lease be assured that nothing he
singers to do will HURT them, and that might be helpful if you don't think
yourself as a voice teacher.
Yes, I have a female voice teacher come in at least once each year to work
with the female singers exclusively (I give the men a needed section
rehearsal at that time - this group lesson is strictly for ladies only - no
men need apply). Do I still have the same problem you do? You bet! The
only way I have been able to come to grips with this problem is to face it
directly and let the individual know that I am getting complaints from the
other sopranos, and, if it doesn't stop she will have to find another place
to sing. The big difference between your situation and mine is that I am
working with a community chorus, and you are dealing with a church choir.
That's a tougher situation, and you have to deal with it most tactfully.
Still, I'm afraid you must speak with the singer personally, and let her
that her co-singers are not enjoying their experience with church choir.
Depending on your church administration and how they handle their own
personnel problems, it wouldn't hurt to discuss your intentions with someone
in those ranks first, perhaps the pastor. He may have some suggestions on
how to best approach the problem. He should be willing - any improvement in
the choir's sound can only benefit his Sunday services.
You are correct. The person you invite needs to be a voice teacher AND
volunteer choir director that specializes in voice building in choral
ensembles. I am such a person, and do such workshop type things with other
people's choirs especially when they have individual problems with singers
such as you describe, but I live in Atlanta. Too far to commute!
Perhaps you can call a few colleagues and find out who might fit the bill.
But assuming that you choose to do something yourself, why don't you do an
annual "voice tune-up" for each of your singers individually? That way you
can address each singer privately and tell him/her what you need chorally
from them and what your issues are. Alternatively, I have done gigs where I
came in and gave each singer 20 minutes of private time, having met with the
director beforehand to find out what the issues were, and did my best to
offer assistance to each person. Again, it needs to be someone sensitive to
volunteer chor issues.
These things don't always work with obstinate personalities, but one thing I
know: every time you allow the sound to happen without saying something to
stop it, you exacerbate the problem. You must stop the piece whenever you
hear that vibrato causing pitch issues and say something. If you start
again and it hasn't gone away, stop again. You must be in charge of your
sound. Otherwise your strong voices will run away with your ensemble and
you will have no blend left. If you have to get in the face of the
offending wobble, then get in her face. The rest of the ensemble and you
will not succeed unless you do. Sound tough? Well, no body ever said a
choir was a democracy. They pay you to make a good sound. So you do what
you have to do, even if it means alienating someone. If you allow it to
continue, you will always wish you hadn't. At least that has been my
experience, because I did and I wish ! I hadn't. It cost me in the long
My church choir responded extremely positively when I had a guest voice
teacher come in and give a mini lesson. I think it does help to have a new
person present the information!! I had the same problem with one of my
altos, and having the lecturer come in seemed to help quite a bit! I highly
Of course! Bring in a REAL voice teacher who understands vocal mechanism
and who can communicate exactly what goes on with the voice when the
singer does these things! Check that they know their vocal physiology
(now called vocology) and vocal pedagogy and that they have dealt
successfully with these "kinds of voices." (which are really very
common!) Check that they can explain exactly what "sing lightly means" in
precise terms AND modeling.
One session will not necessarily change a woman's vocal habits. That
takes time and instruction with a teacher who understands the real
issue(s) of women's heavy mechanism. There are usually psychological
reasons as well as physiological ones!
As a professional singer with a VERY BIG operatic voice, as a voice
teacher, a choral singer, and as a director of choirs for the past thirty
years, I understand all four sides of the issues.
Your singer needs to sing with "less of her voice," less vocal muscle,
less "push from the 'diaphragm'" as choral conductors often speak about
voice support and more low abdominal breath maintenance. If someone
truly has a big voice . . . blending is nigh impossible, and singing
lightly very uncomfortable. I always put all my "opera wannabees" with
people of comparable voice quality IF the voice quality is for real and
not "manufactured" with a depressed larynx.
You might even consider voice coaching for yourself or take some classes
in vocology or vocal pedagogy so that you can understand exactly what is
involved when a singer uses "heavy mechanism," "too much air pressure,"
Yes, I've brought in a specialist before to work with
my men's section and to help them to improve their
tone and technique.
But, I have a question for you - have you ever had
private vocal study or taken a class in vocal
pedagogy? My experience is that you and I, as church
music directors, are the closest thing to a voice
teacher or vocal coach that our volunteer choristers
will ever see.
There are two basic things that will help your
First, her intonation problem and her wobble are
directly linked to poor breath management. If she can
get instruction from you or someone else to improve
her breath "support", the wobble will become much less
pronounced and her pitch will improve.
Second, her wobble may also be due to poor muscle tone
in her vocalis muscles - a.k.a. her vocal cords. I
have learned a simple, 3-minute set of exercises that
will go a long way toward improvement of the muscle
tone (and the breath management, too). If you're
interested in learning more about the 3-minute warmup,
it'll take a phone call to demonstrate. I know from
experience that these exercises work beautifully and I
have case study stats to prove it.
