choral foundations – vocal technique

R – Jarika and I teamed up for this followup post to the one from September where I submitted that in our performance classes – especially in our grade/middle school and high school entry level ensembles – perhaps we might be guilty of placing a disproportionate emphasis on literature and concert performance (application and display of skills) over what must come before it all in our academic classrooms: development of skills.

Tom Brady was asked a few years years ago what he works on in training camp now because, obviously, he can already do it all and is already a first ballot Hall Of Famer. “Fundamentals. I work more on fundamentals now than I even did when I started my career because now I know even better how important they are and how they always need to be reviewed and practiced… every single day.” How are we missing the boat if our rehearsal strategies don’t align with that philosophy?

With regard to establishing, and practicing good vocal technique for every singer regardless of aptitude or ability, shouldn’t this be one of our highest priorities… every single day? More to the point, what are our singers singing with as they practice their concert selections if the technique isn’t established and practiced in our warm-ups every single day?

If you line up ten different choral directors and ask them what their philosophy of good vocal technique entails, you’ll get at least seven different answers. But as long as they are founded in sound pedagogy, all seven can be correct. Question: what is sound vocal pedagogy? Here is an awesome list of resources and articles for you to peruse by the Peabody Institute.

What comes to mind as I look through these is, covering all these wonderful foundational pieces is a semester-long endeavor in itself – at LEAST!!! Where do I come off saying in my last bog post that focusing on concerts is a flawed approach? Here: you can apply proper vocal technique to great literature, but you can’t introduce it. And my fear is that too often we do what we can to “get them to sing well” but our focal point is elsewhere (the sheet music/performance). If we’re academic in nature, and we are developing skills that last a lifetime, not just in our classroom settings, why WOULDN’T establishing and practicing proper vocal technique be our highest priority? And why wouldn’t our management of rehearsal time reflect that? Jarika is teaching full time as a sub in a junior high school this year, even as she has simultaneously begun her own vocal studio in three separate seacoast towns. She has done real-time application of our approach and the results have been profound (would you believe she didn’t pass out sheet music for the first four weeks?).

J – So gathering my thoughts has been impossible for this one. I feel so strongly and have had so many “amped up, car ride home, isn’t it obvious conversations?!!?” with Rob and other colleagues about this… And my sister. Poor Kendra has probably listened to hours of this nonsense. If it is even possible I feel even more strongly after working with individual singers (many of which take part in school ensembles).

During my 3rd lesson of the week I realized that I was hearing a trend among several singers new to my studio (4 students in particular- one 5th grader, one 8th grader and two high school students). I listened and listened and tried to diagnose…. then asked them many questions pertaining to cognitive perceptions of the voice, physical sensations and weekly experience with their voice.

They were singing in a fairly strong voice but every note they sang above b4 was raspy and cracking and sometimes stopping. This is when I stop to speak with them about when do they feel this? How often do they feel this? In the middle of the warm up one student in particular stopped and said, “I wanted to talk to you about something: Should I sing if something doesn’t feel good. We warm up really high in chorus and we don’t stop to work on it and our teacher just keeps having us do it over and over again. I don’t think we sound good and it sometimes hurts.”  She said, “Should I sing if it doesn’t feel good, doesn’t sound good and really none of us feel that good? We just go up there to warm up…” I heard very similar stories from the others as well. They were singing up high without the tools or technique to produce a good sound. Yes, some students can’t sing higher naturally, free of ease. However, just like any subject we have learners on every extreme of the learning spectrum.

Bringing your sopranos up in a high “unhealthy” uncomfortable, constricted voice is not warming up! Warming up your voice is singing anything gentle and free and slowly making your way up to each end of the spectrum. Strengthening exercises fall within the warm up, but not at the very beginning. These exercises need feedback and adjustment. Hearing a sound and providing them with techniques and tools to create a free sound is worth your time and will help them in developing good vocal technique. The singing environment within your classroom needs to be one that fosters the open dialogue between teacher and student so that they feel comfortable. I acknowledge that you cannot hear every voice and understand where each one is at, but your classroom has to focus on the pedagogy so they can do one of three things: Tell you it doesn’t feel good. Try one of the “warm ups” or strengthening exercises to be able to understand and identify a free sound. Or just start a conversation

So, not only is it important for the sake of tone and the sound as a whole… but for themselves. Its a tricky vocal world to navigate right now. You are their compass. What an inspiring position.

The more you focus on function and technique up front, the less you have to work on it in your repertoire. The end. If they sound out of tune up high, you review. What does it take to sing high notes? Good breath support, space and energy. Good… now do it. When working with an instrument in any sense of the word (voice, musical instrument, a car)  to get “this” (outcome) you have to do “that” – – – and if you don’t get “that”, then there are a series of problems that could be occurring. In order for it all to work properly you need to go through the check-list and address/identify each one. In order to address them however,  you need solutions. And in order to have solutions, you need to understand the human voice, its needs, its optimal sounds, and then finally the warm ups and practical applications to get you there. If you know how to identify a problem but just keep having the students sing in that register or volume, then you probably won’t fix the problem. You may instead make it even worse and discourage the singer. If you don’t quite understand all this and yet have to teach 800,000 kids every day, I’m not sure what I can say. Go to this institute at Shenandoah University http://ccminstitute.com/. It is life changing.

