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Encouraging/Empowering Female Singers?

There are so many discussions invovling "How do I get boys to join choir?"  "How do I get boys to match pitch?", etc.  While the pitch-matching issue can be frustrating, and so mysterious sometimes, I find that once boys/men do buy-in, they are frequently easier to manage .  They enjoying singing big, they aren't afraid to audition for things, and they love being physically engaged in singing.  In addition, if I tell redirect them because they are doing something they shouldn't, most of them will apologize quickly and get their other friends on board.  (Don't get me wrong, my men's choir is not a perfect place!)
I am looking for resources and suggestions for empowering and encouraging female singers?  I feel that many times, we take for granted that the women will just sign up, regardless of whether we encourage them too.  However, within the classroom, I've found that they are extremely self concious, are afraid to take risks, and as a result their singing and self confidence suffers even more.  You would think as a female that I would know how to relate with this, but I seem to struggle with those skills that come to many choral directors naturally.  I love rehearsing, love the music, and when the kids get it, we/they connect emotionally.  But, I have a very hard time finding that connection until all of the music is learned.  I was reading a forum today that suggested the book "I teach Sousa's Not Sopranos!"  While my focus since college has always been choral, and I sing much better than I ever played my band instrument, I feel like this is the kind of resource that I need to look to.  
So-what do YOU do with your female singers to empower them within the rehearsal?  I know they have to feel comfortable before they are willing to sing strongly, but I just can't figure out how to to the "heart" first!  
Thanks so much!
Replies (12): Threaded | Chronological
on December 3, 2015 1:09pm
**The last sentence should say, "I just can't figure out how to get to the 'heart' first!"  :)
on December 3, 2015 4:07pm
You don't mention age range for the girls you want to empower, so I can only give my opinion based on my own experiences - As a vocal coach, I too have noticed that your issue, and I have come to the conclusion that a lot of it is acutally down to the mechanics of the voice, or rather, the 'change'.
- Boys, as we know, go through their vocal break / change, which for some students can be daunting, adapting to a new voice, or in the case of some of my students, have their voice not break quickly enough! However, I think it's important to note that, GIRLS EXPERIENCE A VOCAL CHANGE TOO!! Round about 11-14, girls will experience a change in their voice, some will barely notice it, others will (like i did), completely lose their high 'belty' childish sound and develope a distinct crack/flip from chest to head registers, and this can be really upsetting and frustrating for a lot of young girls. Unlike boys they don't have a 'new and exciting deeper voice' to explore and work with, they often feel like something has 'gone wrong' with their voice. 
It's only one possibly factor, but I have noticed it to be a big contributer to girls shying aware from singing at a certain age. The other issue, I find is 'suitability of repertoire' - from 11 up, they're perhaps too old for some Disney/kids songs, but not yet old enough for pop music (which has to be said, a lot of which is innapropriate subject matter for young teens to be singing about, even more so in classrooms). I do find that involving the girls more in the repertoire that the choir will do get them more excited about being involved, even if it's compromised to simply finding similar reperotire to artists or songs they suggested. 
- I suggest spending some time talking to the girls in the choir (that is, assuming they are of the age I've been talking about) explain that their voices also change and how best to deal with it, and also discussions about the type of music / songs they want to be singing
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 3, 2015 5:13pm
Agreed!  I don't think girls realize that there is nothing wrong with them, and that their voices change as well.  I taught 6-8 for the last 6 years, and now teach 6-12.  Thanks so much!
on December 4, 2015 4:48am
An unparalleled resource for ways to empower and encourage female singers is the wonderful 2011 book by Lynne Gackle, Finding Ophelia's Voice, Opening Ophelia's Heart: Nurturing the Adolescent Female Voice, published by Heritage Music Press. The reference to Ophelia comes from the teenage character by that name in Shakespeare's Hamlet, as she inspired Lynne when writing her book (explained on page five). Ophelia also inspired psychologist Mary Pipher's 1994 book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, also referenced by Dr. Gackle. Good on you for focusing on such an important area of knowledge and practice in choral singing. Good luck!