All of your singers could benefit from a special
one-hour or 90-minute workshop session, but it will
require one-on-one work with the soprano to help her
improve her vocal technique.
Oh, and as for her blend issues: the improvement in
her breath management and muscle tone will go a long
way toward improving her blend in the ensemble. But,
there's another concept that she may need to learn:
it's called LISTENING. It's simple, and all of your
singers probably need to be reminded of it (as do
mine), "don't just BLOW, but rather sing and listen to
your section or the entire choir as you sing."
I can really help you. First of all, never appear to your choir the way you
came across to us. You are in charge, you are the expert. Period.
My solution for you is quite simple. But first of all I must tell you that
I had the same situation as you. For the past 8 years I had the "one"
soprano that everyone refused to sit by, wished wouldn't show up...wondered
how she didn't hear what we hear. So...this is how I solved the problem. I
started moving her to alto on certain occasions, seeming I was just needing
her "support", because of her good musicianship. The choir had no idea what
I was doing. Eventually, this person (who complained she couldn't sing that
low) started just accepting my leadership, and did not question me. Because
I approached it as a "need" rather than a weakness. So, now she sings alto
and doesn't dare to challenge me, because I insist she respects my
muscianship, and everyone else sees my move as humane to her spirit.
Never ever let your choir think they are smarter than you. You are in
charge...period. Don't be a hard ass..just trust your instinct...and your
experience. You deserve their respect.
In a volunteer choir, this may be the cross you must bear; there always
seems to be at least one and this soprano may be it.
All is not lost, tho. I have worked with a much smaller Episcopal choir
on a "workshop" basis for nearly 20 years. This choir's big voices,
fortunately, were very fine musicians and willing to extend their singing
lives. The sop was middle aged and trained at Eastman. She is the local
voice teacher. The contralto was trained at the birth of the universe at
Westminster in its darkest wobbliest days and age was such a factor that
she even had decided to stop singing altogether.
This is getting to be a long story all of a sudden, sorry. The choir's
new director was a friend and she and her choir decided to perform the
Faure Requiem. I was asked to run a several day retreat to work with the
choir on pedagogy, work on some pending anthems and, most especially, the
Faure. The director was not a singer but she was able to incorporate my
approach into each of her rehearsals with special attention to pedagogic
"warm-ups". I have returned numerous times for "touch-ups" and I have
found continued progress amoung all the singers. The alto was even
encouraged to continue singing and has taken the techniques to heart to
the extent that the ravages of time have been largely neutralized. We have
gone on to perform the Rutter Requiem, Vivaldi Gloria, RVW Mystical Songs.
Perhaps you need a "guest conductor" well versed in sound, natural vocal
technique who can kindly, but firmly lead choir and you into easily
reproducible vocal excercises which need to be repeated before each
rehearsal and perhaps in Saturday workshops preparing for special events.
I have taught for years from Laura Browning Henderson's How to Train
Singers which has a series of short, easy vocalises which will help you
choir. These excercises fall into three catagories which encourage good,
abdominal breath control; use of resonant spaces (lifting the soft palate)
and a sense of focus in the mask. Your sop and all other singers need
these three things working for them. Saying 'listen", "blend", "shutup"
really are not enough if there is no or faulty technique.
Find a choir director you trust who is firm but not a slave master.
He/she must have good technique and excellent demonstration skills. Pick a
big piece and go to one of the ten thousand lakes for the weekend and
sing. Everybody will be better for it. In Minnesota, the land of song,
this ought not be very difficult.
You yourself said that you've run out of 'tactful' options. The best
thing (which is also the hardest thing) is to talk to this person
directly. Tell her you appreciate her participation, (and pour on the
compliments!), but then stress that she can at times be too heavy for the
rest of the choir and could she please try and focus on creating a
lighter sound. Make sure she knows that you appreciate her and care
Other thing is to join with another church choir or two for a "festival."
Pick a day when the most can come (perhaps even the first rehearsal of
the season, or something). Then you can hire someone and share the cost.
Check local colleges or professional singing groups to see if their
director is interested. They might do such a clinic for free.
I sing in the Masterworks Chorale in Belleville, IL and every other year
they host a choir clinic where all choir directors and singers are
invited. They bring in 4 other choir directors from nearby colleges, and
each director get a 3O - 45 minute session with the group, explaining
techniques and important things for choral singers to know. It's been
You might enter into a discussion of solo singing vs. choral singing, and
demonstrate YOURSELF how you might sing a solo (doing your best imitation of
an opera singer) and then how you might sing the same passage as a member of
a choir. Then get the entire choir to do it.
Recordings might be helpful. Record the choir and ask members if they can
pick out their own voices. You can do all this without naming names even
though it will be perfectly obvious that you are singling this person
out...she probably annoys the entire choir with the way that she sticks out.
You may end up having to be less tactful and ask her privately if you can
help her on working with blending.
I laughed when I read your e-mail posted to the ChoralList. I sing bass in
choir, and at least a third of our sopranos are so afflicted. The most
away a few years ago, but she is rapidly being replaced.
