Interview with Emily Crocker, Renowned Composer and Choral Consultant

Emily Holt Crocker has recently been appointed Founder and Music Director Emeritus of the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, an organization she established in 1994, by the Board of Directors of Milwaukee Children’s Choir. The choir has received acclaim for performances with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee Ballet, Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, American Choral Directors Association and international choir festivals in Japan and England.

As a composer, Ms. Crocker’s works have been performed around the world. She has received ASCAP awards for concert music since 1986. She is well known for her work in developing choral instructional materials and is author of Experiencing Choral Music, choral textbook series for grades 6-12, published by McGraw-Hill/Glencoe. As a conductor, she has led the Midwinter Children’s Choral Festival in Carnegie Hall and conducted the Milwaukee Pops Orchestra and Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra. In 2002, she was a recipient of the Excellence in Youth Music Award from the Civic Music Association of Milwaukee. 

Here is a brief interview with our notorious contributor to developing young voices around the world ~

DV: First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where were you born? Where did you attend school and study music?

EC: I was born in Fort Worth, Texas and received my primary and secondary education in Fort Worth Public Schools attending Meadowbrook Elementary, Meadowbrook Junior High, and Eastern Hills High School. I did spend 18 months during grades 6-8 in Altus and Weatherford, Oklahoma.

I went on to get a Bachelor of Music Education from University of North Texas and a Master of Arts in Music Theory from Texas Woman’s University. From there, I continued my post graduate studies in Choral Conducting, Choral Literature, Rehearsal Techniques and German from University of North Texas. From 1980-85 I studied Linguistics, and English and American Literature as a secondary teaching field.

DV: What is your first musical memory? 

EC: Hearing Hank Williams singing Hey! Good Lookin’ – What ya got cookin’ on the radio, and then the great singing at my home church, Church of Christ. There was a lot of a cappella singing. I heard 4 part harmony from my earliest years and began to follow the hymn notation from about age 5 or 6

DV: Did anyone in your family sing or play an instrument? Would you say your family was musically inclined?

EC: We were avid players of the radio and record player! My mother sang old songs around the house. My father had played the guitar as a teen.

DV: Did you study an instrument privately when you were young? If so, what and with whom?  

EC: Like every young girl in the 50s, I started piano at age 7 and I was lucky to have a treasure of a teacher, Laura Helen Coupland, who took me through to my high school graduation. Not only did she teach me piano repertoire and technique, she made sure I had a good understanding of music theory, ear training and music history.

DV: Were there any opportunities that came your way that inspired you to take the path of devoting your life to music?

EC: By high school, I was fairly certain that I was going to go into music. I had a number of experiences that were formative. I was selected as the high school drum major, and although I was a small person to be a drum major, I learned a great deal about leadership. In college, I also had the opportunity to tour Asia with an all-girl USO band, which opened my eyes to the wider world and helped me form bonds with other women musicians like myself. I received my music degree from University of North Texas which was a very large music school. This helped me establish myself among my peers and begin charting a career pathway in music.

DV: What were the greatest lessons you learned from your teachers (life lessons or musical) and who were they?

EC: I have had great mentors and teachers throughout my life, even now! I have learned the value of optimism, of humor and of persistence. Any challenge in life can be looked at as a series of steps or actions. Also, you have to advocate for yourself – see yourself where you want to go. That is the first step to getting there!

DV: You have balanced life as a composer, music educator, choral conductor and publicist. Tell us why and how you continued to simultaneously balance all these pursuits.

EC: My position with Hal Leonard Publishing made all the rest possible! I started writing music while still an educator and did that for about 10 years before officially joining the company and moving to Wisconsin. Composing and conducting were more personal goals of mine, and with lots of energy, I was able to combine all these with varying degrees of success. Also, I had lots of help from associates, friends and family and support from my bosses.

DV: In 1994 you formed the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. The Milwaukee Children’s Choir is celebrating its 25th season this year. What inspired you to create this organization? Are there others you would like to recognize that were on “the team”?

