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Inexperienced choral director seeks Information

Hello ChoralNet,
 
I am a guitar player by trade and am slowly learning the ins and outs of choral direction. My question to the community is what are the most indispensible techniques you use when teaching good vocal technique in a group setting? Any replies would be greatly appreciated. 
 
 
on April 14, 2015 12:14pm
Mental pitch work and diction.
 
The voice is the only instrument that can't be "played."  It cannot be seen, no buttons to press, holes to cover, etc.  It is all about mental/aural practice in order to achieve a perfect center on pitch and agility to move from pitch to pitch accurrately.  There are a number of choral exercises that I find helpful, particularly those that use numbers or solfege syllables to help singers identify where the pitches accurrately are inside of them.  Many choral singers do not even realize they are off pitch or slide around when moving from pitch to pitch.  Lots of mental/aural warm-ups have been the key for improving this problem.  Ex. In the key of C, have your singers sing "one" on C.  Then think about pitch 2 or "D" without singing it, then sing it, etc etc.  Jump around numbers and pitches to find which ones are more difficult to find and work on those.  Focus on 1, 5, 8 as these are what I call the "centering pitches" of a key.
 
Choral singing is the only group activity where text and music are combined so it is equally imperative that a lot of time be spent on how to articulate consonants and shape vowels.  I often joke with my choirs that brass and woodwind instruments have to deal with spit a lot but it's usually not spraying on people.  I tell those on the front row of my choirs to just understand up front that being short has its hazards and that the back of their head may get wet if the choir is articulating correctly!
 
There are many other things that make choral singing unique and special but these are definitely my top two priorities.  Good luck to you!
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on April 18, 2015 9:54pm
Keegan,
 
Welcome to the choral conducting world! It’s a great place to be.
 
One of the important things to remember when discussing vocal technique is that the voice is an instrument, just like all other musical instruments, in that there are three main sections to it. If you address each of the three – especially, but not only, in your warm-up – then you will be helping your singers individually and your choir corporately. The three sections are the power source, the vibrating source and the resonating source. In the voice these correspond to the breathing apparatus, the vocal folds and the throat and mouth.
 
POWER SOURCE / BREATHING – for proper function of any muscle we need two things: strength and control.
 
For strength I like an exercise called 4-4-4&4. (You will be counting these beats out loud for your singers. By the way, none of these are original with me.) Once you have taught your singers proper posture (feet shoulder width apart, one foot slightly in front of the other, sternum comfortable raised, rib cage gently expanded. In addition, I like the idea of an imaginary line running straight down from their ear to their shoulder to their hip to their heel.) have your singers inhale fully and evenly over four beats, then hold that air in WITHOUT CLOSING THEIR THROATS OR MOUTHS, then actively and completely hiss all the usable air out over four beats PURPOSEFULLY LETTING THE RIB CAGE COLLAPSE, then hold that empty position for four beats. (This is the ONLY time I ask my singers to allow their rib cage to collapse!) Then take a regular breath. The reason for not allowing your singers to close their throats or mouths is that in this way the inhalation muscles must stay engaged in order to keep the air in. Keeping them engaged strengthens them. You may give them a visual image by telling them to think of the area from their lips to their lungs as a pipe in which there must be no constriction. The reason for letting the rib cage collapse is that by doing so they are effectively taking their inhalation muscles out of the picture, thereby letting their exhalation muscles contract fully. Again, keeping the exhalation muscles engaged this way strengthens them.
 
For control I like an exercise called “In for two, hiss for four.” Have your singers inhale fully and evenly over two beats, then hiss all that usable air out evenly over four beats (which you have counted out loud for them) WITHOUT LETTING THE RIB CAGE COLLAPSE. Tell your singers they have two goals for this exercise: first they must hiss evenly throughout the four beats, and second they must time their use of breath so that they become empty of usable air as you finish counting the last number. Repeat in for two beats, hiss for eight beats…12 beats…16 beats. As they become more skilled at hissing all their usable air out over differing numbers of beats they gain more control over their breathing muscles.
 
VIBRATING SOURCE / VOCAL FOLDS – this is the most controversial item in my suggestions. For more information on this, see Manuel Garcia’s Hints on Singing http://imslp.org/wiki/Hints_on_Singing_%28Garcia_Jr.,_Manuel%29.
 
