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Addressing vocal technique in the classroom

As leaders and shapers of young voices, how much time do you tend to give to healthy vocal technique and how do you manage the vocal problems of specific students without crossing a line and embarrassing a student?
Any advice helps!
Thank you, James
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on April 18, 2015 11:54am
Gooooood question, James. Advice would depend on the age of your students. Please let us know.
on April 18, 2015 8:07pm
I teach vocal technique as part  of the warm up, and incorporate it wherever skills are needed for specific vocal challenges throughout the rehearsal.  Healthy technique is constantly reinforced. With specific individuals, if I cannot help them in the context of the rehearsal, I work with them individually during a break or before or after rehearsal. 
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on April 19, 2015 7:17am
As others do, I also address vocal warm-up along with physical warm-up. At each rehearsal, I focus on the one or two things I have previously identified as needing attention. To that, I add one or two fundamental or foundational exercises. As always, I introduce these positively as techniques that will help us get even better as an ensemble. I may single out an individual for praise when they are doing it right and even ask them to demonstrate it for others, but I will never criticize either an individual or a group. If I hear, say, one person in one part not getting it right, I will have all those in that part try it again, perhaps offering suggestions for making it better. I should add that from the start, I have developed a climate of trust that allows each singer to feel free to "make mistakes," to share their concerns with whatever we're doing at the moment, and to rejoice together in our achievements -- especially right after we've fixed a particularly challenging matter. They know that they may see me as the "captain of their ship" but that I'm still in the same boat with them.
Paul Jonathan Nesheim's doctoral dissertation (music major) supports the logic of warm-ups ("vocalises") and focuses on the "usefulness of vocalises in the development of specific elements of good singing" (the key word being "specific"). I like the concept very much.The title of his dissertation is "Vocalises for choir: A collection of vocal exercises with a study of their value and of principles for their effective use." You can read the abstract at:  I'm sure the University's Librarian would send you a full copy if you were to explain your purpose.
Hope this is helpful.
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on April 19, 2015 10:09am
I try to teach healthy vocal technique throughout the rehearsal. If I'm on my A game, when I get to a concept, I'll say "Remember how well you sang that warm-up? Sing this phrase the same way!" If I hear one singer do something less than healthy, I usually address a whole section. For example, if I know a particular singer sings with too much of an American "R", I'll say "Just as a reminder, eliminate those r's!". Chance are more than one person needed that reminder :) With each piece of music, I think "What technical and emotional concepts can I teach?" and I do my best to center the rehearsal around those concepts.
on April 20, 2015 5:00am
Don't be afraid to move people's seats for "tone and balancing purposes" either.  Good technique is contagious, since humans generally learn better by imitation than by explanation.  Let your students' mirror neurons do some of the work.  Shuffle them around the room so that they can influence each other.  If you can hear someone standing out as particularly attrocious, sometimes just switching their seat allows them to hear the balance in the room better, and they automatically adjust their sound.  When your tone color naturally contrasts with that of the person seated next to you, that's good seating for the blend of the group overall, since you balance each other out, but it can be very distracting to the two of you personally.  It can be difficult to hear yourself in that context and there's a tendancy to over-sing as a result.  Sometimes saying "Martha and Abby, switch seats," can save you a two minute explanation of vocal technique and make everyone much happier.  
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on September 28, 2015 1:09pm
I'm curious how you pick out who needs to be moved where--I've been finding myself (I've just started teaching) barely able to pick out individual voices, much less decide what about them would indicate a need to be switched with someone else!
on April 20, 2015 9:44am
Good advice here.  I especially like Joy's.  That is what I do in my rehearsal, and many others do.
I learned from another well-respected Director in this community to demonstrate contrast - sing it very "wrong", then right.  "Walk in the 'leh - - eh-- ht"[or whatever regional chorally-unhelpful pronunciation they tend toward] .  Now, "walk in the 'lah-ah-ah-eet".
My 2nd-soprano-educator friend pointed out that it is important to do the desired sound last, so that is what is left in their brain.
Often physical things that the whole group can do, will help the individual.  "Plant your feet one behind the other.  Take a deep breath.  Using the full shoulder-and-arm, throw a baseball over the next building.  Sing that arc: 'HoOOOooo'." [Capital OO refers to the higher pitch, not more volume.  It is a glissando/portamento/slide, not individual notes, because they might exert tense over-controlling.)  Switch feet.  Repeat with other arm.  Change the game seasonally  - October it's a ghost, or an owl.  Spring it's a water-slide.  Sound is basically the same.
Generally that begins to open head tone and develop vocal freedom.
For abdominal support-strength, pant like a dog, using the "tummy"....just for a few seconds.  Too much air dries the vocal folds.