EC: Milwaukee had children’s choirs in the past, but for some reason, had not become a part of the children’s choir movement of the 1980s and 90s. One of my bosses at Hal Leonard, Steve Rauch, helped me to organize a group in 1994 based on Henry Leck’s Indianapolis Children’s Choir model. Henry was enormously helpful as well, sharing governance documents and organizational strategies, and although there were differences in our situations, I consider Henry’s initial guidance as crucial. I also was inspired by the writings of Doreen Rao and Jean Ashworth Bartle on children’s choir repertoire and techniques.

I had wonderful collaborating colleagues: Charyl Granatella, Assistant Conductor from the very beginning, Donna Mitchell, our first Accompanist, Ellen Shuler, Assistant Conductor, Sharon Stosur, Accompanist, Amanda Draheim, Accompanist, Maria Koester, Accompanist, Sandy Cristan, Choir Manager, Casey Murphy, Choir Manager, Rob Sholl, member of the Board of Directors, along with Sharon Hansen. 

Other conductors remembered with great fondness: Christopher Peterson, Tina Glander Peterson, Raymond Roberts, Roxanne Miles, Linda Rann – there were tons of choir assistants, other board members & volunteers as well.

DV: What are your greatest memories of Milwaukee Children’s Choir?

EC: We sang wonderful music in beautiful spaces, but my favorite memories are the day to day moments and rehearsal successes, where the music came together and friendships were made and laughter shared.

DV: Did you ever have thoughts about how it would evolve and how it might look today?

EC: Milwaukee Children’s Choir has achieved many of the goals we established in the first 15 years of our existence: high artistic quality, comprehensive graded choirs, recognition as a full-fledged arts organization, school and other outreach programs, and collaboration with other Milwaukee and regional groups. I think that everyone would like to see a enrollment increase and a provision for further opportunities of children with limited means.

DV: You have been an advocate for children’s voices. You have experienced great success as a composer that understands the voice of the child and how to develop it. Can you tell us how the creative process begins for you and what that process is from conception to finished product?

EC: For me, it all starts with song and play. My first years teaching classroom music based on Kodaly principles gave me the opportunity to enjoy making music with children and seeing how song brings learning to life. My first successful arrangements were based on folk songs and the simple techniques employed in Kodaly teaching: ostinato, canon, countermelody. So, as a composer/arranger, I start with the song and develop it outward from that point. I also try to write a piano accompaniment that supports and contributes as an independent voice. My original music comes much the same way, but from a carefully chosen text and a melody that flows naturally from that text.

DV: You served as Choral Editor for Hal Leonard Publishing for more than two decades. Can you tell us a little bit about the work of a choral editor and just what an editor might be looking for – something that can help rising composers understand the criteria for getting published or writing appropriate works for choir?

EC: When I went to Hal Leonard, it was primarily a publisher of pop arrangements, and of course still is. We expanded the types of pop arrangements, leveled from easy to difficult, Broadway, jazz and show. My contributions were of expanding concert music for school groups and upward to the collegiate and professional level. We accomplished this by establishing relationships with important conductors and composers who introduced us to new compositional voices. Some of these include: Moses Hogan, Henry Leck, Rollo Dilworth, Andrea Ramsey, Audrey Snyder, Craig Hella Johnson and more. We also maintained our longterm writers such as Roger Emerson.

My advice for a new writer, would be to carefully examine works published by composers or companies that you admire, analyzing the overall qualities of those works. Then work to develop your own unique, authentic voice, performing your works with your own choirs and asking for input from your friends and colleagues.

As to getting published, try to make a contact with a publisher’s representative. There are also options for self-publishing now that didn’t exist when I started.

DV: What advice would you give to new composers pursuing a career writing for voices and especially children’s voices?

EC: The best way to learn to write for children is to work with children – so find (or start) a children’s choir and see what causes them to light up when they sing.

DV: Can you tell us a little bit about what inspires Emily Crocker?

EC: I enjoy and am inspired by the process. So when I’ve finished a piece or project I’m a little bit at loose ends until I find the next one. I have dozens of ideas on scraps of paper tucked away in a folder, so I have plenty of potential projects!

I am also inspired by the new generation of conductors, composers & educators. Our art is in good hands!

DV: What projects, personal and musical, are next for you?

I’m just finishing up my composing portfolio for the year, just one or two pieces still in progress. I’ll be shifting to a couple of instructional/curriculum projects for the spring. I have a couple of sessions this spring at Illinois MEA (also the elementary girls honor choir) and national ACDA.