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on December 4, 2015 5:00am
I think part of this is a culture thing about how we raise boys vs. girls into their gendered roles.  From day one, little boys are given shirts with T-rex on them that say "ROAR!) in a giant font, and little girls are given shirts with ponies with long lashes turning shyly away from the viewer.  The proper way to play when wearing a T-rex shirt is, obviously, to run around, jump out from behind corners and yell "ROAR!!!!!"  The proper way to play when wearing a shirt with a demure little pony on it is, obviously, to be quiet and docile.  When they don't have shirts with dinosaurs on them, boys get shirts with construction equipment and "BEEP!!!" printed on them.  Girls get shirts with flowers, which sit quietly, and make no noise at all.  Even with all the adult pop star culture of women stalking around the stage shaking that thing, there is still a huge gulf between the two kid cultures our two genders.  Boys are taught to be loud, funny, and to demand attention with active play.  Girls are taught to be careful, caring, and considerate.  So once boys get over the "singing is for girls" thing, they are primed to be natural show-offs on stage, whether they have the notes right or not.  Girls want to be sure they are "right" before they sing a note and aren't encouraged to compete for atttention in the room by anything that is loud or show-off-y.  (There are exceptions, of course, but for a lot of kids, this is the cultural baggage they come in with.)  
It means, for girls, you can get in by emphasizing teamwork.  Point out (in a very friendly and non-accusatory manner) that when half of them don't sing out, they leave the other half hanging.  Teach new material in very small bites, so they can be confident they are not messing up and hurting the team by opening their mouths.  You can teach in parts from the start, but two measures at a time, slowly, so they feel confident from day one, then gradually build.  You can give them ways to practice at home so they aren't concerned that their learning and mistakes are huring the group.  And you can do very simple warmups and excercises that emphasize listening for blend through a variety of dynamic and tempo changes, since blending is a team skill, not a show-off skill.  You can challenge their sight reading for five minutes a day, but try to do it with excercises at first, rather than with material they are going to be singing for a concert, so you don't worry them.  Take concert material very slowly at first, and then build speed as you build their skills and confidence.  
Good luck!
Applauded by an audience of 2
on December 4, 2015 6:04am
You must get the book, Conducting Women's Choirs edited by Debra Spurgeon, published by GIA.  
Also, remember what motivates young women is different than what motivates young men.  Young men (generally) are motivated to conquer a challenge, achieve a goal, crush an enemy.  Young women (generally) are motivated by and through interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships.  Think about how much of their activity and conversation during a day centers around relational topics.  I have found a good deal of success with my women by starting rehearsal with an activity that isn't specifically musical, but which gets them to engage either with another person in the room or with themselves.  One method is to pass out little blank notecards at the beginning of rehearsal, have them write down something that they genuinely love about themselves (intrapersonal).  Ask them to do everything they can to communicate that, but only through their singing (interpersonal).  After a bit of rehearsal, maybe ask a few volunteers to share what they wrote (interpersonal).  Discuss why it was so hard to share such a personal thing.  When girls can be vulnerable in front of one another, it really opens the door to greater confidence.  Don't let them keep up the walls that they use to "play it safe" in their singing.  Those walls have to come down before you will get their real voices.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 5, 2015 9:36am
You'll find some exercises/games to address both ensemble-building and risk-taking on my website. They build progressively in terms of their "difficulty," and they provide loads of humor--as well as opportunities for movement. (I do one of them just about every day in my classrooms. The students love it!:-) 
I've found that it's extremely helpful to pair these exercises/games with discussions of the inner critic, the part of us that wants to keep us safe and prevent us from looking like a fool(!). "Coolness Cops" and "Perfection Police" can be helpful at times, but when they get too powerful, they prevent us from powerful self-expression. Nobody wants to risk vulnerability when their inner critics are too big, nor do they want to risk it when the external environment is unsafe. Lots on the website about that as well.
I've used these concepts and games with quite a few young women's groups, including the San Francisco Girls Chorus and the Young Women's Choral Projects. The girls made huge strides in the areas you're discussing, and the concepts themselves helped empower their continued growth; it also provided an accessible lexicon with to address the issue in a safe and objective manner.
For more in-depth reading on all of the above, check out my book, Choral Charisma: Singing with Expression.
All my best,
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on December 7, 2015 8:29pm
 I have a very hard time finding that connection until all of the music is learned.
     Your quote struck me as part of the problem. I suspect that you have sent a message to your singers that the music must be performed correctly to be of any worth. This is because for you, learning the notes to the piece must happen before the artistry can happen. You have experienced that artistic "wow" enough times in your life to know that it is worth putting forth effort to achieve. Here's what your students know from society.
