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Shrill Soprano cannot sing quietly

There is a soprano in our choir; she generally does not miss choir. She missed one practice, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much variation in the dynamics I was hearing from the choir that afternoon. I realized that she sings out and has fairly good pitch, but she doesn't know how to change up her volume. She has one volume: forceful. How do I explain this technique of singing with support yet softly?
Replies (10): Threaded | Chronological
on January 5, 2016 6:59am
Hello Melanie,
A very useful question– I hope useful answers will be forthcoming!
It could be that your soprano is totally unaware of her problem, and it could be that more than a verbal explanation is needed. This would be vocal training, but I'll leave that aspect up to you as – if I may read between the lines – the problem you are facing is how you can single her out without hurting feelings. It's really very simple– don't single her out!
Instead, take an approach with the choir aimed at improving overall choral excellence. I am suggesting sectionals initially (beginning with the sopranos) and then breaking it down from there, giving individual attention to each singer. Some will require little or no attention, and the occasional one will require more. A further approach would be to record each choir member as you work with them so they can hear their voices (this will be a surprise to some!) and then tell them how you will help them address any problems they have (pitch control, excessive vibrato, lack of support, dynamic control etc.). In this way your soprano will not feel singled out and – though it will take time – in the end you will not have only a single better soprano, but a whole lot. And be sure not to stop with the sopranos. I can just about guarantee that in a year you’ll have a ‘new’ choir!
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on January 5, 2016 7:06am
A voice that sings loudly and sticks out may consider themselves a "leader" in the choir, and sings loudly to help show the others how to do it.  They have pride in their voice, and may take critique personally.  Unfortunately, they often lack the important "ensemble listening" skill that is so important to blending voices in an ensemble.
So, I'd do two things...
1) Stess the importance of listening and the blending of voices to the entire ensemble on a daily (weekly) basis.  "Listen louder than you sing!"  A wonderful vocal coach and director once told me that the most selfless thing a choral singer can do is change their natural singing tendencies for the good of the ensemble.
2) Privately counsel this singer on what you're hearing. This will be especially easy after a few weeks of stressing #1, above, to the whole group.
Dave Jacobs
Musical Director, Barbergators Chorus
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on January 5, 2016 10:26am
As noted previously "Listen louder than you sing" is a great phrase"  also "use your beautiful voice not your loud voice" . You can practice these ideas with the whole group during warmups.   Finally I have found it helpful to explain that everyone's voice is different, some people's mezzo forte is  the equivalent to others fortissimo and that if you have a big voice you may need to scale back your dynamics several levels in order to  help the choir achieve unity. These phrases all avoid humiliating the singer,  you may be able to achieve your end by working with the whole group, but you may have to pull her aside and remind her of how the choir has been working on listening and dynamics and that she will need to take special care as she has a big voice.  Good luck, it is hard when one voice can deep six all of your efforts. 
on January 6, 2016 6:38am
Mr. Jacobs is absolutely correct- I have given choral masterclasses many times and straight away you can spot the people who consider themselves "leaders"- both by their attitude and by their volume! She is lacking the essential listening and awareness skills necessary for good choral singing. You can trying mentioning to the choir in general that if you can only hear yourself singing then you are too loud, the voice should be part of the group sound and not seperate from it. Also asking everyone to close their eyes and sing can be a way to increase awareness; when singers have only their ears to rely on wonderful things can happen!
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on January 7, 2016 4:43am
I’d begin by sending hints during rehearsal, and a simple phrase might help for starters -“never sing louder than beautiful.”  It is a vague statement, but I had to use it recently on a two-month sub experience similar to what you describe.  When I made the statement to all assembled, a few heads turned toward the unnamed singer.  The choir response was evidence they were also troubled by the shrill sound.  No name was mentioned, and I avoided turning my head in the direction of the problem singer.  Be polite, but be honest.
The sound was somewhat more balanced for a few minutes, but soon again, no blend.  So, I went to my next hint, which centers on the words WE and ME.  All you do is flip the W up or down to understand the difference.  The WE choir member blends, the ME choir member doesn’t blend.  We is for choir and me is for solos.