DV: In May of 2019, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir will be premiering a commissioned work written by Emily Crocker to celebrate its 25th season and honor its Founding Music Director. 

We wish Ms. Crocker continued success with all of her many endeavors. We hope we are able to enjoy her talents and contributions to the world of choral music for a long time to come.

Lynn Swanson

The Human Brain and the Influence of Music

Are you looking for a great book to add to your holiday reading list?
By Developing Voices Author Jamea J. Sale, MME

Are you looking for a great book to add to your holiday reading list? I suggest Musicophilia (2007) by Oliver Sacks. Musicophilia explores the wonders of the brain, neuroscience and music. In any other hands the topic could make for dry reading, yet Sacks exudes enthusiasm about advances in neuroscience which enabled the visualization of the human brain under the influence of music. Sacks also adhered to his point of view that the description and observation of the people being studied is paramount. Perhaps this explains why Sacks’ writing is so appealing and accessible to readers; he weaves the clinical aspects of musicophilia into an artful telling of each patient’s life experience.
What is musicophilia? The Greek word suffix -philia as applied to music refers to an abnormal or heightened awareness of music which presents as intense music-seeking or music-associated behaviors in people. This might include the playing of music, dancing, or singing along to tunes (Fletcher, Downey, Witoonpanich, & Warren, 2013). An example is the account of Tony Cicoria, a surgeon who had a near death experience when he was struck by lightning in a telephone booth. He made a full recovery and returned to his work as a surgeon, but his life was transformed by an extraordinary craving to play the piano thereafter.
Sacks refers to such phenomena as musical “hauntings.” Less dramatic hauntings occur for the average person. Many have experienced the occasional “ear-worm” in which a song is “stuck” in one’s mind. The music subverts a part of the brain somewhat like a tic. Unfortunately for some people, this repetitive firing of the brain becomes a musicophilia, and it takes on a disturbing pathological quality taking place at a high level in the brain.

Sacks made profound discoveries about music and the brain in his lifetime. Movie enthusiasts may be acquainted with the dramatic film called Awakenings, based on his 1973 book of the same name which recounted the experience of catatonic patients suffering the after-effects of sleeping sickness. These patients miraculously “awakened” after being treated with the drug, levodopa, but sadly the effects of the drug were short-lived. However, Sacks found that his patients responded to music! They were observed to temporarily move with ease and grace in response to music, and they could sing expressively. Music represented auditory dopamine for these patients, a testament to the therapy of music in their lives. (Awakenings trailer)
Musically talented people are often described as having a marked, innate musical ability, and a good ear for pitch and rhythm (Watts, Murphy, & Barnes-Burroughs, 2003). In Musicophilia, Sacks suggested that there is innate musical talent in everyone but that the cognitive and emotional capabilities needed to grasp music varies from person to person. He explored the ability of people to realize the artistry, meaning, and phrasing of music, and the apparent neurological misalignment that inhibits some people from achieving their desire for great musical ability. The advent of MRI morphometry in the 1990s made it possible to visualize the brain structures of musicians. It was determined that in the brains of professional musicians, the corpus callosum is enlarged and that the planum temporale, a part of the auditory cortex, is asymmetrically enlarged in those having absolute pitch (Gaser & Schlaug, 2003; Hutchinson, Lee, Gaab, & Schlaug, 2003). There are “increased volumes of gray matter in the motor, auditory, and visuospatial areas of the cortex and in the cerebellum” of this population (Sacks, 2007, p. 100).

