Choral Pedagogy

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.

How to Use the Breath to Sing Loudly

In my last post, I listed three major ways that I use to teach my choirs to healthily project sound. These were:

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

I will deal with healthy breathing technique in this post.

*Disclaimer*: I tend to be a very literal person. I never liked it when my voice teachers used highly figurative language to describe the mechanics of vocal production (e.g. “Imagine a golden thread coming out of your mouth”). If you are one of those who like figurative language, try to adapt the concepts to your teaching style.

I spend the first several rehearsals of each semester teaching the basics of vocal technique during warm-ups. In fact, on my written schedule, I don’t even call it warm-ups. My shorthand for this time is “VS”—Vocal Skills. I find vocal skills training is more productive for my singers than warm-ups. The training isn’t flashy or glamorous, but it is essential.

My singers learn that there are four basic fundamentals to healthy vocal technique. I’ll go into those at another time. One of them, however, is healthy breathing. I explain to them the process of breathing for singing. They learn about role that the diaphragm and the abs play in breathing, and how to breathe deeply (inhalation). They learn that their shoulders should not move up and down when they sing.

They learn how to sustain a steady stream of air (exhalation). They will have a weak sound if they do not have good breath-flow. The most effective exercise I have found is “the leaky tire.” The singers produce a steady “sssss” sound over several counts. Over several rehearsals, I make the length progressively longer until we reach around 24 counts. I have them do the same on a pitch, usually an A in the middle of their range, so that they can practice connecting the breath to their voice. If they can ration their breath for 24 counts, then they have mastered the beginning steps of healthy breathing.

Most importantly for projection, I teach them how to increase the amount of air that they exhale. Over 8 counts, I have my singers make a “sssss” sound over the first 4 counts, gradually getting louder (I sometimes say they should “spin more breath”) until they make a “shh” sound for the last 4 counts. Singers use more air on a “shh” sound than they do on a “sssss” sound. This will create an audible crescendo. Then, they do it on pitch, so that they can learn to do this with their voices engaged.

I initially replace the “sssss” sound with “shoo,” and the “shh” sound with “AH,” so that they can learn that they also need to increase the space in the mouth during a crescendo. Eventually, I have them stay on the same vowel so that they learn to make the adjustments inside the mouth for the crescendo. If they don’t make the adjustments inside the mouth, the pitch will go up.

If singers cannot coordinate their breathing muscles, they will not project healthily. They just won’t. They will sound either breathy or forced. Healthy projection requires coordination of the breathing muscles.

How to Get Children to Sing out without Them Yelling (Part 1)

Many children’s choirs often have one of two sounds, and those sounds are not pleasant. The problem sounds are not unique to children’s choirs. I have heard them in concerts of singers of all ages. But they are very noticeable in children’s choirs. The choirs either cannot be heard at all (under-producing), or they are almost screaming (over-producing).

If a choir under-produces sound, the concert will have several characteristics:

  • The singer’s voices will sound breathy and weak.
  • The performance will be so quiet the audience cannot really hear what is being sung.
  • The performance will be boring because everything is quiet. There is no contrast in the loudness or quietness of the sound.

Choir directors, in order to avoid a small, wimpy sound, often tell their choirs to sing “louder.”  The result is a choir that over-produces. If a choir pushes the sound too hard, several things will begin to happen:

  • The singer’s voices will sound pinched and forced.
  • The choir will tire themselves by the end of the concert. The concert starts with a bang and ends with a whimper.
  • The choir will sing out of tune, particularly by the end of the concert.
  • The performance will be boring because everything is loud. There is no contrast.

Balance is important in life, but choral directors should not be looking for some balance between these two sounds. This is what we call the fallacy of the false dilemma. There is a third option. Choirs need to be trained how to sing loudly and softly in a healthy way that can be heard by the audience.

Learning how to produce healthy “louds” and “softs” is not intuitive. If it was, everyone would do it all the time. This is highly apparent when people are singing. Nevertheless, it can be learned.

There are three major ways that I teach my choirs to healthily project sound:

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

We’ll go over these three techniques in a later post.

Why I Don’t Let My Singers Use the Word “Can’t”

As a voice teacher, I get the opportunity to work with young singers all the time. A pesky word will pop up every now and then. My singers will tell me that they “can’t” do something. It is not within the realm of possibility. They should not even try. It really bothers me when my singers use the word.

It is not to say that human beings don’t have difficulty doing things. I have had to work hard to achieve things in life. We all have. Sometimes, those achievements only come after years and years of concerted effort.

I’ll use a common example from my voice studio. A girl struggles to sing a high note that I know she is physiologically capable of singing. That struggle is normal. Singers have all had to work on range extension. It may take a while to strengthen and coordinate the vocal mechanism to be able to sing that high note.

