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.


Conducting A More Effective Audition


The modern choral leader has many irons in the fire.  The dreams we all had in graduate school of long hours studying scores and reading scholarly commentaries have fallen to the reality of constant administrative tasks like raising money, promoting events, raising more money, organizing staff and volunteers, raising even more money, and recruiting and auditioning the chorus membership.

The task of recruitment and appointment of chorus members through the audition process might be the most important work of all for the conductor outside actual rehearsals and performances.  Choosing the best personnel for the ensemble is, indeed, the “coin of the realm.”  Everything in the working life of a choral organization, from the quality of the choral product, to the growth and response of audiences, to the availability of adequate funding, begins with choosing the very best members available.

No matter the level of talent and training that has been achieved on the part of the candidate, and no matter the experience and due diligence of the panel conducting the audition, a choral audition is an intimidating and messy business.  The following thoughts and suggestions are offered to assist those of us who hear auditions as we prioritize our goals for the process and as we design a structure that well serves those goals.

There are as many styles of choral organizations as there are situations and conductors.  The recommendations of this essay are focused on the work of choosing members for a long-term appointment to a professional, semi-professional, or professional-level community ensemble that will give a number of performances over the course of a season or several seasons.

It is important to understand that a fine choral organization is both a company of quality voices and excellent musicianship, but also a tapestry of personalities and inter-personal relationships.  The choral instrument is unique from any other in music, because the instrument itself is comprised of the expressive heart, soul and mind of each and every human thread that forms the tapestry.  Though it may be contrary to conventional wisdom for many, it is the conductor’s responsibility to appoint the best person available to strengthen, diversify, and enrich that choral fabric.  The audition is the process by which he or she works to accomplish that goal.

Understand that the audition is a consideration of the whole person.  The process begins when the first inquiry is received by the choral organization.  The conversation may come in the form of an email, a phone call, or a discussion following an event.  In the course of the interaction it is critically important that the traditions, the goals, the expectations, and the blessings of serving the choral art in this particular ensemble are clearly communicated.  It is equally important that the organization’s representative be trained to listen carefully to the response of the candidate and to consider the compatibility of the individual with the musical family.  It is always best if this important initial screening is conducted by the Music Director, or by the director’s most trusted associates if the director is unavailable.

It is important that the audition candidate be evaluated as to their ability and willingness to follow instructions in the context of the particular organization’s style of communication.  For example, to save rehearsal time, many choral organizations communicate in written form through handbooks, newsletters and/or social media.  If it becomes apparent during the audition that a particular candidate has not carefully read materials assigned to him or her, that fact should be strongly considered in making an appointment decision.

The candidate, the choral organization, and the audition process should be treated with utmost respect.  Both the candidate and the audition panel should honor the process by dressing professionally.  The candidate should be greeted by a well-trained proctor who is prepared to assist with document preparation and ready to answer any questions.  The audition room should be private and well organized.  Communications between the choral ensemble and the candidate should be timely, consistent and professional in presentation.  Likewise, follow-up communication should be gracious, informative and professional.

Solos performed in auditions should be simple.  Many choral organizations assign a complex aria and provide an accompanist to assist in the audition.  In most cases the quality of the voice, the capacity to sing in tune, the understanding and demonstration of expressiveness, and the clarity of enunciation can be heard just as well, if not better, when the candidate sings a simple a cappella hymn or folk song.  Even more, the voice can be heard more clearly, and musicianship can be evaluated more accurately, when the voice is heard alone without piano, and without the distraction of vocal gymnastics.

It is important to determine how the candidate for membership performs in ensemble.
  Placing the candidate in a 4-part or 8-part hymn or chorale will demonstrate how the candidate responds to the presence of other voices.  Does the candidate seek to sing cooperatively with other voices?  How does the candidate nuance intonation when placed in ensemble?  Are there negative changes in vocal timbre that are revealed?

It is critically important that the audition proceed exactly the same, no matter the obvious strength or weakness of a particular singers’ candidacy. Quite frankly, in many cases, within the first few minutes of the audition it is obvious to the panel that a particular candidate is likely to pass or fail the audition. Most importantly, it is a sign of respect to a singer who has submitted themselves to a highly personal and intimidating process.  Though rare, there have been occasions when an audition that began with exceptional strength or exceptional weakness has concluded with an unexpected result.  Finally, when handled properly on the part of the candidate and the panel, every audition is a significant learning experience.

The audition should conclude with sincere expressions of appreciation and with a clear agenda for follow-up.  Each member of the panel should personally thank the prospective chorus member for honoring the ensemble by presenting as a candidate for membership.  It should be clearly stated to the candidate when and by what means the results of the audition will be communicated.  Once stated to the candidate, the process for advisement of the audition results should be followed without fail.  If  the audition was unsuccessful, the organization’s policy for sharing specific comments, scores, and recommendations for additional study should be communicated.  If appropriate, contact information for other choral organizations in the community that are considering new members should be provided.