Figure 4: Gaser, C., & Schlaug, G., 2003, pp. 9243.
For a very few, amusia is a reality. Acquired amusia can occur as part of a neurological event (stroke, migraine, etc.) that may affect one’s perception of music. Researcher Steven Mithen, author of The Singing Neanderthal (2005), was convinced that musical language is embedded in the human genome, even more so than spoken language, yet Mithen said that he, himself was unable to match pitch or rhythm. Therefore, Mithen was compelled to discover whether his claim to life-long amusia could be overcome. His adventure involved taking singing lessons and having brain examinations under fMRI. Mithen’s singing practice not only led to heightened activity in his brain’s inferior frontal gyrus and superior temporal gyrus but Mithen also had substantial improvement in his ability to sing! After the year-long experiment, Mithen wrote that it is “remarkably difficult to sing—to simultaneously and unconsciously manage pitch, rhythm, timbre, tone, and dynamics—I am even more mystified as to why humans have evolved such an amazing ability.” (Mithen, 2008, p. 39).
Musicophilia concludes with a reminder that all cultures hold music in high esteem. It is central to human dance, religion, celebration and entertainment. One need not be particularly knowledgeable about music to be profoundly affected by it. The same could be said about the artfully woven personal stories and scientific studies of humans and music in Musicophilia. It is a compelling and worthwhile addition to your holiday reading list!

Jamea Sale, Director of the Institute for Healthy Singing:                                                                                                                                    Executive Associate Director, William Baker Choral Foundation
Voice Specialist, Allegro Choirs of Kansas City
Fletcher, P. D., Downey, L., Witoonpanich, P., & Warren, J. (2013). The brain basis of musicophilia: evidence from frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 347.
Gaser, C., & Schlaug, G. (2003). Brain structures differ between musicians and non-musicians. Journal of Neuroscience, 23(27), 9240-9245.
Hutchinson, S., Lee, L. H. L., Gaab, N., & Schlaug, G. (2003). Cerebellar volume of musicians. Cerebral cortex, 13(9), 943-949.
Koelsch, S., Skouras, S., Fritz, T., Herrera, P., Bonhage, C., Küssner, M. B., & Jacobs, A. M. (2013). The roles of superficial amygdala and auditory cortex in music-evoked fear and joy. Neuroimage, 81, 49-60.
Llinás, Rodolfo (2001). I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Mithen, S. (2008). Singing in the brain. New Scientist, 197(2644), 38-39.
Robb, S., Hanson-Abromeit, D, May, L., Hernandez-Ruiz, E., Allison, M., Beloat, A., Daugherty, S., Kurtz, R., Ott, A.,
Oyedele, O., Polasik, S., Rager, A., Rifkin, J., & Wolf, E. (2018). Reporting quality of music intervention research in healthcare: A systematic review. Complementary therapies in medicine.
Sacks, O. (2007). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Vintage Books.
Storr, A. (1992) Music and the Mind. New York: The Free Press.
Tomaino, C. M. (2015). Music therapy and the brain. Music therapy handbook, 40-50.
Watts, C., Murphy, J., & Barnes-Burroughs, K. (2003). Pitch matching accuracy of trained
singers, untrained subjects with talented singing voices, and untrained subjects with nontalented singing voices in conditions of varying feedback. Journal of Voice, 17(2), 185-194.

Organizing the Chaos: Managing the Middle School Choir

I’ve heard it said that teaching middle school puts one at the front of the line for sainthood. We’ve all had days on which we have earned that status. I have been teaching middle school choir for seven years, and in that time I have witnessed the full spectrum of adolescent behavior; from the sweet to the disrespectful, from the silly to the hyper-focused, and sometimes just chaotic madness. Classroom management is more of an art than a science; it requires flexibility, reflection, and attention to detail. I don’t have all the answers, but thought I would share some practices with which I have had success.

Problem: My choir is too chatty during rehearsal.

Option 1: Call and Response. This seems elementary, but it has worked for me.  There are many types of calls and responses you can use. Make your expectations clear when you teach the protocol: one call, one response, refocus, and move on with rehearsal.

  • Clap or “Sh” a four beat rhythm for students to echo
  • Vocalize a “Yoo-hoo” and students echo
  • “One, two, three. Eyes on me” Students respond “One, two, eyes on you.”
  • Be creative—there’s no wrong way to do this

Option 2: Rehearse your rehearsal. At the beginning of the year, my students practice standing with their folders, ready to sing, over and over again.  If students talk during this process, we start again. We don’t move on until everyone can stand poised and ready to focus.  We usually revisit this exercise a handful of times each semester when things really devolve.

Option 3: Reward Chart.  Another elementary technique, but one that my sixth graders seem to respond to. After each rehearsal that the class meets my behavioral expectations, they earn a mark on the reward chart. After 10 such days, they receive a free seating day. I’ve heard of teachers offering a day of music games, movie days, or candy—just find out what will motivate your bunch!

