Choral Pedagogy

Music Is Skill and Aptitude, Duh!

People often react one of two ways to children’s choirs. They either are amazed at the fact that children are singing in-tune and with decent tone or they are unimpressed. Either reaction is based on the faulty premise that what is happening is quasi-magical. Musical ability is something you just have or you don’t.

Over the past few weeks, I have been comparing choirs and baseball (here and here). The last point I wish to make concerns a fact common to all disciplines everywhere. It takes time and concerted effort to become an expert at anything. Learning to sing and teaching children to sing is no exception. You might not see all the time, training, and hard work, but you can still smell it.

Music Is Skill and Aptitude

Folks often equate skill and aptitude. This idea could not be more wrong. Aptitude is the innate part of an ability. Someone turns aptitude into skill.

Music is skill and aptitude. As such, you should think of yourself as being on a spectrum. Take baseball, for instance. The starting line-up of the Detroit Tigers is on one side of the skill spectrum. I am on the other. I can at least swing and hit a ball sometimes. Skill-wise that (barely) puts me further than say, a five-year old who is still trying to hit a t-ball. That five-year old might have more aptitude than me, however. He could be the next Verlander. I doubt I would ever be.

On one side of the musical spectrum, you have some guy who has never sung or played any instrument in his entire life and hasn’t held a tune in a bucket. On the other side, you have Mozart. Most of us exist somewhere in between.

Skills Need to Be Developed

Learning to sing is simply turning your natural aptitude into a usable skill. Like all skills, singing must be developed. The 10,000 hour rule applies. If you want to master singing, you must practice doing it.

Skills Are Usually Passed Down

Most folks get training from someone who knows what they are doing. That is what I am doing as a choral director. I am imparting to those who know less about choral singing than I do.

In-tune Singing Is a Skill

I am surprised by how often I hear people compliment the fact my choirs sing in tune. Here is the secret: that is because I teach my choir members how to sing in tune! I never had a singer who was unable to match pitch. Some had less aptitude. They required more effort and training.

Healthy Singing Is a Skill

Some singers are good mimickers and, consequently, learn quickly. Those folks are not the norm. Healthy singing is not usually intuitive. Learning to sing is work, plain and simple.

Teaching Is a Skill

Lastly, the ability to teach is also skill + aptitude. Some are better at it than others. I am better than some, and some are definitely better than I am. I am grateful that I am better now than when I started.

So, is teaching children to sing some sort of superpower? No, it is not. Is it difficult? It is easier for some folks than others, and it is easier—I’m sure—than some professions and more difficult than others. I have training and experience in doing it. I will receive more training over the next few years. God willing, my skills will grow and I will become even better.

Should you be amazed that your child can sing in tune with healthy tone? Sure, why not? Just be amazed at the time and effort they have put into learning to sing and the time the choral director has spent learning and practicing a specialized field.

The Director’s Response to Auditions

In a post a few weeks, I detailed 3 reasons why I believe choir conductors should hold auditions. They were:

Today, I want to talk about how auditions are a boon to directors. They are helpful in several ways:

  1. They show the talent level that the director is working with.
  2. They show areas of weakness the director needs to improve.
  3. They show the growth of the singers.
  4. They confront the director’s preconceptions.

Auditions show the talent level of the choir.

A director doesn’t know where to start unless he has an accurate assessment of his singers. The director needs to know how capable his singers are at music-reading and singing. Those two elements are key to creating a good choir and a positive experience for all involved. Once a director knows this, he can begin to formulate a workable plan. He can choose what reading and vocal techniques to teach. He can choose repertoire that is appropriate to the choir’s skill level.

Auditions show areas of weakness the director needs to improve.

Directors can gradually become tone-deaf to the weaknesses of their choirs. The tendency is for directors to do the same-old same-old. To combat this, directors should constantly reevaluate the sound they are after, the training they are giving, the rehearsals they running, etc. To neglect reevaluation is to stay in the status quo. “Status quo,” as Ronald Reagan famously once said, “You know, is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.’”

Over time, this leads to a basic sound that is lacking in some way. I attended a choir concert last year with a fellow choral director. Afterwards, he made the statement that this choir, which he had heard several times, always became screechy in their high range. I don’t think he used the word “screechy,” but that’s the word that came to me today. Don’t create a negatively identifiable sound.

