BUILDING ENSEMBLE SOUND WITH CHANT

BUILDING ENSEMBLE THROUGH CHANT & CHORALE

In the over forty years I have been leading choral ensembles in community, professional and church realms, I have seen many trends and fashions come and go, and I have seen more than a few come back and then go away again.  It is not an exaggeration to say that most of the fads that have inflicted our art are best forgotten.

In recent years however, there has come a movement that I believe has already positively impacted the quality of choral performances and the health and hygiene of singers’ voices: the science-based approach to choral pedagogy that has been championed by a number of leading programs, including the VoiceCare Network based at St. John’s University in Minnesota, the Master of Music Education in Choral Pedagogy offered by the University of Kansas in Lawrence, the Institute for Healthy Singing based in the Kansas City area, and the Developing Voices blog.

[Full disclosure: Though I have no role on the faculty of the Institute for Healthy Singing (www.HealthySinging.org), the IHS is a program of the William Baker Choral Foundation (www.ChoralFoundation.org), an organization I founded in 1990.]

Not only has the work of these researchers and leaders contributed mightily to the effectiveness of choral and individual vocal training, this effort has helped choral conductors adopt methods and techniques of gesture, rehearsal pacing, teaching process, and repertoire selection that maximizes the health and expressive capacity of individual voices in the ensemble.

With the foundation well-established through the science-based approach to choral pedagogy, as a part of choral training, I would offer two suggestions to carry the benefit and training to the next step: using a) chant and b) chorale as training tools for the purpose of applying the newfound health and freedom of voices to the goal of building more sensitive ensemble unity and, consequently, stronger musicianship in every area.

I recommend devoting 5-10 minutes of the choral training session at the beginning of rehearsals to using chant and chorale for ensemble building.

Chants are found in many configurations, but I believe pointed plainsong and Anglican chant to be the most useful forms for this exercise.  Over the course of a semester it could be instructive and helpful to begin taking several lines of text to chant in unison on a single tone.  Though it is tempting to save time by using the unison chant exercise to work out a text issue in the repertoire scheduled for rehearsal, I recommend using words that are not being otherwise rehearsed so the full attention of the singer during the chant may be invested in the inflection of words, clarity of consonants, purity of vowels and sensitivity to articulative nuance across the entire chorus.

After unison chants are mastered on a single tone, pointed plainsong verses may be employed to carry the same principles forward into a deeper realization of text painting, natural sensitivity to dynamic and timbre, and nuance of enunciation.  The less gesturing from the conductor the better.  The entire exercise is intended to increase sensitivity and mutual awareness of each individual voice in the ensemble and in the ensemble as a whole.  It is critical to engender a keen awareness of unison tuning through this exercise in the context of the rehearsal and performance space.

The final step in this exercise is a study of four-part chant in the Anglican tradition.  All of the musical goals of single-tone chant and plainsong are present, of course, but harmonic tuning and chordal balance is added to the mix of skill sets with the study of the 4-part chant.  I believe the wise conductor who approaches this process with intentionality and care will experience an amazing improvement in the tonal center, intonation, enunciation clarity, and expressive potential of the ensemble.

There are few treasures in the last 1000 years of choral expression as profoundly rich as the chorales of Johann Sebastian Bach.  Not only are these works a great pillar of religious expression, they are a virtually limitless reservoir of common practice period harmonic understanding and practice.  The study of Bach chorales, shamefully neglected in recent years, provides a ready resource for building harmonic understanding, balance, blend and tuning in choirs at every level.

I find it useful to choose a Bach chorale for weekly choral training.  If an accompanist is available, the chorale can be sung on nonsense syllables with piano, then on nonsense syllables a cappella, and finally a cappella with texts.  Because the primary focus of the exercise is musicianship building, I recommend using English texts for the chorale exercise.  I also recommend building sightreading acuity by using a different chorale with each rehearsal.  Fortunately, Bach left us enough wonderful chorales to provide exercises for many rehearsals without repetition.

Whether the choir is a high-functioning community chorus, a professional project choir or a developing parish choir of volunteers, I believe these exercises, patiently and consistently applied, in conjunction with a program of science-based vocal health and hygiene, will positively impact the intonation, enunciation, tone and expressiveness of every performance of the concert season.

 

Dr. William O. Baker, Personal E-mail Account
913-488-7524

www.ChoralFoundation.org

www.FestivalSingers.org

www.LeipzigDoor.blog

Kinesthetic Gestures to Aid Your Choir

by Jennifer Berroth, Contributing Author, DevelopingVoices.blog

Movement is often used to engage a singer’s breath, energy, and musicianship.  Young singers can benefit from using gestures throughout a rehearsal to help them understand musical concepts they are performing.  Here are some kinesthetic gestures I use to help my own singers.

Staccato gestures

            Staccato phrases can be tricky.  Singers might find it hard to stay in pitch, maintain tall vowels, or continue the shortened rhythms.  I have my singers “pop bubbles” in the air with their fingers while singing staccato phrases.  The “popping” helps maintain the shortened sounds. I also instruct them to sing with the round space of the bubble. 

Pop the Bubble Video

Other staccato gestures can be “throwing a dart”, tip-toeing in a space, or tapping the staccato rhythm with their fingertips on their shoulder or arm.

Singing Legato

            Legato phrases can be tough to get singers to sing with energy through the entire phrase.  Here are some gestures I have my singers use:

  • Paint on a blank canvas with smooth brush strokes in the air
    • Add a color to your “painting”- If you want a warm sound have your singers visualize warm colors: deep reds or oranges. 
  • Spread the butter or frosting gesture
    • Use one arm to “spread” your sound evenly over the other arm.
  • Long, legato rotations
    • Using the arms, rotations should move perpendicular and not parallel to their body.  This helps singers keep their energy and sound moving out in front on them verse staying right in front of them.