Problem:  My students don’t use good singing posture or technique, even though we talk about it all the time.

How’s your sticker game?  My students love stickers (really! they love being recognized in front of their peers).  I keep a pack near the piano, and whenever I spot a student using good posture, tall vowels, marking their music with a pencil, etc., I quickly acknowledge their good behavior by passing them a sticker. There’s minimal disruption to rehearsal, and it’s amazing how many students start to sit taller and follow directions after they see their classmates earning stickers.

Bonus: Let a student or two students play “Posture Police”.  Have them walk around while you are sight-reading or rehearsing.  They can give stickers to students who are demonstrating great posture.

Problem: My students don’t stand still when they sing. 

In Rehearsal: Use movement to your advantage. As much as I understand the need to practice standing still while singing, I encourage my students to use movement while warming up or practicing parts in rehearsals.  Deliberate movement can help students connect their breath to their sound.  We make waves for crescendos, pop bubbles for staccato sounds, shoot basketballs for ascending leaps, and much more. Sometimes, I’ll have students alternate between sitting and standing while we are singing to keep them moving and alert.  Control the movement and make it work for you.

For the Performance: I use a saying that I learned from my friend and colleague Nathan Dame.

Feet, feet”(stomp each foot down)
“Hips straight” (point to each hip)
“Shoulders back” (touch the left and right shoulders)
“Head tall” (Pull an invisible string from the top of your head)
“ Chin down” (check that the chin is parallel to the ground)
“Eyes on you.” (students use their two fingers to point at their eyes then yours and FREEZE)

The students learn the chant at the beginning of the year.  When we are preparing for a concert I have them repeat it.  Once they say “eyes on you,” they freeze with their hands at their side and then we run our music.  If one member moves before the music starts, we do the whole chant again. I have found this to be a very helpful tool in getting students in the correct performance posture.

Final Thoughts

  • Make your expectations known from day 1, and be consistent! Research suggests posting expectations in the classroom is best practice.
  • You must allocate time in your rehearsal to practice the simple tasks: walking on risers, standing quietly, using good posture, etc. Be diligent and don’t move on before they achieve mastery.
  • Positive reinforcement works. It’s basic human psychology. Offer ways to earn rewards.
  • If a management technique is failing, try something different. Reach out to colleagues for ideas. Talk to the effective core subject teachers in your school. They may offer something you can adapt for the choir room.
  • Choose your battles; I laugh when I think about all the time I wasted as a new teacher sweating the small stuff. There are annoying behaviors that adversely affect rehearsal—but there are also annoying behaviors that don’t.  Learn to let the small stuff go and your nerves will thank you for it.
  • Above all, cultivate a sense of family and teamwork in your classroom. When everyone invests and trusts each other, working towards that common goal becomes much easier.

Jennifer Berroth


Making the Most of Practice Between Rehearsals


by Special Contributor Dr. William O. Baker

What is the difference between rehearsal, the work accomplished corporately when the ensemble is gathered, and practice, the individual preparation each member engages between rehearsals.  I believe the distinction to be a critically important one, especially in the world of excellent church choirs and high-achieving volunteer choruses.

Most choral organizations hold weekly rehearsals of 2-3 hours.  For a 100-voice volunteer chorus to accomplish a work of the magnitude of the Brahms Requiem in, say, 10 weeks of rehearsals, it is incumbent upon every member to “practice” between rehearsals, and to do so in a productive way.

I propose a programmed method of 30-45 minutes each day to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of her practice.  Let’s assume a Tuesday evening rehearsal for the sake of our discussion.

Wednesday… The Day for Review

STEP ONE: Find a comfortable and quiet place, perhaps with a cup of tea or glass of wine, to review instructions, notes and inspiration from the previous rehearsal.  Review should not include any time at the piano, or listening to a recording or study tracks.  All focus should be given to reading through the score silently to reinforce every marking given, perhaps to clarify written notes and instructions jotted in haste.

STEP TWO:  Mark any places in the music that will need extra attention as the week of practicing progresses.  If the director spoke at length about a certain issue, perhaps a troublesome interval or a German vowel needing special attention, some thought-time should be invested remembering and reinforcing the instruction.  It bears repeating, this is not the day to approach the piano.

