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Achieving a good Unison


Several people asked for the compilation of the unison thread, so I thought
it sensible to post it on the list. Personally, I found the replies very
helpful at the least! Thank you everybody!

Ken Wollmann


Here are a few suggestions. First off, it sounds to me like maybe the issue
goes beyond blend just over all tone quality. One very important lesson I
learned when doing my student teaching was that choirs often sing the way
the directors sing. Make sure when you sing for your choir that you are
always using your best technique. Also, you might want to try bringing in
recordings of male singers or choirs so the men can get a better idea of the
sound you are striving for. You could do the same thing with the ladies if
you like.

My second suggestion usually works like a charm for me. Have the sections
stand in circles and rehearse. It allows them to really here one another
much better.

You can also use Mah, Meh, Mee, Moh, Moo as a vocal warm-up. Just sing each
of the 'words' on Do of the key your in. Take a slow tempo and really have
the choir focus on dropping the jaw, keeping the vowels tall and round, and
listening to one another. Maybe even have the choir stand in 1 large circle
for this exercise.

Good Luck and be patient. These things take time to develop. I'm assuming
you haven't had the position very long seeing as you're a student, so just
keep asking questions and be patient. It will all come in good time.

Robbie Doelger
Choir Director
Bay Port High School


Go back and teach the basics of good vocal technique which start with good
posture, proper breathing, and uniformity of the basic vowel shapes and
sounds. Everything beyond that is gravy. Repeat these things incessantly
and don't allow any variance. These things work for all humans.

Eric Anthony
Director of Upper School Vocal Music and Theory Instructor
Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School
101 N. Warson Rd.
St. Louis, MO 63124
(314)995-7450 ext. 7281Lip trills!


Lip Trills!

;) Kayla Werlin
Longmeadow (Mass.) High School
Springfield Children's Chorus
(314)993-4498 (fax)


Ken -

I am so glad that you appreciate the need for a good unison and understand
how difficult a true unison really is. The pay-off you will receive for
taking this seriously and really working for a unified sound will be

I think you need to talk, albeit briefly, to your singers about the issues
and the necessity for fixing the problem. I would work with each sex
separately, either briefly as a part of vocal exercises in your warm-ups, or
even supplemented with male and female sectionals.

The issue is pretty simple to analyze, but takes time to fix. These are not
highly trained singers, so they need to be taught to breathe well (for depth
and warmth of sound) and they need to learn about focus and proper mix of
head tone and full voice.

Sooooo, first you teach good abdominal breathing and make sure you open your
rehearsal warm-ups with some good breathing exercises every time. Takes
about 2 or 3 minutes but the investment is very valuable.

Second, I would help them all find their head voices, especially the men,
who tend to under represent that tone in their singing unless forced to it.
Using [u] is helpful, as is a light dynamic. Exercises which skip up (so
they can "yodel" to their head voice with that ooo vowel) and step down will
help them to find the head voice and learn to bring it down the scale. Later
when they have the head voice, they must learn to transfer it from [u] to
the other vowels without bringing in full voice (yet.)

Then, I would help them find their focus, probably working with [i] to get
that intensity in the front of the face. I would start with a light dynamic
and build gentle crescendos, not going too far (yet.)

All the time, of course, you are challenging them to listen, be a part of
the "sleeve" and not over sing. Tuning drills like the one where you move a
half-step over 16 pulses will help them understand that there is a vast
wasteland of pitch between each and every note, so they must be accurate in
order to be tuned. Look for bad vocalism such as a tight throat, high
breathing, etc., which of course will contribute to out-of-tune singing a
much as not having enough focus and head voice in the mix will.

Keeping your warm-ups progressive each rehearsal is very important, at least
to me. If at first I remind their muscles that they will be asked to work
in a certain way for singing, then the rest of the vocalizing is productive.

Then I go to head voice exercise, gradually moving into focus and all
vowels, then a range of dynamics, gradually building as they learn to
maintain good technique as they increase intensity of sound ( a tough thing
to learn!!)

The most important thing I can tell you is to give them immediate feedback
constantly. Demonstrate what they sound like to you. Demonstrate how you
WANT them to sound to you. Help them learn the difference. Never allow them
to slip. Call them on it immediately. That is what helps a person to adjust
to new muscle memory and habits most effectively and efficiently.

good luck,

micki gonzalez


I always begin my warm-up sessions with everyone sustaining a unison, mezzo-
piano F-sharp. This is the f# above middle C. It requires the men to sing in
head voice and the women to really lighten up. The vowel is OO, as in Winnie
the Pooh, but the mouth is shaped O, as in "toe." The results have worked
very well. Even within the context of at piece of music, we'll lock onto a
unison pitch, then go back to our f-sharp. I'll ask everyone to keep the
same shape and sound of that f-sharp. Then we'll immediately go back to the

It has worked every time for me. Good luck...