There are several ways to determine your choirs’ weaknesses. 1) Listen to recordings of them. 2) Have someone tell you. 3) Auditions. If many of your individual singers are weak in a certain area, then it means you did not teach them well.

Auditions show the growth of singers.

As an educator, it is thrilling to see my singers become better at what they do. Think of yearly auditions as if you are charting their progress. Then, give yourself a gold star if the singer is getting better! Give yourself a frowny face if the singer is doing worse.

Auditions confront the director’s preconceptions.

Directors have to have an aural image of the sound they want. Beginning directors, however, don’t quite know what they want. Sometimes, their singers are not capable of making the desired sound. A teenage choir will not produce a “big” sound like an adult Russian chorus.

The voices are physiologically smaller and lighter. Hearing voices individually can give you a feel for the sound you will be able to create. This, in turn, informs how you approach voice-building.

A second preconception is about individual singers. A director can get into the habit of only choosing singers they know for solos and select ensembles. This excludes singers they don’t know, which is very frustrating and unfair. This is why I hold tryouts for every solo I can. Everyone gets a shot, and I am-not infrequently-surprised by the talent of a singer I would have never normally considered.

On Baseball and Building Talent in Youth Choirs

I’m always amazed at the patience of baseball fans. They not only sit through all the stoppage that occurs, but they are willing to do it for hours!

Which is why I’m impressed with my brothers-in-law. They are avid baseball fans (the only ones in the family). They’ll attend games by their favorite teams, watch it on tv, etc. Seriously, isn’t there something with lots of explosions on?

I once talked with my brother-in-law about talent development in baseball. He made a statement that caused me to pause. He said that there if a player in the major leagues demonstrates that he is not ready but they think he will be with time, then they will move him back down to the minor leagues. This is not considered a punishment, but a willingness on baseball team’s part to grow his skills and get him more experience. There is no stigma attached.

Just like with baseball, the long view is crucial for building talent in youth choirs. You do not create an strong program overnight. Several things need to happen, and they all happen with time.

  • The singers need to be trained.
  • The director needs to find his/her rhythm.
  • The singers and the director need to grow together.

The singers need to be trained

Those who know me know that I passionately advocate the teaching of musical skills. Spoon-feeding notes to choral singers might be relatively quick and easy, but is detrimental to them down the road. You might build a choir that sounds purdy. You won’t build a choir of excellent music-readers.

There are three elements to training the choir needs to become solid musicians. 1) They should be given music-reading training and theory training. 2) They should get vocal training, sometimes one on one. 3) They should get part-singing training. All three of these need to happen, and they will all take several years to nail down.

The director needs to find his/her rhythm.

Yes, the singers need to learn. However, the director needs to find his rhythm, his groove. When should the director teach certain skills? What is the pedagogical order? Pedagogy is going to take a slightly different shape for different directors at different times with different groups. It will take a while for directors to figure out their pedagogical framework.

The singers and the director need to grow together.

Directors teach singers, true, but singers also teach directors. Singers teach directors by cooperating or not cooperating, understanding or not understanding. Directors adapt how and what they teach to their particular ensembles.

Youth ensembles change their make-up from year to year. Their strengths and weaknesses also change. A choir with a strong soprano section one year might require the director to rebuild them the next.

A good choir director will necessarily change the order of information and the tempo of rehearsals to strengthen the choir. If they don’t have the knowledge to make the choir stronger, they need to get that knowledge from more experienced directors. Choral directors, like everyone else, need to be life-long students themselves.

6 Ways Choir Auditions Prepare Singers for the Real World

In a post last week, I detailed 3 reasons why I believe choir conductors should hold auditions. They were:

I am going to deal with the second point today. Simply put, auditions prepare singers for the real world. How so? You may ask.

Here are six ways auditions prepare singers for the real world.

  1. It gives them objective feedback.
  2. It teaches them that they will be judged.
  3. Sometimes they will have a crumby audition.
  4. Sometimes they will not be good enough.
  5. Sometimes they need to work harder.
  6. Sometimes they are that good.

Auditions give objective feedback.

In our life, we need feedback. We have to have objective critiques of ourselves and our actions. If you are the type who is never at fault or never has a fault, you will never improve as a human being. You will repeat and repeat the the same same mistakes over and over again. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do not learn from their personal history are in for a rough ride through life.

Sometimes you will be judged.