All too often this type of girl has told me, “I can’t sing that.” This is why I have a rule in my lessons and rehearsals. My singers must not use the word “can’t.” Why? Because it is a cop-out. They are much more capable than they think.

I do not believe in giving up easily, which is what the usage of this word frequently amounts to. My singers want to give up, even though I can tell that they would be able to sing that work with just a little more time, instruction, and effort. It’s as if they think I’m going to ask them to do something they will never, ever, in a million, bazillion years, be able to do.

So what do I let them say? I tell them to say, “I find this difficult right now,” or something similar. The phrase “right now” communicates to their mind that this present difficulty is temporary. The singer will be able to perform it eventually. They need to try a few more times.

Little efforts train us for the big efforts. When we learn not to psyche ourselves out concerning easier problems, such as learning to sing high notes, we learn not to be scared about seemingly insurmountable ones.

Life is hard sometimes. You have to push through the difficulty in order to succeed. When we stop ourselves from attempting something because it becomes hard, we are doing ourselves a disservice. We are teaching ourselves to surrender at the first sign of hardship. Many of the best things in life require arduous, even herculean effort to attain.

(Photograph can be found at Flickr. Photographer: Kumon. License: Creative Commons)

The Good, the Bad, and the Unhealthy: Singing Technique

Several years ago, I began teaching private voice lessons. I ran into a problem. Some students wanted to sing like the people they heard on the radio. Some singers did not know how they wanted to sound. They simply wanted to sound better. They did not have more than a cursory understanding of vocal genre and techniques.

I learned to sing in several different styles. Thankfully, the variety of styles helped shape my method of vocal instruction.

The first style I learned was ensemble style. I grew up in a family of singers, and was always actively involved in choir at school. It was first nature to me.

Ensemble singing is different than solo singing. Each member of the ensemble needs to sing with the same vowels, create similar shapes of space inside the mouth, and should strive to not overshadow the other singers in the group. Those with bigger voices hold back so that they do not stick out of the texture.

Beginning in 8th or 9th grade, I began taking voice lessons. My high school voice teacher was of the bel canto school of singing. My teachers in undergrad and grad school were very much bel canto style as well. Consequently, I have a great deal of experience singing classical music, particularly solo music.

Classical singers are expected to have a free, full-voiced tone in all parts of their range. There is often an emphasis placed on having a large voice. That is because classical soloists are expected to be heard above an orchestra without amplification.

I have since—through trial and error—picked up jazz singing. That style requires softer singing, less vibrato, and more chest voice than the classical, bel canto style. The jazz voice does not have to sing as loud as the classical voice because jazz singers use microphones.

Solo singers seek to create their own, unique sound. They want to stand out. The best singers are easily identifiable. You can always pick out Pavarotti by the sheer magnitude and “ping” of his voice.

Nat King Cole always sounds like Nat King Cole.

Due to my own training and experiments with singing, I try not to use the terms “good” and “bad” in relation to singing. Those words are not very specific or concrete. What do those words mean in the context of singing? What makes something good or bad? It’s all very ambiguous.

The terms I use are “healthy” and “unhealthy”. Those terms are scientifically verifiable. My goal in voice lessons is to enable the singer be able to sing comfortably into their golden years. A good voice teacher can tell when a singer is abusing his/her voice. Vocal abuse will lead to medical problems. Some styles of singing are more taxing on the voice than others. Styles that require the singer to scream for the majority of the song are harder on the voice than say, opera.

The principles of healthy singing do not change. This is what I tell my voice students and choral singers.  This is what teachers should be pursuing in their voice lessons and choral rehearsals.

Be All That You Can Be, As a Musician, Teacher, and Student

The fifth tenet of the Kodaly philosophy is that music educators should be the best musicians they can possibly be. They should push themselves to the highest levels of knowledge and ability. “It is much more important who the singing master at Kisvarda (small village) is than who the director of the Opera House is, because a poor director will fail.  (Often even a good one.)  But a bad teacher may kill of the love of music for thirty years from thirty classes of pupils” (Zoltan Kodaly). For this reason, continuing education is very important. There are always people who know more than you. Learn from them. Go to conferences and summer training courses.

If you go to a Kodaly education summer training course, you will take part in several different segments. Trainees learn methodology, conducting, and musicianship. Methodology is the part where they tell you how to teach using the Kodaly approach. The conducting part is meant to help you wave your hands around more capably. Musicianship is, essentially, your old sight-reading and ear-training skills class from your undergrad years.

However, I enjoyed my musicianship classes in Kodaly better, and I use those techniques with my singers. Why did I enjoy my musicianship classes better than my aural skills classes? For several reasons:

  1. The purpose was spelled out to me.
  2. It was far less intimidating.
  3. It drastically improved my musicianship.

The purpose was spelled out to me.