Many voice teachers and choir directors will tell their singers that they should never feel anything in their throat as they are singing. I know because I was taught that way and have taught that way myself in the past. Hogwash! The vocal folds are THE part of the mechanism which changes moving air into sound waves. Your singers are going to feel something in their throats. Even if they ignore that sensation, there must be a sensation for them to ignore. The real question is whether they are going to feel the right thing or the wrong thing.
 
In order for as much air as possible to be turned into sound waves, the vocal folds must be as closed BEFORE the onset of the tone. Otherwise there will be wasted air which you and your audience will be able to hear. A breathy tone is a non-vitalized (AKA boring) tone. In order to alert your singers to the area of the throat in which sound is created you need to do two things: tell them that the vocal folds are right behind their Adam’s Apple (yes, women have Adam’s Apples!), and say a light “uh-oh” in that area. Once they are able to do this have them sing a sustained tone, an ascending-descending interval of a 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th WHILE THEY CONSCIOUSLY KEEP THAT UH-OH FEEL GOING. It will help if you have them portamento (even slide) between the notes.
 
I tell my singers that it is a Three Bears issue and that what I am listening for is “nothing.” If I hear breath before I hear tone, I know that the vocal folds are too loose and are not being closed early enough. If I hear a hard tone which starts too high (usually) or too low then moves to the correct tone, I know their vocal folds are being held too tightly and they need to relax them a bit. But if I hear “nothing” but a clean tone which begins in the middle of the pitch, I know they are beginning the tone with a correct amount of vocal fold tonus. One caveat to this – make sure that they know they are supposed to start in the middle of the pitch in choral style. Many coming from a pop style will habitually slide into the note.
 
RESONATING SOURCE / THROAT AND MOUTH – what we’re talking about here are vowel shapes.
 
I explain it to my choir by saying there are basically three types of vowels depending on how they are formed. There are tongue vowels, lip vowels and jaw vowels. “EE” and “EH” are tongue vowels. While the tip of the tongue remains touching the back of the bottom teeth, the tongue “humps” forward – a little for the “EH,” more for the “EE.” It is very important that they leave the back of the tongue relaxed while they are doing this. “OH” and “OO” are lip vowels. The lips pucker a little for “OH,” more for “OO.” “AH” is the jaw vowel as it relaxes down by gravity. The important thing to keep in mind is that for whatever vowel they are singing they are to use only what is needed to move to create that vowel shape. For the “EE” the lips and jaw must stay relaxed. For the “OO” the tongue and jaw must stay relaxed. Again a caveat – tell your singers always to keep a little vertical space between their back teeth. This will help them give a round sound.
 
Once they understand the concept, have them sing a 5-note descending scale on “OO-AH-EE-AH-OO.” You will more than likely hear that the “AHs” are not matching. This is because each “AH” is following a different vowel shape – the first follows the “OO,” the second follows the “EE.” To fix this, tell your singers to sing the second one just like they sang the first one. As your singers become more proficient at singing these vowels purely, both your choral blend and choral intonation will greatly improve.
 
Too demonstrate this, try this experiment (assuming you have enough singers in order for it to work). Have your choir sing a G major chord: basses on the G a 4th below middle C, tenors on the B a half-step below middle C, altos on the D, sopranos on the G immediately above middle C. Tell all of them EXCEPT HALF YOUR TENORS to sing a pure “EE”. Tell half your tenors to begin by singing “IH” but that at your signal you want them to morph to “EE.” What you and your choir hear will be a chord that neither tunes nor blends change to one which does.
 
To help with balance between the sections have them sing “mee-may-mah-moh-moo” on the following scale notes (the "may" is to be sung without the fade to the "ee" vowel sound):
 
Soprano
3
3
4
4
3
Alto
1
1
1
7
1
Tenor
5
6
6
5
5
Bass
1
6
4
5
1
(Chords)
(I)
(vi)
(IV)
V7
(I)
 
Begin in the key of E-flat and modulate down then back up by half-steps.
 