Every person who interfaces with the staff and culture of a choral ensemble carries the legacy of that ensemble into the wider community.  In most recruitment seasons, significantly more singers who audition for a particular ensemble are turned away than are appointed to chorus membership.  If the process of audition has demonstrated the highest levels of graciousness and professionalism, every area of the choir’s reputation in the community will be enriched.

Article by Special Contributor William O. Baker, DMA

Founder and Music Director of The William Baker Choral Foundation

William Baker Festival Singers

Author, The Leipzig Door 

The Voice of the Very Young Child: Birth to 5 Years Part 2: The Physical Ability to Sing

Anyone who has heard a child improvise melodies from the crib knows it is a precious sound. Little ones can babble repetitive songs with pitch accuracy as early as the age of ten months. It’s likely these children have been sung to and/or have heard singing frequently during the pre-birth and early infant years. What are the basic requirements needed for children to learn to sing?

The physical ability to sing depends on the degree of normal and healthy development of the vocal mechanism (larynx, vocal folds, breathing apparatus), and on one’s neuro-biological ability to process music pitch.

In a 2006 study, a John’s Hopkins team studied marmoset monkeys using a technique that measures the electrical activity of individual neurons in the brain.  The researchers viewed each neuron’s reaction as different notes were played by a computer.  The researchers were able to discern that a majority of pitch-selective neurons are located in a specific region of the monkey’s brain near the primary auditory cortex, a region already known to interpret sounds.

“A tiny primate, the marmoset, appears to process pitch perception the same way we do, implying that the ability evolved in a common ancestor at least 40 million years ago.

60-Second Science

60-Sec Science Link

“The auditory cortex has traditionally been thought to detect the complex spectrum contained within a sound; for example, they thought…one set of neurons responded only to a trumpet and another set to a violin, even if playing the same note,” says Wang.  “But the neurons were found to respond to a single musical note, regardless if played by a trumpet or violin.”

What about pitch matching?

It has been observed there are a set of “pre-skills” a child must learn along the way to her being able to develop the ability to match pitch.  Past research verifies the need for these skills:

  • Children must develop awareness of the sensations of singing.

TO DO: Help discovery of these feelings by directing the child to feel the vibrations in her chest while vocalizing in various registers. Draw attention to the sensations of chanting and of singing. Rather than instructing or telling, discovery is the key here.

  • Children must be able to verbally describe their own vocal sounds and that of others.

TO DO: Encourage children to distinguish between whispering, calling, singing and speaking.

  • Children must be able to produce a variety of vocal registers and voice qualities.

TO DO: Experiment play with making environmental and animal sounds.

Range and Pitch Accuracy

“Children should not be expected to sing in the same ranges, with the same intensity, for the same periods of time as adults.”  (Miller, Page 29)

Songs for children should be pitched to around D Major. Since many music textbooks have lowered the pitches of songs to middle C or below, teachers must re-pitch them to a higher key for vocal health and pitch accuracy reasons. Children age 5 or younger usually cannot sing a middle C without engaging in pressed phonation. Start songs in a narrow range: D4 to A4 is recommended for our youngest students. Assess development and then add B4 and C5. Prior to puberty: B-flat below middle C to E or F at top of treble clef are now the recommended limits for most children.

Kinesthetics and Pitch Accuracy

Many researchers recommend using movement to assist in learning pitch accuracy.

  • TO DO: Use movement to describe high pitch and low pitch.
  • TO DO: Encourage children to follow music contour though dance or movement of the arms and body.
  • TO DO: Curwen Hand Signs can be used to associate movement with pitch.



By Scanned and enhanced by Matthew D. Thibeault – (Original text: John Curwen Standard Course (1904 edition, public domain))If the date is 1904, the author may be John Curwen (died 1880) or his son John Spencer Curwen (died 1916)., Public Domain,

Most children are born with the physical ability to sing, and most children innately love playing with their voice. This is most likely true for children have been sung to and/or have heard singing frequently during the pre-birth and early infant years. Use your voice, and watch the precious vocal development of  the  young children you teach.

Article by Author Jamea J. Sale, MME, Education Director:    JSale@ Institute for Healthy Singing with the William Baker Choral Foundation; Voice Specialist, Allegro Choirs of Kansas City


Bendor, D; Wang, X.(2005). The neuronal representation of pitch in primate auditory cortex.  Nature. Vol. 436. pp. 1161-1165.

Bennett, P. (1986). A responsibility to young voices. Music Educators Journal, 73, 33–38.

Bertaux, B. (1989). Teaching children of all ages to use the singing voice, and how to work with out-of-tune singers. In D. L. Walters & C. C. Taggart (Eds.), Readings in music learning theory (pp. 92–104). Chicago: GIA Publications.