Lewis Worthington
Farmville, VA 23901
(434) 547-9055


Benjamin Britten wrote a series of pieces in a collection titled "Friday
Afternoons" for unison choir and piano. They are beautifully done! It's a
great way to rehearse unison as well as address, dynamics, articulation,
diction, etc.

Also, John Rutter has compiled "Gems of Gregorian Chant" (Collegium CCS
208). No printed articulations, but they are great to rehearse vowel
unity, etc.

Good luck,

Ryan Connolly
Northfield High School
Department of Vocal Music
Northfield, Minnesota 55057
phone (507) 645-3402
fax (507) 645-3455


Breathing, Breathing, Breathing. Get Lara Browning Henderson's How To Train
Singers. I have broken these exercises into three things, Dynamic
(abdominal) Breathing, Resonance (lifting soft palate to achieve open, free
tone; and Focus in the Mask (ng exercises). All other exercises provide
variety and fine tuning. But of these, the breathing is the most important.


Stephen A. Stomps
Auburn High School Choirs
250 Lake Avenue Extension
Auburn New York 13021
PH: 315-255-8341
FAX: 315-255-5876
HOME: 315-255-1783
email: steve_stomps(a)



Sing everything on "oo" as in too until you get a good sound and good
intonation. Remember you have to pucker the lips to get the oo focused in
the front of the mouth. It is easy to sing that vowel incorrectly.

Bob Sabourin
Midland, MI



Volunteers are the biggest challenge, but can do well.

Warm up your group singing a unison pitch in a medium register on nooo. Ask
them to sing piano, listen to each other, have exactly the same vowel, pitch
etc. Stop them if it's not right. Then change the vowel to eeee, but don't
allow them to squeeze it shut. then to aah--crescendo, and maintain

This is a technique of Robert Shaw's, and it's very simple--when everyone is
singing the same dynamic, the same vowel, and the same pitch, the unison
sound is well blended!! There are some teaching videos of with Robert
Shaw from Carnegie Hall which demonstrate these rehearsal techniques. They
really work with all levels of vocal ability and training.

Encourage the men to sing "lightly" and above all, get everyone to listen to
each other. Possibly the SA need some exercises in breath support for a
fuller sound‹

Clair Rozier crozier(a)



I won't say this is an easy problem to fix, but working toward a consistency
in vowel production is what this is all about. Without doubt, you should
plan on demonstrating exactly what kind of "a" you want to hear. Is it
bright as in "hot" is it dark as in "claw", etc. etc. If they are having a
tough time, contrive the farthest away from the correct sound you can
imagine, have them sing it that way and notice how bad it is, then in a
good-natured way, insist that they never again do it that way. Often having
a clear concept of what is "bad" helps to clarify what is "good."

Another slightly more technical approach is to remind them (constantly) to
think in terms of a more vertical mouth position. Your message doesn't
mention where you are, but regional differences in speech and accent often
hinder a more "artistic" kind of a choral sound.

No matter what else, be assured that if everyone is singing the same vowel
you will have a sound anyone would want to listen to.

Another part of the problem is likely to be intonation. The best way to
improve intonation is to work with smaller vowel sounds ("oo" "ee") sung
VERY quietly. Make up exercises. Have everyone sing quietly on a unison
pitch, perhaps middle c. When that is really a unison, have the men quietly
go down an octave. when the octave is in tune, have the tenors go up to g.
When the octave and fifth are in tune you should almost already hear the e
that the sopranos should Don't just jump to tuning the first chord in a song
you are about to work on. (But don't avoid tuning that chord.)

When the vowels are unified, intonation becomes easier. When singing
quietly, singers can hear one another and know what to tune to, and how
their sound fits the group sound.

Good luck!


## Dean Ekberg ##
## Rochester, New York, USA ##


Something that works for me is to have them sing softly on "oo" medium high
(A to C), and tell them to make it sound hooty. Have them sing sighs on
"oo" softly from high to low and keep the same feeling from top to bottom.
The idea is to keep everyone in their "head voices" and make sure they never
push. Eventually, you would have them sing other exercises in this manner
(ex.- 5, 4, 3, 2, 1; or 1,3,2,4,3,5,4,2,1) and begin using different vowels.
After a while you'll hear a big difference in the way they sound. Once you
hear a difference in sound in the exercises, you might try singing through
the pieces on "oo."

Cory Alexander
Director of Choirs & Music Instructor
Central Florida Community College
P.O. Box 1388
Ocala, Florida 34478
(352) 854-2322 x. 1231



You don't mention your background or how much vocal or pedagogical training
you have had. My first suggestion is to get as much of both as you can.

It sounds as if the problems you are experiencing are due mostly to
poorly-developed listening skills on the part of your singers and poor
technique/breath support. My time is short, so please excuse the quick,
cursory answers.

