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HELP! I am a band director and I have to teach Choir! YIKES!

bhohmeyery James Hohmeyer, reprint from Bella Voce, Michigan's ACDA newsletter, Karen Nevins, Editor

On a recent poll of the ACDA full board I determined that 95% of the board received some of their musical training through study of an external instrument. (Flute, Trumpet, etc.)  Interesting. The board represents some of the strongest choral directors in the region – yet most of them started their formal musical training on an external instrument.

I am assuming you think of yourself as an instrumentalist. BUT - In today’s world of shrinking economics band and orchestra directors are asked to cover more music classes that are part of their employment – yet not part of their chosen preference.

As musicians we share the common ground of a language that identifies our art as a definable art form.  The codification of the musical language is one of the chief reasons we need music education programs to exist, in some form, in the educational system of our schools.  In addition to learning how to use our chosen instrument, the ability to read music allows individuals to explore new musical worlds on their own - without relying on the guidance of anyone.

As music educators and choir directors we hold the awesome responsibility of equipping our students with skills and tools by which they can use their music reading skills to enrich their life as well as others for a lifetime.

So now you ask, “I am not a choir director. ….I can’t even sing. What do I do?”

Let me ask you a few questions.

  1. Can you teach students to read music?
  2. Do you have expertise on an instrument? (including voice)
  3. Did you take a brass, woodwinds and strings method class in college?
  4. Can you sing and hold pitch?
  5. Do you love what you do with kids?

Assuming that the answers to the above questions are "yes," let’s get started on specific things you can do to give your students (and you) the best experience possible.

Some givens:

  • Singing is not much different than playing an instrument. True- it is not the same as playing Flute, or Trumpet or Tuba– but essentially - sustaining a tone means controlling the breathing apparatus. Good breathing habits, means good singing habits. As you breathe –so shall you sing.
  • The same techniques that cause your band and orchestra to sound great –are the same techniques that will cause your choir to sound great! Good discipline in technique and warm-ups, with close attention to diagnosing the cause of problems will produce solid results.
  • The same techniques for teaching music reading in your band and/or orchestra class - are essentially the same techniques in choir – EXCEPT THAT – the instrument is internal rather than external.

As you breath so shall you sing
As stated above - the basics of support and tone production one experiences when playing a trumpet is almost the same as producing a singing tone. The resistance at the point of vibration is different, and will require more or less pounds per square inch to produce a sound. Yet - the process remains the same for both instrument-playing or singing. Which is: Get the air column through the vibrating mechanism in a consistent, relaxed way that causes no undo muscle stress. As you breathe so shall you sing – and your attention to basic breathing techniques will determine the success of your choral group’s sound.

Find some good warm-up techniques for the students that comfortably allow them to focus on breathing and sustaining the breath over melissmas. Use the basic vowels of A, E, I, O, U, and make sure the vowels are being evenly produced by all of the singers.

Begin with unison warm-ups and proceed to part singing when comfortable for the singers.

Some great books on warm-ups:
James Jordan books
Rollo Dilworth’s books Choir Warm ups.

Tone
Understand that choirs do not have the dynamic range of a band or orchestra. If your ears are used to hearing a certain “weight” of volume in your rehearsal - do not expect the same “weight” or “volume” in the choir rehearsal. The most common problem I hear in festivals and concerts is over-singing (shouting) beyond the limits of the singer’s voice. Establish early in your rehearsals what is an acceptable forte and a beautiful piano.  In their eagerness to please, students need to be guided to the understanding that beauty can be found in the change of dynamic and not in the dynamic itself. This rule applies to all performing groups –and particularly to choirs.

Now you have warmed the singers up and you are ready to approach your first piece of music. Some basic differences exist in the rehearsal process between instrumental groups and choirs.

Singing from the full score
Choirs sing from a full score - all singers can see each other’s part. This is a blessing and a curse. In the instrumental rehearsal – players do not normally see another person’s part –which means they have to be rhythmically driven to keep the ensemble together. Band members are taught early on to count measure’s rest symbols to keep their place in the score - hence the often-heard comment about instrumentalists being too rhythmical at the expense of the phrase. Choirs that rehearse with the full score generally learn to read music by cuing their entrance and from listening to other parts or text notated on the page.  Start with a unison piece of music that allows all singers to experience the joy of singing well together. Then proceed to part-singing when you are ready.

"Count" singing
A great technique which will take some time for the singers to get used to –is the count-sing technique –used by Robert Shaw – where the singer’s chant the pulse (one and two and tee and four and) and simultaneously sing the pitch. During rests they whisper count. This is a great way to start a piece because there is no sustaining going on during the initial introduction of the piece.

Another wonderful and fun technique for internalizing the rhythmic pulse of a piece is to “dot” the rhythm. Robert Shaw used this technique. Shaw always approached the first experience with the sheet music in this fashion to establish a rhythmic unity for the ensemble. Every note is sung as short as possible on pitch and the silence is internalized.

Sustaining through the phrase
Now – let’s move on to sustaining the text throughout the phrase. This is where pitch challenges will occur and where your knowledge of the vocal mechanism will come into play. You cannot learn enough about how the voice works! Get private voice lessons –for fun!

More importantly – get with some good voice teachers in your town and get them to come and clinic your singers and work in small groups. Many will do it for a minimal amount of money because it will help build their private studio. Look for teachers with a busy studio.

Singing technique is similar to instrumental technique. As you did when you were learning your chosen instrument – go slow and start with the basics (breathing, sustaining, articulating, etc.) and graduate to more complicated techniques as the muscles become used to what they are accomplishing. It is best to start slowly and make singing technique part of the daily warm-up. Refer to good choral technique books about tone production. As with your chosen instrument – any undue tension in the singing muscles is a substantial cause of pitch and tone troubles.

Register changes
As with your chosen instrument (particularly woodwinds) most instruments have a register change. Dealing with the register change in the voice is the subject of another article – but well worth the time for you to be a successful choral director. For the purposes of this article, use the rule: If a singer sounds like they are straining to sing a pitch, they are using an incorrect register for the note and vowel combination. Rarely should a note sound forced or full of tension. A free and open sound should be the focus of all vocal technique.

In your voice lessons, find where your register passes from the chest voice into the head voice register. Learn how that change affects the pitch and tone of each note you sing. Allowing your singers to sing only the correct note and register combinations will give you a uniform sound that is constantly beautiful and appropriate to the piece.

Conclusions
Ask questions. Call on the resources of your local music directors. Attend American Choral Directors conferences. Subscribe to the Choral Journal. Join Chorus America and attend their workshops. Join your states vocal music association and/or the MENC. Listen to festivals where other choirs perform quality literature with quality sound and musicianship. Find a choir whose style and sound you like and visit the rehearsal. Find ways to improve. Always find ways to make your music touch the soul of your singers, so you can become a force for positive change in their worldly outlook.

One of my college band directors used to admonish us during rehearsals, “There are no bad bands-just bad directors!” Today, as an older director, I do not agree with the phrasing he used, though I do agree with his intent. Successful choral programs seem to emanate from the source of a concerned director who is constantly finding new and effective ways to shape the choral sound and musicianship of each choir he or she has the privilege of directing. They also love what they do and who they do it with!

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