In my years of working with choirs as singer, accompanist and director, I have noted that many of my colleagues, especially those who are trained primarily as organists, are reluctant to talk to their singers about purely vocal matters. We are much more comfortable with phrasing, dynamics, tempo, etc. When it comes to the actual sound that our choir members make, we are reluctant to intervene. Perhaps it is because we do not feel sufficiently trained as vocalists that cause us to hesitate. However, if I could suggest some demands that every choir director should make on every choir, perhaps some who have not been emboldened could start in the direction of talking comfortably with your singers about the tone that they make.
- Demand Good Posture: no singer can sing properly without being open in the chest. Be persistent that your singers sit or stand with their back straight, so they can fill with air and use their bodies when they sing. Good posture also means that your singers are singing out, not down.
- Demand Deep Breathing: Once you have established good posture, work with your singers to breathe deeply. A deep breath should start with a high, quiet ribcage. Ask your singers to place one finger on their sternum, at the top center of the ribcage, and one on the navel. When you exhale, the lower finger should collapse, while the upper one remains stationary. Practice this inhaling and exhaling, releasing the air on a silent whistle, or hissing.
- Demand Your Singers Use Air: Most amateur singers neither take in nor use enough air when they sing. I tell my singers, especially at the beginning of the process, that I would rather they take several breaths in a phrase, than they take just one and starve the tone. Once your singers are used to using their breath to sustain and feed the tone, they will not need to breathe more than before, but they will breathe more productively.
- Demand Your Singers Sing on Pitch: ...but don’t tell your choir they are singing flat! Referring to #3, above can solve this seeming paradox. Going flat on pitch is most often caused by lack of support and insufficient energy behind the tone. If your choir sings flat, ask them to relax their throats by using more air. This will help to cure the problem.
- Demand an End to the Wobbles: Again, I refer to #3. Singers with seemingly uncontrollable vibratos can get them back again by a smooth flow of air when they sing. Think of a pipe organ: when there is any unsteadiness in the wind supply, the tone wavers. This is also true when you sing. An exercise to try; hold a sheet of paper by the top edge about three inches from your head, inhale, then blow on the bottom of the sheet of paper. Try to move the paper about two more inches through the use of your breath, and keep it there. Only a controlled, steady air supply will keep the paper at the new position. Vibratos can be controlled when air is moving steadily through the vocal chords.
- Demand Beautiful Vowels: Choral blend is achieved only when vowels are matching. When you warm up, practice going through the vowel sounds ah, eh, ee, oh, oo. A good vowel is formed in the body first: singers need to think of their body as an instrument of the woodwind family. (All woodwinds are cylindrical, remember?) Encourage your singers to keep their throats open, especially in the back of the throat. For those who cannot visualize this, ask them to yawn. Since your singers are singing with good posture, open ribcages and open throats, now form the vowel in the front of the mouth, and send it through a round vocal opening. You would be surprised at the results when you ask your singers to sing beautiful vowels. Listen to them, model the vowels you want and listen again. Don’t ever accept “uh” for “ah.” Also, encourage singers to round out the bright vowels, ee, aa (as in cat), ih, and make them as round and beautiful as ah, oo. The key is the open throat in the back, and a round mouth. One final word on vowels: singers are often confused by diphthongs, those combinations of vowels that form sounds such as the long “a” (as in fate) combining ah and ee. In order to sing vowels correctly, they need to know what vowels they are singing. In English, we need to accentuate the initial vowel sound. So, you must remind your singers not to sing “shine,” but “shah---een.”
- Demand Clean Consonants: The late Robert Shaw rarely worked on consonants, but his singers sang with beautiful diction. Why? (Aside from his hand picking his singers from the best available in the world, that is.) Because Mr. Shaw worked endlessly on count singing (one-and-two-and three-and) in rehearsal. Why did this work on consonants? Because a choir that sings in absolute rhythm will be putting the consonants on at exactly the same time. Clean up your consonants by cleaning up your rhythm. Have your singers tap or count sing, or march in rehearsal to build rhythmic precision. The other key to consonants, I believe, is to sing through the consonant. Many amateur singers actually stop the tone before they say a consonant, especially final consonants. Not only does this end any attempts to sing legato, but it also takes energy away from the consonant, so the resulting sound is inaudible. To ensure that the tone flows through the consonants, make up an exercise that could go something like “mah, bah, nah, tah, dah” on quarter notes. Make your singers sing smoothly through the consonant sounds until the results are truly legato.
The fact is that we cannot choose the singers in our choirs, yet we can choose to make them better singers. The keys of posture, breathing, and vowels can vocally transform any of us. Try it – and tell me how it works for you!
Andrew Heller is Director of Music at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Ardmore Pennsylvania and Main Line Reform Temple, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. As a music education/organ major at Temple University, he gladly exchanged accompaniment services for free voice lessons with the late Robert Grooters, many of whose techniques he stole for this article.