One more thing about vowel shapes. For acoustic reasons, your women will not be able to sing pure vowels on higher pitches and still make good sound. Trust me – you will have to choose which you want, and you want good sound. When my sopranos are singing a high pitch, I tell them to let the lower voices sing the correct vowel, they are to make good sound. As your female singers rise in pitch have them gradually lower their jaws. They will begin to sing more of an “AH” but it will be a good tone. Don’t tell them to sing “AH” until they get above the staff. Instead, tell them to lower their jaw. I, admittedly somewhat arbitrarily, tell my female singers to begin thinking about lowering their jaws on the treble clef middle line B and have their jaws completely lowered at the top line F. (If you, Keegan, will put your fingertip immediately in front of the flap at the front of your ear then lower your jaw, you will feel your jaw “unhinge.” That is what you want your sopranos to be doing when they are singing above the staff.)
 
Good luck and have fun!
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on April 19, 2015 10:31am
Thank you both very much for all of the wonderful ideas and the helpful hints! I appreciate all of the exercises very much and I will definitely be using them in my own teaching practice!
 
Thank you again, 
Keegan
on April 20, 2015 3:05pm
One further item I forgot to mention. (It was late and I was tired!) When your singers breathe before singing a phrase, have them breathe through the sensation of a yawn - not a full blown yawn, just the sensation. This will help to open their throats and lower their larynxes.
 
The phrase "open throat" is really somewhat of a misnomer. There are three "swallow" muscles in the throat which, like all muscles, react to stress by contracting. In this case, the stress is coming from the breath pressure (AKA support) from the lungs. As these are sphinctor muscles, the result of their contracting is less space in the throat. Less space equals thinner sound. You want a fuller, rounder sound. So, by breathing through the sensation of the yawn, your singers are not really "opening" the throat, although there may be some of that going on, as much as they are keeping it from closing.
 
You want your singers to keep their larynxes gently lowered because the technique they use to change the pitch may affect the quality of the tone. Pitch is changed by the respective lengthening or shortening of the vocal folds: shorter = lower, longer = higher. There are two ways to change the pitch, a healthy way for the choral tone and an unhealthy way for the choral tone. The healthy way is to keep the larynx comfortably low. In this technique, the cricothyroid (a little muscle at the base of the larynx) and the vocalis (the muscle within the vocal fold) are engaged in a constant tug-of-war. When the cricothyroid contracts and the vocalis relaxes (each by degrees) the vocal fold is stretched (lengthened) and the pitch is raised. Conversely, when the vocalis contracts and the cricothyroid relaxes (again, by degrees) the vocal fold is shortened and the pitch is lowered. (Stretch a relatively short rubber band between your thumb and forefinger. As you lengthen and shorten it while "playing" it, you will see what I mean.) The unhealthy way for the choral tone is to allow the muscles above the larynx to take the place of the cricothyroid and pull to raise the pitch.
 
How does this affect the tone quality? Imagine for a moment that you are going on a car ride from your town to another. Before you leave, you buy a coke in a glass bottle. You pop off the top but, before you drink any of it, you blow over the top of the bottle. The pitch you hear is a relatively high one because there is not much air inside the bottle. As you're driving you drink about half the coke. You blow over the top of the bottle again and find that the pitch has lowered. There is more air in the bottle. When you finish the bottle you blow over the top again and find that the pitch is lower still because there is even more air in the bottle. Here's the point - the larger the chamber of air, the lower the pitch of that chamber. When your singers are using the muscles above the larynx to change the pitch, they are also raising and lowering the larynx thereby changing the amount of space (air) in their throats. This changes their sound from a round one on the lower notes to a thin one on the higher. Using the cricothyroid keeps the larynx in a relatively stable position and the amount of space in the throat more constant, so the tone stays round on higher AND lower notes. How can you tell which your singers are using? If you see them raise their heads on higher notes and lower them on the lower notes, they are using the unhealthy way. Tell them to keep their heads level on ALL notes - low, middle and high.
 
If we think of this in terms of "unity in variety," the "unity" comes from the consistently round tone from the lowered larynx, and the "variety" comes from the changing vowel shapes and consonants.
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on April 25, 2015 8:45am
To Ray's excellent advice, I'd recommend getting "Prescriptions for Choral Excellence" by Shirlee Emmins and Constance Chase (Oxford University Press). Check it out on Amazon for both editorial and customer reviews (hint: 5 stars from everybody).
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