hello mr. shwa

R – Thursday afternoon I experienced a major development in my entire philosophy toward developing and, more significantly, assessing choral enunciation for teenagers. It is centered around the shwa (Ə): the neutral, mid-vowel of the vowel chart. I was confronted with a critical flaw in my academic approach with my honors choir students, and both the realization and the adjustment moving forward is a story worth sharing.

First, my premises to this point in my career. IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet, not the beer 🍺) is extraordinarily useful by any standard. Anyone with even rudimentary training in college level voice understands that and has experienced it. My issue with it has never been its value. Rather, at the High School level, it is not practical, certainly not in northern New England. With limited face-time each year, I can either teach pedagogy and foundational choral technique or I can teach IPA, but I can’t do both. For 32 years I have worked with teenagers, all of whom have been in dire need of instruction around vocal pedagogy and technique. It’s the nature of the teenage voice. Consequently, that has been a primary focus. Since 1996, it has been THE primary focus. That Summer I took a graduate vocal pedagogy instruction course taught by two voice teachers from New York City. At the time, they were the two primary vocal instructors for the Metropolitan Opera. And Whitney Houston and Mick Jagger. Game on. They taught me how to teach vocal pedagogy and they provided the class with ideas and techniques that were practical to the general classroom as well as to the studio. It changed me as a teacher. Since then, I have focused on two elements in my choral program: pedagogy and choral tone. By attaching choral tone with vocal pedagogy, I have been able to instruct both, allowing me to serve them to my students in a way that is both manageable and digestable; I can deliver this instruction within the confines of my student face time, yet also in a way that they can assimilate and apply relatively easily. It will take them months and years to master these skills, but we as teachers already know that. I need to make sure those skills have been introduced in a way that is functional for them to be able to develop over time. And by “them” I’m talking about the 97% of the student population who have never taken voice lessons. This approach has never not worked for me. General chorus, honors choirs, guest conducting, summer choirs, adult choirs. It has little to do (I’m convinced) with my instructional ability, but rather with my corresponding curriculum, developed and refined since that graduate course. The credit goes to those two voice teachers. I have been able to work with “tone deaf” kids who haven’t sung since 4th grade and turn them into singers who make honors festivals. It also takes the so-called “talented” kids and provides them with a collegiate level tool box to help them refine their craft.

With me so far?

Let’s go to the de-construction and assessment of some individual pieces of this. The three that are relevant to this discussion are around tone, mouth and diction. My approach to choral tone has been an amalgam of that Summer course and the English Choir tradition. When you listen to those choirs, you can literally “hear” their dropped jaws and lifted soft palates (“palates”, not “pilates” 🤸🏻‍♂️) Listen to this excerpt and see if you agree:

The one non-negotiable for Chamber Singers each Fall is the performance of at least a couple of these carols for the purpose of instructing these technical essentials, because without them you just kill the carols. Students can then apply these to their other literature. However, you can’t assess and hold a student academically accountable for the raising of their soft palate (ya simply can’t see the darned thing!). Instead I combine two indicators/rubrics, one for tone and the other for mouth:

TONE; Sings with proper balance of “ring” and “loft”: (4) singing voice is perfectly balanced, (3) singing voice is independent but developing, (2) some vowels have too much ring (speaking voice) or loft, (1) no unique singing voice
MOUTH; Sings with dropped jaw and light bulb space: (4) jaw is always low with open space (3) jaw is usually low with open space (2) jaw and space placement are inconsistent (1) the mouth is barely open

It ain’t perfect, but at least it gives me and the students two very clear, very assessable indicators. The other side of the tone coin for me has been diction. This is important to me, because you can’t possibly assess “enunciation”: there’s too much going on there to assess it as a single entity. And the articulators (teeth, tongue, lips) bring everything forward in the mouth, which then works against proper tone. Instead I break it down to diction combined with tone. Here’s my diction rubric:

DICTION; Performs with aligned consonants: (4) consonants are the same dynamic as the vowels, (3) consonants are the same dynamic as the vowels more than 80% of the time, (2) consonants are the same dynamic level as the vowels between 50% and 80% of the time, (1) consonants are usually quieter than the vowels

Again not perfect, but it does effectively tie in with what I learned from Dr. Peter Bagley many times over in my career, and is simultaneously eminently clear and assessable.