So here are my three steps for a successful healthy choral classroom which provides students with a healthy environment to explore, strengthen and navigate their individual voice.

  1.  Listen… listen, listen. Listen. Observe. Try not to impose your thoughts on what the students are experiencing. If something doesn’t sound good, ask how it feels. Ask what it sounds like to them. If a few sopranos in the front row are singing out of tune, ask them what it sounds like and feels like to them. If they aren’t saying something along the lines of easy, free, open, smooth, then there is your problem: the function, not the tone. You can work tone all you want. But if there is constriction in their tongue or throat they may never get the optimal tone.
  2. 40/40/20 rule: 40% Vocal Pedagogy/Function (this may change in your honors or more seasoned groups), 40 %Musicianship/Literacy/Aural Skills, 20% Literature. Not broken down in time but in process, teaching and application.​ Be proactive. Develop skills during the first weeks or months of the school year. Take time to develop the ear and the voice and start from the ground up. Scales, patterns, interval drills, literacy decoding and encoding, performing a steady beat, responding to the conductor, sitting with good alignment, lower breathing listening for texture in music, part songs, harmony, chords, key signatures, time signatures, head voice, chest voice, mix, style, Some of these things took us, as professional certified music teachers more than a few years to really master and understand… don’t shortcut them! Don’t make the students relearn a few things every song. Teach these as foundational pieces so they can then apply it all in every song. Inform them. At bare minimum, every student should understand (to a certain age appropriate level each of these):
    1. Pedagogy- Head voice, chest voice, simple anatomy, lower breathing extending the inhale sensations during the exhale, breath control, dynamics, vowels, high notes vibrate faster therefore require a bigger breath (altos, you can sing the high notes you just have to give your voice time to get used to it and breathe, breathe, breathe). There are not students who have “low” voices and “high” voices. Rather, just at that moment in time they may have an area of their voice that is strongest, and providing the greatest vocal energy (every time you sing you have to have an energy. It’s not that your voice isn’t “good”, it’s the technique that supports the work that needs fixing).
    2. Music Literacy/ Musicianship skills- Symbols, notation, scales, key signatures, time signatures, intervals, dynamics, note values, responding to the conductor, maintain a steady beat, independence… you know, the good stuff!
    3. Style/ Repertoire- composers intent, interpretation, emotion, style, performance practices… etc.
  3. Establish an open dialogue about vocal progress. Middle schoolers are honest. Too honest. Which for me at this point in my work is fantastic. It has been fascinating working within both the private and public communities allowing myself to have some pretty candid and open conversations about singing and the students experiences. I’ve realized a couple of things. 1. Most boys are super uncomfortable singing through their voice change. They don’t know if others sound like them (well duh :-)) 2. They become more comfortable when you call it for what it is. Your voice will crack. It will do things. Some days you can sing one note, sometimes eight. You have a head voice (not a feminine voice) but a higher range. Use this when you can. As it’s changing sometimes you can’t.

Make this all the norm. I had a football player in 8th grade stand up and demonstrate his mid- changing voice and how it cracks and does weird things. It is no longer about them… it is about science. The kids were silent and appreciated his vulnerability. They listened and we discussed why.  They liked it. This week a few boys said.. “Umm today I can do this” or “YUP today I only have a few notes.”  It becomes part of the environment and they will do it. It’s not just where “I” am at. It can be fostered anywhere over time if you demand it. It’s not about can and can’t. We all have good, bad and better sounds with varying abilities. We all can make a pleasant sound with time and instruction. You have the ability to establish this open dialogue. THAT’s WHAT’S SO AWESOME!!!

I admit to be on a semi-soap box and apologize if this came off as a rant. But I guess that is what blogs are for. I just want the world to see that we are not divided into the people (students!) who can or can’t sing well, but those who need a differentiated learning plan when it comes to the use of their instrument. I see too many people in the dark about their voice. It starts with us…Music Educators. And, unfortunately, it sometimes ends with us.

For a great blog go to thevoiceworkshop.com. I will post a list of awesome vocal pedagogy books and resources in the near future 🙂

R – Tom Brady does NOT develop fundamentals during the game, and he doesn’t work on them during practice week. He applies them. You don’t develop choral fundamentals by singing literature, you apply them. I’m not proposing abolishing Patriots games or even limiting them. But Tom Brady spends weeks and MONTHS developing and practicing skills and fundamentals specifically before he ever brings them to so much as a scrimmage! If this approach is good enough for him, isn’t it good enough for our singers? Shouldn’t we consider putting the sheet music on the back burner more often and emulate his same approach towards establishing foundations: vocal technique for our kids?

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2 Responses to choral foundations – vocal technique

  1. This is a beautiful post Rob and Jarika, I’ve been saying for years that prepping for concerts is one of the biggest detriments to actually LEARNING how to sing. It’s great to instill in students, administrators, and parents the expectation that the concert is not a ‘performance’ for a classroom ensemble (Honors/extra-curriculur ensembles may be a different story) but rather a check-in and display of current skills and progress. Consistently, I’ve had feedback that people PREFER seeing the choir warm-up on stage, sight read on stage, display “work-in-progress” pieces in one concert and improve them for the next, and other “informance” activities over the traditional “Concert”. There’s a lot of room for improvement in the way we handle this as educators, and your post is an excellent step in that direction, I’d love to see an article like this in the Choral Journal or a session at Allstate!

  2. Excellent job on this one!

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