* They know that singing is a talent, not a learnable skill.
* There are very few singers who are good. The rest are wannabe losers.
* When music is amazing, it is because the singer is amazing. All the musical celebrities are above the problems of normal people, therefore any mistakes that anyone can see (and cannot dismiss) are the result of them not being part of the elite.
From this, they may determine that they are not one of the chosen few. Their mistakes and flaws seem apparent to everyone. They have probably heard someone sing better than them before. Therefore, they should stay out of the way, because if they screw up, everyone will know what an idiot they are. Enter your quote.
 I have a very hard time finding that connection until all of the music is learned.
This could be reinforcing the message. Unconsciously, you could be saying to your choir. "Every second we spend learning notes is time wasted. The longer it takes us to get it right, the worse we will sound on stage." If they feel that way, the ones who aren't sure if they know the part will probably wilt. They don't want to be part of the problem. When they have to run measure 17 for the 28th time, they are afraid. Everyone starts to wonder if they have what it takes or if their group will screw up on stage.
So. How can you connect to the music before it is all learned? Find a part in a song that exemplifies what makes the song worthy of your students' time (and yours). Do at least one of these parts in each rehearsal at the beginning of a rehearsal cycle, even if it's the hardest part in the song. Celebrate their mistakes. Make note learning a glorious part of the experience by acknowledging that for many musicians, that's the hardest part. Every time they get something right through hard work, that is amazing. Tell them out loud that singing is a learnable skill and we can only learn by doing. Show them that by deliberately pointing out individual singers who were singing something wrong and then fixed it. Ask yourself when you plan your rehearsal: what part of the rehearsal do I connect to? Find something. If you can't, then change your plan. Once you are connected and inspired by what is happening in the room, your ladies (and your gentlemen) will follow.
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on December 8, 2015 6:26am
You're absolutely correct.  I should mention that this is my first year in a new job (I taught 6 years somewhere else) so part of the disconnect is simply coming from being new.  I try very hard to do all of the things with the music that you mentioned in your last paragraph.  I think what I'm missing is the "team building" activities that many other choral directors are so good at.  I didn't grow up in a program that did those things, and we definitely didn't do much of it in college.  I sing from bell-to-bell and rarely find the time to do these (very important!) activities.  Partially, it is because I don't feel that I have enough knowledge of a variety of these activities that the students would appreciate.  My last job was in a middle school, my new job is 6-12.  The women's choir, the group that I have struggled with, was very quickly frustrated that I had "only" taught middle school, and was "doing baby activities" with them.  Trying to find a balance between making them feel like adults while also making sure they are comfortable and having fun, is proving to be a struggle.  I appreciate our help!
Thanks so much!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 9, 2015 11:06am
A really great resource for "team building" activities awaits you on Tom Carter's website and in his Choral Charisma book. Tom's work is evolutionary in the choral singing profession, in my considered opinion. Click on the links he provided in his post above (if by chance you haven't already). Learn and/or adapt them, and others, too, to your circumstances, and enjoy the expanding fulfillments you'l all experience. The "hope" of the choral singing profession is younger conductors like you who are open to learning and becoming. Be well, too, Erin.
[SideNote. If you read this, Tom, good on you, you excellent human being, you.]
on December 16, 2015 9:58am
Thanks for the shout-out, Leon! My warmest regards to you as well!
And Erin, I would also point you to the book that Leon co-authored, Bodymind & Voice: Foundations of Voice Education. It has SO MUCH great information about creating human-compatible choirs (and it was an invaluable resource for me when I wrote my own book).
on December 15, 2015 11:29am
I totally agree with the comments relating to creating a sense of connection in your group. Much as we would like to focus on teaching the music, it is essential that, first and foremost, we teach PEOPLE.
Girls/women need to feel safe and supported in order to take risks. In my community women's choir (currently ages 14-70's), I start rehearsals with what I refer to as "3 minutes of yoga". There is nothing like some guided breathing and relaxation to help slough any incidental annoyances, stresses or grievances that your women have brought into the room with them. Any time I cut out this step of my warm up (to "save time"), I regret is, because the whole atmosphere in the room is different (not to mention intonation and focus).
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