A friend and I came up with a gadget we thought might help with some of
this, and after
having them used all around the world now for about 5 years, the feedback
is pretty encouraging.
If you want, check it out at www.hearfones.com
A bunch of directors have told us they share them around freely so each
person gets the idea. A smaller bunch have ordered
boxes full to outfit the whole crew. But "there's always one . . . " ;-)
Please don't think of this as a commercial message, because if it were we'd
money. At best, you could call us a non-profit (thus far, at least).
Yes, I hire a local clinician each year to work with my choir.
Yes, directly, but sensitively is an approach that you have remaining.
It sounds as if you have a typical problem with an over active ego.
I work with getting my singers to sing lightly with lots of frontal
resonance & head tone. No sense to have them keep belting in it out.
I had an acquaintance who upon finding no particular solution to this
problem short of dismissal, clandestinely made a tape, & sent it
anonymously to the "blaritone" of her dismay.
Robert Shaw said something like this, "This song is not a vehicle for
I've had some success with explaining the difference between "choir" voice
"solo" voice. I've also pulled aside singers indiviually and told them that
that their voice is just so strong it overpowers everyone else and I need
to sing a little softer. They frequently see this as a compliment and try
help out. I depends on their personality, sometimes they are mortally
wounded. Good luck. I love to see a complilation. I live this everyday.
In response to your first problem, I have a similar situation with
someone in my choir. Actually two people, and I've done the same things
before that you have tried with the blend and what not. I guess I have
one question and that would be as to the age of the singer. I am
assuming that this person is a bit older, but I'm not sure. Mine is. I
have once asked for no vibrato, and that worked for a little bit. I'm
still working on it. I think it's one of two things that are happening.
Either they are trying to manufacture their vibrato, because that is what
some singers do, because that is the "musical" thing to do. Or, they
just plain have no control to their voice. I'm not one to stifle
anyone's want to sing. Everyone is welcomed. I sing with the Oregon
Bach Festival Chorus, and I know that the majority of those singers have
large vibratos, but are able to do straight-tone because that is what we
do. If the person in question is a little younger, I might think it
possible for her to sing straight-tone. You could say that you are going
for some particular color or something. Perhaps do some Bach or earlier
music and see if they can do it straight. If they can, then you know the
person in question is just trying to sing like an Opera diva. If they
can't, then there is probably nothing you can do. Good luck on that!
I'm working on it myself.
In answer to your second question. My college, North Dakota State,
sometimes has our vocal coaches come into the choir rehearsals. This is
when I was there anyway. I think it's great to do that. Then whatever
you model and say about vocal production becomes more valid, if the vocal
coach has a clue as to good, proper vocal production. My church choir
has the best of both worlds. I am a vocal coach at Robbinsdale Cooper
High School, and I've studied voice for a number of years. However, I
have good credentials when it comes to the voice, still, there are some
that just let what I say go in one ear and out the other. The majority
come to learn, no matter what age they are. I'm very fortunate for that.
First of all the voice production. Earlier this year several members of the
LJMC expressed interest in improving their vocal quality/technique and
agreed to club together to fund group lessons from a singing teacher. As
luck would have it, a new chorister from South Africa joined the choir. A
wonderful tenor, he came to London to study voice at the Royal Academy of
Music. In keeping with the ethos of the choir, he is passing on the benefit
of his knowledge and experience.
We now start our weekly rehearsal with a 20-minute session of vocal
exercises which the guys are meant to practice between rehearsals. As a
result, the overall sound of the choir - which was good before these
sessions started - has improved considerably. Those with poorer quality
voices are learning to breath and project properly; and those whose voices
stood out are learning the art and discipline of blending with others around
them because we are working towards a desired tone in each section of the
The fact that all the choir are involved in these sessions is important.
When the idea of voice lessons was first mooted, none of those with the
stronger/better voices - some of whom are good established soloists with
the choir - were interested. They were quite satisfied with their quality
of singing, despite being told over and over again that their voices were
standing out when they sang in line.
This idea of vocal exercises at the start of every rehearsal led by a
experienced voice teacher has proved beneficial for us. It might work for
It might even help your wannabe opera singer to blend in. If not - and if
you've tried everything else - you have no other option but to ask her to
leave (or to retain her as a soloist if that would be acceptable). My
philosophy is that the choir comes first. If you're voice stands out, if
you don't learn your music, if you're a disruptive influence etc, you don't
belong in a choir.
In the 10 years that I have been MD of the LJMC, several people - some of
them long-standing members - have left (or been persuaded to leave) for a
variety of reasons. In some cases eg the loss of an established soloist,
this has 'weakened' the choir - but only temporarily. You'd be amazed how
positively the other choristers respond to such situations - provided they
are committed to the choir. (I suspect that many of your choristers feel
the same way as you about your wannabe).
So to summarise. Get hold of an experienced voice teacher and have him/her
run sessions at the start of every rehearsal; make these compulsary for
Director of Music and Youth Ministries
Richfield United Methodist Church
5835 Lyndale Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55419
PHONE: 612-861-6086 ext, 209