Marra, J. (2018). Research shows where brain interprets “Pitch”. Retrieved from

Miller, R. (2004) Solutions for Singers: Tools for Performers and Teachers. Oxford University Press.

Mina, C. (2009). The Musical Development of the Child.

Mizener, C.P. (2008). Our Singing Children: Developing Singing Accuracy General Music Today, Vol. 21, 3: pp. 18-24.

Philips, K. (1992). Teaching Kids to Sing. Schirmer.

Thurman, L, Grambsch, E. (2002) Foundations for human self-expression during prenate, infant, and early childhood development. Bodymind & Voice, Vol. 3. VoiceCare Network, Collegeville, MN.

Trollinger, V. (2003). Relationships between Pitch-Matching Accuracy, Speech Fundamental Frequency, Speech Range, Age, and Gender in American English-Speaking Preschool Children. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51(1), pp. 78-94.

Voice Anatomy for the Choir Classroom – Demonstrations and Activities

This article submitted by contributing author Jennifer Berroth~

“In chorus, it would probably help a lot if teachers talked about the physiology of the voice . . . I think choral teachers underestimate how much students are able to understand.” Student subject quoted in Freer, P. (2009). Boys’ description of their experiences in choral music.

The kid nailed it. We should never assume students are too young to understand the anatomy and the physiology of the voice. The voice is an instrument, but it’s an instrument that is hidden from the eye. It is an instrument in that it is an extension of our bodies – and thus our identities.

Because of this, singing is an intensely personal activity. When we ask our students to sing, we are asking them to be vulnerable. If, then, they open their mouths and the results don’t match expectations, what supports do we offer to counter this vulnerability? What if we arm them with the tools to recognize, diagnose, and correct missteps? In other words, what if they knew more about the anatomy and physiology of singing?

As teachers of the performing arts, it may seem scary or intimidating to teach a lesson that feels a lot more like science. But why deny young singers the chance to take on more accountability of their voices? Here are a few ideas on how to get started:

1. Present a Basic Voice Anatomy Powerpoint [1] to your classes, which I do at the beginning of the first semester. I credit fellow Developing Voice contributor Jamea Sale, for providing me with the Powerpoint my first year of teaching.

Teach students the correct terms for the larynx and then USE those terms in your daily teaching as well. I tell my students that I don’t expect them to remember every single muscle, bone and cartilage, but it’s important that they hear the words and visually see the anatomy of the larynx.

P R O J E C T S   f o r  t h e  C L A S S R O O M 

credit Dr. Patrick Freer for sharing these activities; original source unknown.

Bernoulli Effect [2]

Younger grade levels:
Take two long, thin strips of paper and put them up beside either corner of your mouth. Then blow air very quickly between them. The strips of paper will be forced
together by the negative pressure created by the airflow. This model demonstrates what happens when air passes through our vocal folds and the pressure causes them to adduct for us to phonate.

IMG_3082-1-410420230-1526127543127.jpgBernoulli 2

Try the same demonstration with a hair dryer:
Tape two pieces of paper to either side of a hair dryer. Again, when you turn the
hair dryer on the negative pressure between the two pieces of paper causes the
papers to adduct together just like the vocal folds.

For this activity you’ll need:
1. A clean, dry Gatorade bottle
2. Scissors
3. Tape
4. Two balloons
Step 1. Cut 1/4th of the bottom of the bottle with the scissors. I have found through
experience that Gatorade bottles are easiest to cut with scissors. You will still need tohelp young students get the cutting started.

Build a Lung 1.

Step 2a. Tie the end of one balloon into a knot.

Build a lung. 2a.
Step 2b. Then cut off about 1/4th of the larger end of the balloon.

Build a Lung 2b.

Step 3. Wrap the open part of the balloon around the bottom, open end of bottle. This is where you put tape around the circumference of the balloon to make it stay.

Build a Lung 3.
Step 4. Take the second balloon and put the larger part down through the inside of the bottle then wrap the open, small end of the balloon around the lip.

Build a Lung 2b.Build a Lung 3.
You’re finished! You should be able to pull on the end of the “diaphragm” balloon and the “lung” balloon will expand and fill with air.

Build a Lung. 4a.Build a Lung. 5.


If you want to really drive home the importance of not smoking show them a picture of laryngeal cancer…but only if your class can handle it! Spoiler alert: It’s pretty gross!

These activities alone won’t improve tone or range, but they provide a foundation of knowledge that students will need in order to address deficiencies in their technique. They represent a starting point on the road to understanding the mechanics of the voice. Future posts will address more specific strategies you can use with your students, but as with anything, start with the basics and keep it simple!


Pro-Singing Voice, LLC. (2012). Images.

Sale, J. (2013). Basic Voice Anatomy.

Freer, P. (2005).  Success for Adolescent Singers~Unlocking the Potential in Middle School Choirs. Choral Excellence.