Shrill Soprano cannot sing quietly and fairly good pitch.  Are you sure she has soprano range?  How does she sound as an alto?  What is “fairly good” pitch?  I translate that as singing out of tune.  Volunteer females commonly prefer the soprano part because it is the tune.  What is your sop/alto ratio?  Give me three good sopranos to balance six altos and we’ll blend/balance.  Have you listened to each singer?  Ms. Shrill might be better as an alto where her “fairly good” pitch might be center-pitch.  Best wishes!
on January 8, 2016 7:16am
Certainly her enthusiastic volume could be from lack of breathing-to-phonation coordination and trying to outsing the other sopranos. But it also occurred to me (since I am also a medical professional) that she might possibly have a hearing deficit of some kind that is causing her issues. Have you ever given her a private coaching to see if she could change her volume level using a messa di voce?If she is able to soften her volume as a solo singer but has trouble in the choir, perhaps she has a problem singing in the background sound of the other singers. (The Lombard Effect). You might gently ask her when her last hearing exam was. Whether she has a hearing deficit or not, the other suggestions here about blending techniques are all good ones. Best wishes!
on January 8, 2016 8:23am
An excellent resource for dealing with every type of problem in choral singing, whether individual or collective, is Prescriptions for Choral Excellence by Shirlee Emmons and Constance Chase (Oxford University Press). The authors stress the importance of breath control and support by means of the appoggio position (maintained expanded rib cage and raised sternum), and have great advice on how to teach it. 
Your singer probably lacks the ability to control her voice. It might be useful to include messa di voce (crescendo-decrescendo) exercises in the warmups; it's a great way tp work on control and beauty of sound.
on January 9, 2016 12:27pm
Dave Jacobs is correct in saying that the shrill soprano may consider herself a leader.
From my experience the solution is not musical, but emotional.   You can choose to either support the singers' ego or to bring it down a few notches.   The choice is up to you.   You can support their ego by talking with them privately and saying that a true leader leads by example, a true leader shows humility and knows how to work together as a team.   A true leader sings out proudly but never sticks out.    You can also address the whole group with the same message, but without addressing your message to any individual.
I have a shrill loud soprano in a non-auditioned community chorus I direct.   She is not always aware that she is sticking out so she and I have worked out a little signal.   When she gets the signal, she calms back down.
There was a shrill soprano in my chorus who eventually left.   In concert, she would always stand in front of the microphone so the recording would feature her voice.   We would move her or the mic in rehearsal, but during the concert, she'd always manage to move herself in front of the mic again.   I worked out a great solution.   I used two michrophones for the soprano section.   Whatever mic she stood in front of, we would turn it off.  We called it the dummy mic.  By the way, she did not leave becasue of her voice sticking out.   She arrived at a concert of sacred music wearing a mini-dress.   She was told she could not wear the dress for the concert.   She stormed out and we haven't seen her since.
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on January 10, 2016 7:39am
Brilliant solution, Nick– giving your stand-out soprano a quiet signal. Obviously you were able to work with her somewhat before suggesting the signal– no mean feat! Sounds as though her problem was not an emotional one. Often it is necessary to address vocal problems specifically rather than generally, because – as you point out – one is not always aware he or she is sticking out. Someone mentioned using the term 'big voice' as opposed to 'shrill' or 'loud' voice. This is a thoughtful way of using what in some circumstances could actually be a compliment, to quieten a noisy voice. 
on January 11, 2016 7:33pm
Years ago we had an older married couple, both of whom were experienced and otherwise good singers, she a soprano and he a tenor.  They both had the wide, slow and uncontrolled vibrato that often develops with older experienced singer.  Unfortunately they seemed to want to be heard more than they wanted to blend and didn't respond well to dynamics direction.  After singing with this choir for many years they left it when they heard a recording of it.  When they heard themselves in a recording they were able to realize the problem.  I wish they had conquered it instead of leaving, but it did resolve the issue effortlessly and without damage to friendships.
I've written here on this before, but on the point of a "wobbly" vibrato destabilizing the sound of the choir, I think it's a mistake to accept it as incurable.   Those who are aware and want to fix it can do so.  It's a habit that develops over time.  It's easier to "surround" a note than sing it steadily on pitch. To the singer, it blends and sounds better in a chord than being a little off pitch.  Of course, the goal is to sing a note that is stable and on pitch.  That can take more work than using vibrato to "approximate" pitch.  Eventually it becomes a totally unconscious habit.  I ask anyone that wants to fix it and thinks they can't, "when the doctor looks in your throat and says 'say ahhhh' do you employ vibrato or hold a steady note?  Well, if you can do it for your doctor you can do it for your choir.  It will require increased effort for awhile to develop a new habit of singing stable notes on pitch, but it can certainly be done if you want to."
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