Auditions are like vaccinations. They are a weaker form of the real thing. If you treat them like this, they will prepare you for the times in life when it really matters. There are times in your life where you will need to apply for something you really want or need. That might be a favorite college, a good job, the lead part in the school play, etc. If you learn that you can survive a measly choir audition, it will strengthen you so that you can survive a job hunt.

Sometimes auditions are unfair.

We’ve all been there. There are times when nepotism, favoritism, and general butt-kissery rule the day. You were passed over for the top choir again, even though you were better than the ones who made it in. The son or daughter of the director got the solo when they just don’t have the voice or the skills.

That’s life. It is unfair. The sooner you realize it, the better you will be able to handle it. The better you handle it, the more easily you will be able to move on to the next opportunity.

Sometimes you will have a crumby audition.

There are times when you have an off day. You didn’t get enough sleep. You’re battling a cold. You’re stressed out from a fight with parents, siblings, friends, classmates, coworkers, et al. All of that negative bleckiness can force you to perform poorly. If you have this happen in an audition, it won’t surprise you when it happens at a job interview.

Sometimes you will not be good enough.

You will not always have the skills (yet) for a position. In the perception of the auditioner, you might not be exactly what they want or you need more training. Failing an audition can be a good thing, if you learn from it. Maybe you need to get more training to make you more appealing, versatile, or whatever. Maybe you need a little more time to develop your abilities.

Also, it’s okay to not be the best. There was only one Pavarotti or Robert Shaw or Leonard Bernstein, and you ain’t him.  Sing because you love singing. Be the best that you can be because you want to be the best you can be.

Sometimes you need to work harder.

There are times you did not prepare enough. You didn’t study. You didn’t practice. You didn’t take the time to learn what you needed to. When you fail, you need to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror and see if you need to fix anything. Rejection is painful and challenging, but it is also extremely beneficial in the long run.

Sometimes you are that good.

Auditions are great because they help you understand your strengths, weaknesses, and life in general. You really do have a talent, but you didn’t know it until you worked hard and prepared. The reward for that preparation was an aced audition. That led to more training, more opportunities, and more rewards. Success is built on attempting. Go for it. All that can happen is that you fail, and that’s not the end of the world.

From the Ground up: How Youth Choirs Are Like Baseball Teams

I’m going to make a confession: I am not the biggest fan of baseball—way too much stoppage. I like sports that move. I played soccer for 6 years during my middle and high school years, but even that sport doesn’t move fast enough for me. I enjoy watching kickboxing, boxing, MMA, etc. I can also stand to watch volleyball.

Back in my school-teaching days, I decided to watch the Varsity baseball team play a game. Sports games are good times to mingle with folks. My theory is that this is the primary reason for sports: they give people an excuse to socialize.

I began talking to a fellow teacher during the baseball game. He made a statement that struck me as odd, but made sense the more I thought about it. He said that the kids had to start baseball in little league, otherwise, they were behind.

His point was that good baseball players have been playing since they were young. They have to train and train and train. Thousands of hours of practice go into creating one great baseball player.

I began to think of other similarities between baseball teams and youth choirs. Contrary to popular opinion, there are some. Here are some that I have thought of.

  1. It takes years of training to develop talent.
  2. There is an emphasis on building talent.
  3. People see the finished product, but they don’t know what goes into it.

Training Choirs Takes Time

When I direct choirs, I don’t see them as separate groups. I view them as stages of the same product I am trying to develop. My end-product is good musicians who sing. That is what I am trying to create.

This philosophy has worked well with my different jobs. When I taught at a school, I taught from third grade to twelfth grade general and choral music. This provided a unique opportunity to organize a program from the ground up.

I had a wonderful elementary program. My predecessors had successfully pushed for music classes. I taught third and fourth grade twice a week for 30 minutes of Kodaly training, and my coworker who taught band also had them (3rd-Recorders; 4th-Beginning Band) twice a week. I trained my fifth and sixth graders once a week for 40 minutes. I also had an optional choir time with the different grades. My band-teaching coworker had band twice a week. Needless to say, by the time they finished sixth grade, they were able to make some good music. These musicians were finally graduating up into the junior (yes, those still exist) and senior high choirs and bands by the time I left.

This was my Elementary Chorus (5th & 6th Grade choir). They met once a week for 30 minutes.

In my experience, it is the same with community groups. If you want a large, talented top-level group, you need to start growing it from a very young age. You give tons of vocal, music-reading, and part-singing training. Offer one on one training to those who need it. You build young musicians from the ground up.