Long, legato rotation video

Supporting the tone

          Have singers imagine they are lifting weights.  When someone is lifting weights, the support should come from their core strength and lower body; the idea is the same for singers supporting their tone.  Some things to remember when having singers utilize this gesture:

  • Keep knees slightly bent
  • Don’t allow the chest to drop, vice versa, don’t overextend the straightening of the spine
  • Singers should imagine they are lifting a fairly heavy object and the weight should be lifted over the entire phrase.

Phrasing- I really like to use sport gestures for phrasing; Throw a baseball/football, shoot a basketball, shoot an arrow, etc.  The same way we might see football laces or baseball laces spin throughout a throw, so can singers visualize “spinning their sound” to the end of the phrase.

There are many ways you can have your choir experiment following through with their energy and phrase.          

Other Kinesthetic Gestures

Using opposite movement for ascending or descending line

Have singers move their arms upward when singing a descending line to avoid coming down too hard on their sound. The same thing applies to ascending lines and using downward motions.  Have singers try to bend their knees, or a plie squat to create support and an ease of sound through-out the ascension.

Move around the room

            Use the rehearsal space to have singers move freely while singing.  Encourage them to really listen and fill up the entire room with their sound.  

In addition to the benefit these movements provide in learning new musical concepts and vocal technique, they are a great way to break the monotony of “choir class,” and encourage a classroom climate that is relaxed and safe.

Article written by Jennifer Berroth, Choral Director, Leawood Middle School, Leawood, Kansas, USA.

The Breathy Girl’s Changing Voice

Two videos attached for your reading enhancement ~

My favorite part of being a voice teacher is working with “Changing Voice Girls.” An email arrived this morning from Becca (8th grade) who has an audition for a select 9-12 girls touring chorus. She’s been making bi-weekly recordings of her singing for me this season so that I can track her voice change progress. In January I noticed her sound becoming progressively more “breathy” and “gunky” so when I received the following message today, I was not surprised! Here is our exchange:

March 2018

Hi Miss Jamea! 

My voice has just recently started to fade away. I have to work a lot harder than usual to sing even the S1 part of “Let the Sea Make a Noise[1]”. Do you have any tips that might help? Just a couple weeks ago I would have said with confidence I have a good chance of making the top girls’ choir next year, but now my sound doesn’t sound as pure as before.

Thanks!

Becky

~~~~~~~~~

Hi Becky!

I noticed on your recordings that some changes are a-coming! The most important thing at this time is to keep singing with all the healthy practices that you’ve learned. No pushing or forcing the voice. It’s going to be a bit breathy and gunky for a while. That’s ok! We know that this is normal and that most girls auditioning for the first time to the touring chorus are in this stage.

Girls.Vocal.Chink.Image.
Adolescent Female Vocal Folds.

Helpful Guidelines:

  • Practice daily. It’s important to stay ‘conditioned.’
  • Drink lots of water & swallow (or spit) the gunky stuff.
  • Avoid coughing or clearing as this is wearing and damaging to the vocal folds. Take care of the voice!

– Your sound will not have the same clarity as last year, but you will still do your ‘set up’ the same as always. We’ll keep watch that you don’t start any unproductive habits like:

  • pulling the lips, arching the tongue, over-blowing the air (this actually makes the breathiness worse)
  • pushing/pressing the sound, or even getting a strange head/body posture started. These things would ultimately undermine the sound.
  • Support the breath just like you have been! Nothing needs to change from what you’ve been up to already. You will feel like you don’t have enough air because you’re leaking[2]! It’s normal!

 You can still get resonance. The more relaxed your teeth/mouth/jaw/pharynx is, the better! When these things are in place, your breath will be more efficient!

Vocal Exercises:

  • Descending glissandos. Start with your lighter head voice production and maintain that sound throughout the exercise.
  • Ascending glissandos throughout the range. You want the voice to sound even from top to bottom. If you feel a ‘yodel’ or ‘break’ in the slide, focus on:

1.) maintaining lighter “production” all the way through the line.

2.) energizing the breath where the break happens. (The tendency is often to back off when there’s a hitch, but you must keep that breath moving!) Note: when I say “light,” I don’t mean wimpy tone: I’m saying not to use a ”muscular” or “heavy” tone.

  • Skip-intervals will add flexibility to your voice. Strive for accuracy and ease. (“Let the Sea Make a Noise” has great melismas that make a perfect exercise!)
  • Sing your own voice! If you start trying to “do” your old sound or a more mature sound, you will likely be going in the wrong direction. Your new “changing” voice is beautiful. Embrace it!

 XOXO

Miss Jamea

 [1] “Let the Sea Make a Noise” by George Frideric Handel, Arr. Jacob Narverud for SSA & Piano. S1 range is E4 – G5, S2 range is D4 – D5, A1 range is A3 – B4. (This is Becky’s required audition piece.)

[2] During female adolescent changing voice, girls’ vocal folds develop a gap (place where the folds don’t fully close). This is an occurrence that is normal and that will eventually pass given good technique and time.

  • Please watch stroboscopy showing small posterior gap or vocal chink in normal teenage girl:

Allegro Choirs of Kansas City perform “Let the Sea Make a Noise”, Georg Frideric HANDEL. Christy Elsner, Director; Jamea Sale, Vocal Coach.