GOAL: Let instruction sink in to the memory.

Thursday… Rhythm and Text

STEP ONE: Returning to the quiet place with another cup of tea or glass of wine, spend a practice session devoted entirely to rhythm and text. Review any challenging rhythmic figures on nonsense syllables, then on staccato, then counting (1+ 2+ T+ Fa+… avoiding the clarity challenges of the words “three” and “four”).

STEP TWO: Speak the text in rhythm to work toward perfect placement of vowels and consonants in rhythmic figures, giving special attention to the placement and efficiency of releasing consonants.

STEP THREE: Careful and intentional consideration of inflection and the impact of vocal timbre to the goal of making the words come expressively alive.

GOAL: Secure structural rhythm.

Friday… Approaching the Piano

STEP ONE: Abandon the contemplative place and approach the piano.  Having marked troublesome areas for pitches during the Wednesday review period, this is the time to tackle those pitch issues at the piano. Play the knotty passage on the piano without singing.

STEP TWO: Sing the passage on numbers or a nonsense syllable without playing.  Then play again without singing to check your work, and then sing again without playing to confirm your progress.  The pattern of singing without playing and playing without singing should continue with nonsense syllables, then with vowels alone, and finally with consonants and vowels together.

GOAL: Secure the correct part in the mind’s ear of the singer.

Saturday… Enjoying Recordings

STEP ONE: It is time to gain perspective by enjoying various recordings of the work.  Most conductors will share a recommended recording with their singers and audiences. I believe it benefits singers to hear a work, from as many perspectives as possible.  There is always great benefit to listening to a good reference recording repeatedly so the chorister might see how a particular nuance fits into the whole of the work.

GOAL: Listen to 10 different recordings, each one with its own array or strengths, weaknesses, and wonders.

Sunday… Giving Thanks

STEP ONE: Avoid contact with the work entirely.  It is helpful to the progress of any endeavor to periodically apply a mental break.  On the off-day spend the same amount of time in contemplation and thanksgiving that you have invested in practice during the other days of the week.

GOAL: Experience a renewed inspiration.

It is easy to forget the privileges we share as we participate in great choral music in the first quarter of the 21st century.  Rehearsals are led be well-educated, well-experienced and highly dedicated leaders.  Skilled accompanists assist with rehearsal on modern, well-tuned instruments.  Heat and an air conditioning provide for our comfort during rehearsals.  We travel to and from rehearsals in safe and reliable automobiles, trains or buses.  Most of us possess a device that, though small as a deck of playing cards, can summon hundreds of versions of the music we are studying for our inspiration, enjoyment, and education.  We live in a day where we have centuries of perspective, reference and access to comparative works through abundantly available scores and recordings, a blessing the people of Brahms’ time could not even have imagined.  If we seek to pause and consider the wealth of blessings afforded us through the choral experience, we will easily fill an hour per week with renewed inspiration that will greatly enhance our enjoyment.

Monday… Final Preparation for Rehearsal

STEP ONE: The day before rehearsal, spend the first 20 minutes of your practice time addressing the single most urgent challenge the music holds for you.  In any particular week that challenge may be a tough rhythmic passage, a reminder about a certain pronunciation, or a problematic tuning issue.

STEP TWO: Invest in researching something new and interesting about the work and/or about the composer.  Spending a few minutes in the composer’s world as the last exercise before rehearsal is quite valuable.

GOAL: Seek to master your one issue and only one issue on the final day of practice before rehearsal.

A healthy person is always a healthy singer.  Having completed a week of structured preparation and practice, having meditated well on the blessings of the experience, and having accomplished good habits of exercise, nutrition and rest, you will be fully prepared to make the most of your contribution to the Tuesday rehearsal.

William Baker

Image found at:

Build Technique with a New Routine

You’re a month into teaching your choir students.  You have established your classroom routine and are in the thick of learning concert music.  You are encouraged by their progress, but you sense that your students are about to hit a late-September wall.  So how do you keep building fundamental singing technique without losing student engagement? Try a new routine as you continue to build technique.

