isolated disciplines

R – Robert Shaw used to have at the core of his philosophy that each of the choral disciplines must be mastered and they must be mastered independently in order for a choir to do the job of re-creating another person’s work (the music). He articulated these as intonation, rhythmic precision, singing with a variety of dynamics and tone colors, communicative diction, and phrasing. The problem is that singers intuitively lean on at least one of these to master another. The last two for instance almost seem contradictory (articulation post). Intonation is influenced heavily by dynamics and tone color. Rhythmic precision is rarely accomplished because the singer normally does not nail it down without text first. Along those lines, here’s a few things to experiment with for the purpose of getting singers to understand each of these as stand alone entities:

1) An amazing thing happens when you remove the text from a selection of music that has already been learned and instead ask the choir to sing on “doot”; short bursts of tone that are not sustained regardless of sustained notes on the page:  


Your singers might be surprised to find that the rhythms are not as secure as they thought they were. “Yeah, but we can do it good on words and the real notes”. Of course you can. You’re leaning on one discipline to accomplish another and not mastering either. It will never clean up to the same degree until you take it apart.

2) Conversely, try taking away pitch differentiation and see how the rhythms and diction line up! Take any selection of music you’re working on and have your singers sing it, except now you’re going to make it “easier” for them: instead of singing all those different notes, just sing the whole thing on one assigned pitch (and keep it in tune)!  

Initially they can’t do it. Try it, see if I’m wrong (note that the basses and sopranos ears have to be good enough to maintain the tritone). Shaw did this routinely with his choirs. Why? In part to make sure that none of the choral disciplines were dictated by change in pitch. Singers subconsciously equate the text and rhythms they’re supposed to sing with the pitches they learned to sing them on! This practice of singing on nonsense notes works in undoing that. And then when you throw the real notes back in, it’s a revelation! And see what good things that got developed on the nonsense notes completely disappear again when you add the real ones back in! 🙂

3) Finally, take the following routine warmup exercise on “neh – aw”: 

I have literally never had a choir sing this without changing the dynamics based on how high the notes are… does pitch dictate dynamics or are dynamics an independent entity? Try this: do the exercise above with the additional instruction of having the dynamics go conversely to the height of the pitch; the loudest notes will be on G, A will be a bit quieter and so on. The D is to be the quietest note of all. See if your singers can do it. And once they can, are they able to continue doing so as they continue the exercise going up by half steps?

Mastering the choral disciplines is a hallmark of a genuinely musical choir that truly understands each one as a stand alone entity, and allows them to bring a composer’s dream “back to life” without allowing their subjective, musical biases to get in the way. Once a song is “learned”, try one of these on for size and see what you and your singers find out.

ps… does this sound like a cappella listening – part 2????

This entry was posted in Music is work, Rehearsal, Warmups. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to isolated disciplines

  1. Dean Paquette says:

    This is what a band director needs to hear. i have taught chorus for a long time but never had the instruction on teaching chorus. I feel lucky to have stumbled on to this and please keep going. I love and need it. can’t wait to try this with the Korean 6-8 graders, who by the way can sing very well and the guys are awesome. How about keeping pitch on am acapella number I’m doing. They keep going flat. Thanks Dean

  2. mllama4 says:

    I’ll write my next blog post on intonation Dean!!! Thanks for the feedback… can’t wait to see you next Summer to chat about your experiences this year! 🙂

  3. Karla McClain says:


    Sometimes if they are going flat, try singing it a 1/2 step up–sometimes the key the piece is written in for middle school voices is not in a good spot in their tessitura. When they consistently go flat in an a cappella piece, that usually does the trick. If they can handle it, sometimes having them sing in a mixed voicing helps them as well.

    Karla McClain

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s