The purpose of sight-reading and ear-training classes is not to take a grade. The purpose of those classes is to teach the student how to be able to perform and aurally identify music. The end goal is mastery. Grades help with assessment, but they are not the point.

I try to teach my singers this. Self-improvement is more important than getting high marks. I often tell them, “I don’t expect you to be perfect; I expect you to do your best.” I am interested in them becoming better music readers and thinkers.

It was far less intimidating.

As a music major, I dreaded sight-reading and dictation. Each session was a new form of agony. There was so much musical information for which I was responsible to read and transcribe. It was like trying to drink from a fire hose.

I teach musicianship differently. I try to make it as stress-free as possible, and I try to break down the elements into manageable chunks. For instance, sight-reading is taught thusly. When I put a sight-reading exercise on the board, I tell the students to read through the rhythms in their mind. Reading rhythms–I have found–is more easily and quickly learned than reading pitches. Anyway, they can usually read the rhythms after short while.

Students then sing the notes inside their head using solfege. We call the process of reading music in the mind “Audiation.” This technique is very important for musicianship. Only after they have done both steps do we sing it out loud as a solo or in small groups.

It drastically improved my musicianship.

The musicianship courses I took actually accomplished what they were trying to do. I became better at reading and thinking. I could more efficiently sight-read and identify musical elements.

I have also used the techniques I learned in these musicianship classes to great effect. If you spend around 10-15 minutes a rehearsal teaching sight-reading and ear-training, you will be surprised at how drastically they will improve.

How to Choose Choral Music

This title is a bit pretentious. It would be better titled as “How I Choose Choral Music.” Others might choose music in a different way than me. That is perfectly fine. I will forgive them. 🙂

I use several criteria when I choose music. Some of these might seem straightforward, others not. They are:

  • The “can I listen to this for more than 15 seconds?” rule.
  • The “can I really stand rehearsing this for 2 or 3 months?” rule.
  • The “can my choir sing this?” rule.
  • The “will my choir like this?” rule.
  • The “is there a recording of a real choir performing this piece?” rule.
  • The “will I ever use this piece again?” rule.
  • The “will this fit with my concert themes this year?” rule.
  • The “can I use this piece to teach some musical element?” rule.

Can I Listen to This for More Than 15 Seconds?

Due to the sheer volume of music I am given, I can only listen to so much music. I use what I call the 15 second rule. If the song does not grab my interest and make me, a professional musician, want to continue listening to it for more than 15 seconds, then it probably won’t get amateur singers or audience members interested in performing or listening to it, either. Most music that is composed these days will not pass this test. You must be willing to try new genres, however. There has to be balance.

Can I Really Stand Rehearsing This for 2 or 3 months?

This is an important criterion. I have to believe in a piece in order to sell it to my singers. There is nothing worse than a piece that nauseates you every time you conduct it in rehearsal or performance.

Can My Choir Sing This?

You want singers to feel like they are succeeding. Give them pieces that they can sing well.

Will My Choir Like This?

You want your choir to enjoy what they sing, at least on some level. There are also two other things to consider. First, all your singers will not like every piece. Just as there are differences of taste among directors, so also there will be differences of taste among singers and listeners. You will not please everyone 100% of the time.

Second, part of a director’s job is to broaden the palate of the singers and audience. I liken music choice to a meal: you want it to be well-balanced. I didn’t love Durufle’s Requiem when I first started rehearsing it back in undergrad. By the time it came to performance, I really did love it. Dr. Warren Cook used to say “It’s not that you know what you like; it’s that you like what you know.”

Is There a Recording of This Online?

I want to hear recordings of a piece before I buy it. Preferably, these recordings are live performances where the choir sings well. If that choir didn’t succeed at performing the piece, will mine? Did it seem like they enjoyed it? You get a much better perspective when you hear choirs perform. This is not a 100% rule, either. Just because a group online can do or likes something does not mean your choir will. I have chosen pieces that other groups have loved or other choir directors recommended and those pieces have fallen flat.

Will I Ever Use This Again?
I only get so much money for my music budget. Do I want to buy a piece that I might only use once? Sometimes that answer is yes, sometimes no.

Will This Fit My Concert Themes This Year?

This is pretty self-explanatory. Although, I believe there should be flexibility. If you can perform a great piece that only tangentially fits and you think your choir will love it and knock it out of the park, then do it.

Can I Use This Piece to Teach Some Musical Element?

Some directors put more weight on this than I do. If you have a variety of music genres and time periods covered for the year, you should be able to teach plenty of musical and artistic elements.

Those are all of the criteria I can think of. If anyone uses other ones, I would be happy to hear them.