In general, singers must always "listen louder" than they sing. Choral
singing demands a much more sophisticated and in-depth kind of listening
skill than everyday life does. It takes real concentration and focus.

It sounds as if your men are singing mostly with chest voice, with little
head voice mixed in. Work to help them find their "head" voice (which is
different from "falsetto"). This is done in several ways. Have them always
approach a note from above, as in dropping a "pearl" from above, not
straight on or from underneath a note. In vocalises, have them sing very
softly and lightly. "Ooh" and "ee" are excellent vowels to help them find
and feel their head voice. Sighs, imitating sirens (gently, not loudly) and
imitating the wind can help them find their head voices. Once you have
helped them locate their head voices, vocalize DOWN most of the time,
especially in the beginning, carrying and blending their head voice down
into their chest voice, not vice-versa. As they vocalize downward, train
them to keep the placement high and not let it fall as they descend the
scale. This is subtle and one of the harder things for them to hear/learn,
as one can still sing the "correct" pitch even though one's
placement/resonance is falling. Eventually, this will cause flatting and
problems when they try to go back up to a higher note, however. Placement
for the lowest note of their range should be the same as the highest note of
their range.

Women need to use basically the same process. Proper breath support helps
prevent sharping and pushing. Proper forward placement can help keep the
tone from going back, being swallowed and/or getting hollow and hooty (if
that's what you're referring to).

Pure vowels are absolutely essential to a good blend and a good unison
sound. Work on developing pure vowels that are shaped vertically, not
horizontally and are free from regional accents. Watch for signs of jaw,
lip and tongue tension. Most of us have these tensions in our speaking
voices and are unaware of it. In singing, however, we need to learn to
identify and let go of those tensions. Have them all sing softly on one
pitch, like middle C or in octaves and sustain one vowel, once it becomes
pure, in tune and with a good blend, move to the next slowly. Gradually
increase the speed with which the group moves from one vowel to another.

The soft palate should be raised, the jaw relaxed straight down (like an
elevator, not a hinge!), the lips relaxed, and for most vowels (except
"ee"), the tongue flat in the mouth and forward.

Read some of the writings by Lloyd Pfautsch ("Mental Warm-up for the Choral
Director" and "Choral Therapy; Techniques and Exercises for the Church
Choir"), "Basic Choral Concepts" by Daniel Moe, "Voice Building for Choirs"
by Wilhelm Ehmann and Frauke Haasemann and others on developing a good
choral sound.

I'm sure you'll receive many excellent reponses from the talented and
knowledgeable group of posters on this list.

Good luck!

Craig D. Collins
Director of Music Ministry
Mt. Zion United Methodist Church
19600 Zion Street
Cornelius, NC 28031



The only way to improve the choral sound of a group is to start with basics
and keep building on it. Take 15 minutes at the beginning of every
rehearsal and do progressive warm-ups, starting with posture, to breath, to
head/jaw position, open vowels, etc. What you want to do is voice building
- not just "warm-ups". There are tons of great resources out there. A few
that come to mind:

* Group Vocal Technique by Frauke Hassemann and James M. Jordan - there's a
book (Hinshaw Music HMB183) and also a video. If you don't want to spend
the $$ for the video, the book in itself is well worth the price...but the
video is great too.

* Voice Building for Choirs by Wilhelm Ehmann and Frauke Haasemann (also
Hinshaw HMB136).

There are lots of resources out there, but stick with those that focus on
building tone, not just singing fun and interesting warm-ups.

I can appreciate your situation. With amateur choirs, you really have to
build your choral tone, and if you do take time each and every week, it will
get better. It can seem like a painfully slow process, but it does work.

...It sounds like your folks are not connecting the breath to the
tone...that can result in the sound you describe. If there's a good voice
teacher in your area, invite (hire) them to come in and listen and maybe do
the choral warm-up. That person might spot a particular aspect of tone
production that needs the most attention.

on March 13, 2003 10:00pm
This works for us every time. Group people into cells. Nobody should find themselves next to somebody of the same voice. Then, the challenge is to sing everything as softly as possible. At first people are scared stiff, but soon their confidence builds. Tuning clicks in perfectly, although ensemble probably suffers. If the choir can sing softly, dynamic changes are so easy to achieve. Everybody tells me how much they enjoy being able to hear all the other parts when in harmony.
on October 21, 2007 10:00pm
Proper production for EACH singer, so NONE are unsupported, etc.

Lip trills are for trombones, and are silly as done now.

Sing some Alleluias, and insist on perfection of Italianate pronunciation and resonance. Transfer that skill specifically to all possible music.

Controlled submissive subservient vibrato, if not straight tone.

Exact, precise vowels - if different, they will never blend or meet.