In other words, you must be ready for the long haul if you want to create a great choral program. You play the long game. There are no short-cuts. Anyone who tells you there are is trying to sell you something. Anyone who thinks there are is deluded.

Image Source: Creative Commons (Schyler at English Wikipedia)

Something Felt or Something Imagined: The Image of Distance in Singing Loudly

This is the last post in my series on teaching children to sing loudly without them yelling. These techniques are the same, not just for children, but for folks of all ages. I have used these techniques for voice lessons and choir rehearsals. I have used them to teach 8 year olds and 80 year olds.

These techniques work. They are simple and are easy to apply. This is important because I have tried some overly complicated techniques, and they have not worked for me. They were too dependent on the personality or strengths of the teacher. In my opinion, the simpler, the better; the less moving parts, the better; the quicker, the better.

Anyway, over the past few weeks, we have been looking at several key points:

  1. Healthy breathing technique
  2. Singing with a raised soft palate
  3. The image of distance

We have considered the first two. We will think about the final point today.

Unlike the first two points, teaching the image of distance is not mechanical. It is not something felt so much as it is something imagined.

Whenever I am teaching someone who is not projecting, I walk to the back of the room and tell them to sing to me. Almost automatically, they begin to sing louder in a healthy manner. I am amazed at this. I have no explanation for this other than that it is pretty much instinctual.

It becomes trickier when you are practicing in a small room. If you are in a confined space, tell the singer(s) to imagine they are singing to some fixed point outside of the room (e.g. sing to the end of the hallway, the parking lot, wherever). The singers will still project properly.

These are the major points when it comes to singing loudly. Remember, it is not generally a good idea to tell singers to simply “sing louder.” They will often begin to yell. Yelling = bad. It is unhealthy for the voice, and the tone sounds forced or pinched. Follow these steps that I have posted, and you will drastically decrease the odds of your singers hurting themselves (I call it “blowing up a vocal fold”) or creating an unpleasant sound.

For the Love of Pete, Raise Your Soft Palate Already

The fancy term for this next post on singing loudly is called vocal placement. However, being the literalist that I am, I try to be a little more specific.

Most folks do not know how to raise their soft palate. Unfortunately, it is indispensable in order to sing loudly. The soft palate is what gives the opera singer the edge in out-singing a pop stylist. Incidentally, the soft palate also makes possible the ability to sing higher. If you do not raise your soft palate when you sing, you will not be able to transition into the higher part of your possible range. You won’t be able to sing as high. Controlling the soft palate is crazy important. Here’s an interesting composite of different vocal styles: This performance always makes me smile. I love that high note Pavarotti sings (“AHHHHHLLLLL for one”).

Where the Soft Palate Is Located

The first thing I teach my singers is where to find the soft palate. I tell them to stick their tongue to the roof of their mouth. “See how the roof of your mouth is hard?” I ask them. “That is called your hard palate. . .because it’s hard.”

Then, I tell my singers to move their tongue to the top-back of their mouth to where it gets soft and squishy. “The soft and squishy part is called the soft palate. . .because it’s soft.”

Demonstrate the Difference in Sound

I then show the singers the difference between singing a note with a lowered soft palate and a raised soft palate. Lowered soft palate singing sounds very nasal and twangy. Raised soft palate singing sounds very spacious and warm.*

How to Raise the Soft Palate

Teaching singers to raise their soft palate is very easy. Tell them to yawn. When a singer yawns, they automatically raise their soft palate. They get the feeling of space in the back of the mouth.

Tell the singers you want 25% of a yawn. That generally gets you a balanced sound (i.e. one that’s not too swallowed or too nasal). For a training exercise, I use a five note descending scale on the “Ah” vowel starting on the fifth scale degree (sol) and going down to the first (do).  For fun, I will sometimes have them switch between minor scales and major scales. I progressively restart the scale a half-step higher until my singers get toward the top of their range.

It is imperative that singers learn how to raise and lower their soft palate at will. Their ability to sing high and loud depends on it. There is a second important part of placement wherein a singer needs to learn to “focus” the sound toward the mask of the face. That is a more advanced concept that I teach later. It is more important for singers to learn how to raise the soft palate first.

*Certain singing styles require a higher soft palate than others. Performing opera necessitates a very high soft palate. Country singers use a much lower soft palate. Jazz singers are somewhere in between. Regardless, one still needs to control the soft palate in order to be versatile.