Choral Training instead of Warm-ups

By the time my middle school students arrive to choir, many of them have been talking, laughing—and sometimes yelling—since they got on the bus that morning. It’s safe to say their voices are “warmed up.” (If you need confirmation, just ask their core subject teachers!) I find this is a good time to ditch traditional “warm ups” and replace them with some choral training exercises.  After some light stretching and breathing exercises, 5-7 minutes of choral training can be a great way to reinforce healthy singing and work on a skill pertinent to your concert rep. For example, my students recently sang the National Anthem before a baseball game.  The beginning word is “Oh,” and the kids were struggling to shape their “Oh” vowel as a tall and open “ɔ.”  To work on this, we sang a descending arpeggio alternating “ɔ” and “ɒ”.* The goal was to minimize jaw movement, lift the soft palate, and reinforce proper shaping of the vowel.  When we transitioned into our song repertoire, the muscle memory was fresh, and I could refer back to our training exercise as needed. Arpeggios, tongue twisters, and rounds can all be used to reinforce various techniques.

*To take this exercise a step further, we sing “no” on the same arpeggio, but still focus on shaping the vowel to be taller and lifted.  We slowly and smoothly move our heads in a “no” motion while singing to eliminate tension through the back and neck.

Other Tongue Twisters and Rounds

Lighten the mood in your classroom by singing something challenging or silly—and build technique in the process!
1.  Alphabet arpeggio:
Work for quick consonants, long vowels, round space, and smooth transitions between letters.

Alphabet scale

*Try singing the letters backwards once you’ve mastered the exercise.

2. Tongue-Twister: “Who Washed Washington’s White Woolen Underwear When Washington’s Washerwomen Went West”. Use this one to work on chewy “Ws”—use consistent breath to sing with energy on one consistent note.

3. “One Bottle O’ Pop”: Round: Emphasize singing on the vowel with quick consonants. In meters of three, check out the music here:

4. “COFFEE” Round: Use to reinforce unified vowels and explore phrasing.

Coffee round.png

From the King Singer’s Book of Rounds, Canons, and Partsongs-Hal Leonard Corporation

Have a toolbox and use it

          I keep a basket full of random toys, capes, masks, and other silly things that I pull out once a week (sometimes more) to keep students engaged, provide visual aid, and teach about technique. Here are a few of my go-to tools:

football (A and B)      football (A and B)

I use the football two ways.  First, I’ll have the students throw the football back and forth to me and make glissandos with lifted palates as they throw. When we throw a ball, we are taught to “follow through” after the ball is released. Similarly, when we sing, we must “follow through” with air and energy.

Second, I use the football to help demonstrate the optimal shape we’re trying to achieve with our vowel (Image B).  To make it fun, I rotate the ball from horizontal (Image A) to vertical (Image B) and back again while students sing.  It’s okay to let students experiment singing with good and bad technique so they can hear—and feel—the difference.

Hoberman sphere

The Hoberman sphere, like the football, has a variety of applications.  I use it most often to teach consistent airflow and gradual dynamic changes.  As the choir sings, I slowly expand and contract the Hoberman sphere. The students react and gradually crescendo and decrescendo accordingly.  By varying the speed at which I open and close the sphere, students learn that they must use a strong and steady airflow in order to keep up—they also think it’s hilarious to really exaggerate the changes. Allow students to “conduct” with the Hoberman sphere for extra fun!

Chocolate kiss

I tell my students to imagine they have a chocolate kiss on their tongue but they don’t want the pointed end to touch the roof of their mouth.  This helps them to feel a lifted soft palate.  We imagine having that chocolate kiss for a few days in class and then if they seem to be grasping the concept, I bring in real chocolate kisses.  The students get to place them on their tongues for a few seconds to remember that lifted soft palate sensation and then they can eat it.  We never try to sing with the chocolate in our mouths.

Gadgets book

Finally, I encourage teachers to read Gadgets for Great Singing by Christy Elsner.  I use many of her tips and tricks in the classroom.  All are fun and engaging for middle school students, and could be applied at the high school level as well.

Have fun shaking things up in your classroom while continuing to develop good technique.

Developing Voices author Jennifer Berroth is Choral Director at Leawood Middle School in Kansas and also serves as Associate Music Director of Lee’s Summit Summer Singers with The William Baker Choral Foundation.