Still with me?

I’ve already written this Fall about my current intern Emma, and on Thursday afternoon she was scoring our students’ assessments; individual student videos. The song they were being assessed on is one she has been teaching Chamber Singers, Up Good Christen Folk And Listen, an English carol. We were only assessing notes, rhythm and diction (we’re always working on tone, but we are finalizing notes and rhythms this month so November is spent just polishing and shaping tone, phrasing, etc). Here’s the section of it she drew my attention to as she was assessing the individual students’ videos:

Our students were just butchering the four places with the letter “r” sound at seconds 5-7, 14 and 17. Emma told me she couldn’t score their diction because there was no way to address the “r” based on the diction rubric. I told her that she had to stick to the rubric, that we weren’t assessing tone yet but would be; we’d address the “r” when it came time for that assessment soon enough. She wasn’t buying it. Emma was claiming that you can’t address diction unless you address all the consonants and that you can’t ignore something as egregious as what the kids were doing with their “r”s this early in the game. What followed was a two and a half hour discussion/investigation of how to handle the “r”. I looked up some articles and dissertations. I wasn’t getting anywhere until I came across a truly brilliant and thorough site devoted to choral diction (check it out!!!), and I read this:

“W, R, and Y are pathological in the sense that they aren’t really consonants (and actually, in a sense, not really vowels either).”

Hold the phone, Verne. Huh? Neither diction NOR tone? I’ve been riding along peacefully for 22 years and I just struck an embankment. In my boiling down of choral pedagogy to the smallest digestive pieces, I’ve somehow left this part out of the equation. IPA covers this brilliantly of course: Ə. And I immediately thought back to when Brady Allred from University of Utah came to conduct Maine All State. He preached the shwa. My lack of enthusiasm for it was founded in a) my presupposition that if you sing with good choral tone with a lowered jaw and raised soft palate, it is redundant (i.e. English choirs), and b) I didn’t hear a big difference in the all state choir’s sound. Turns out it was due to their mediocre application of the concept despite his brilliant instruction, not the concept itself. I’ve always admired Dr. Allred’s work and have always been blown away with how his choirs can sing with so much resonance and yet blend as well as any choir from King’s College in Cambridge. And it instantly dawned on me: rich, resonant choral tone PLUS THE SHWA. Listen to his choir singing “A Savior is found”:

And there it is. My approach toward de-constructing choral tone and diction was missing the capacity to sing with more resonance (King’s College would never sing “Sav..” or “is” that far forward) but with similar blend. Emma and I talked more about it (it was now 4:15…) and agreed that I need to add another learning target to my honors choirs standards: the shwa. Here is an initial draft of what this is going to look like:

SHWA (Ə); Performs “R and “Y” as neutral vowels: (4) Shwa always applied, (3) Shwa applied consistently with minor errors, (2) Shwa applied inconsistently; between 50% and 80% of the time, (1) Shwa is missing most or all of the time.

I can easily assess this. Emma exposed one more weakness of my overall approach. I wasn’t assessing “diction”, I was actually assessing “consonants”. My rubric for it therefore remains, but the indicator name from here on out is going to be “consonants”.

If anybody needed a case study of why my blog post from last month means so much to me (Student Teachers), you just read it. But my biggest a-ha moment here (clarity of thought, not the Norwegian 80’s band 🎸) is a reminder of how critical it is to refine learning targets in the academic, group ensemble classroom. Assessable learning targets have to be clear, but also manageable. That means putting a limit on what indicators you assess AND boiling down what you feel is absolutely essential into the smallest bite-sized pieces. That looks different for each of us of course, but the danger in every instance is in boiling down too far and inadvertently leaving out essential pieces. I just discovered a piece two days ago that has been completely missing from my students’ list of accountability targets, but will now allow me to evolve my critique of individual singers’ tone and application of consonants with far more nuance and effectiveness. I cannot wait to implement it into my students’ assessments, and I cannot wait to see how its presence refines my instruction as a result.




This entry was posted in Etcetera. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to hello mr. shwa

  1. Jay Nelson says:

    Love all of this. Thanks again for sharing your revelations to all of us goobers … even in Texas! 😉

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s