Best Wishes!
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on April 20, 2015 4:13pm
James, everything comes from the warm-ups.  Think not? Think again!  The warm-ups can also incorporate bodily movement which gives the movement rhythm.  The bodily movement and the vocal movement increase the effectiveness of one another.  I have warm-ups that I send to people but no one has ever asked what bodily movements could be incorporated.  I believe that would depend upon the choir's general age.  But most assuredly, I have used these warm-ups with elementary school choirs through high school as well as college and adult.  They work on every aspect barring none.  These warm-ups took a little non-magnet public middle school choir to St. Patrick's Cathedral (NYC), the White House, The Catholic Shrine in DC, and to NYC's Carnegie Hall to perform a world premiere.  It all starts with the warm-ups, with the knowledge learned there transferred over to the music.  The comments of others herein are spot on.
With a voice of singing, declare ye this, and let it be heard: Alleluia!
Jack Briggs
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on September 29, 2015 5:24am
All of the above offer great advice. In addition to the above I call a spade a spade. We don't do "warm-ups" at the beginning of rehearsals, we do "technical exercises," so that the singers are aware that there is direct application of what they sing in technical exercises to what they are about to rehearse - posture, breath technique, range, tone, tonality, vowel consistency - are all easily taught, set up, and reinforced at this time.
I try to incorporate a healthy amount of physical movement - stretching, twisting, back rubs, and physicalization of sound concepts, as well as imagery, in the technical exercises especially for my auditioned ensemble as it meets first thing in the morning, and many are barely awake. They need the physical and mental focusing to allow them(and me) to get the most out of the rehearsal.
I also let my singers know that, although we are seated in the formation in which we will perform, I may move them at any time to adjust for balance.  
After a selection is pretty well learned, I will have my singers randomly mix up standing next to singers not on the same part, once through the theme from 'Jeopardy' cues this. This gets them moving about the space, gives them a different perspective on the other parts, and really shows them how secure they are on their part. 
We also often perform in assigned mixed positions. I arrange the ensemble in quartets, or at least as close to that as I can come with my singers. The singers really like to do this as they hear the whole much better, and it instantly solves many balance and blending issues. It only works if everyone is very secure in their part. They know...
And, to directly answer your questions-
Technical exercises last 15+/- minutes.
My rehearsal space is a 'safe zone' where making big, new, mistakes is encouraged. I encourage my singers to always sing with great tone, even if unsure of a pitch or rhythm. That way they will be contributing to the ensemble sound. Errors, when apparent, can always be fixed.
Individuals regularly are informed that the technique they are using is creating a sound that makes them stick out, ghost out, of the ensemble, which none of them wish to do, so they are happy for advice on how to fix that. 
Hope this helps.
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on September 29, 2015 7:29am
Thomas, it was so good and reinforcing to read what you wrote. For the most part it sounded like I had written it myself: technical exercises instead of "warm-ups" (I never even use that term), always reinforcing good tone while making mistakes as part of the rehearsal learning process, finding direct application for the exercises in the pieces they are learning. James, I encourage you to investigate my vocal manual VoiceWorks published by Alfred. It is concise, inexpensive, and loaded with analogies that relate to choral students of that age. (The original title was Gearheads, Jocks, and Your Voice.) My proof reader and editor was my daughter who was 15 at the time. I'm certain it will be a tremendous aid to your kids and to your teaching.
Hank Alviani
on September 29, 2015 8:21pm
My only bit to add is regarding your loud singers who make a mistake. Sometimes these people are leaders who are fabulous musicians. Other times, they're loud. Either way, I've worked on a great way of fixing one person's mistake before it becomes the choir's mistake.
The first time a loud singer does something wrong that is impacting the choir, I give a little speech.
"I'm about to give a strange compliment to someone. This person is a leader in the choir. People tend to notice and model what they are doing. That's great when they do something right. However, this person is making a noticeable mistake that I know they can improve. So, I'm going to let them know and help them fix it." Then, I identify the singer and the very specific problem. We sing the part again, and if improvement has happened, I make sure to acknowledge it by saying, "this is why they're a leader in the group. They definitely improved their performance and they did it with everyone listening and noticing. Great work!" After doing that, you can use the strategy more comfortable with many different singers to fix problems.
A few warnings about this strategy.
1. Make sure that what you are asking the singer to fix is something that they can do.
2. Improvement counts as fixing things. If not, there may be anger and resentment on the part of a singer who is genuinely trying.
3. Make sure it is always about helping the singer and the ensemble improve, not about pointing out who is making the mistake.
I've used this strategy with kids as old as 14 and as young as 7. As far as I know, it has been well received when done specifically and thoughtfully.
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