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:

https://www.bethsnotesplus.com/2013/01/one-bottle-of-pop.html

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.

Jennifer.Berroth@Gmail.com

 

Conducting A More Effective Audition

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

http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/musical-pitch-perception-may-have-long-evolutionary-history/

“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.

SingWithMe

Curwen_Hand_Signs_MT

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6874560

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@ HealthySinging.org Institute for Healthy Singing with the William Baker Choral Foundation; Voice Specialist, Allegro Choirs of Kansas City

REFRENCES:

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”. Hopkinsmedicine.org. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/Press_releases/2005/09_06_05.html

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.

The Voice of the Very Young Child (birth to 5 years)

The voice of the very young child (from birth to 5 years) is not like the voice of an older child or an adult, yet little ones enjoy singing and should be encouraged to sing. It’s not unheard of to observe little ones uttering repetitive songs with pitch accuracy, using babble syllables as early as the age of ten months. These children have likely been sung to and/or have heard singing frequently during the pre-birth and early infant years. Naturally, the physiological characteristics of the young child’s vocal apparatus will place constraints singing voice of the very young child:

• The infant vocal apparatus is small and funnel-shaped whereas the adult larynx is cylindrical and relatively heavy.

compare-anatomy

• The epiglottis (protective flap for that covers the windpipe as part of the swallow function) is omega-shaped rather than leaf-shaped and the cartilages of the infant larynx are soft.

Baby Larynx

The muscles needed for vocalization and the respiratory system are not completely formed for young children. In fact, the vocal ligament or elastic tissue inside of the vocal fold, is lacking at birth and only begins to develop between the ages of 1 and 4 years. [1]
• Vocal fold length in newborn infants measure a scant .24 – .31 inches!

Newborn Vocal Folds

• Very young children produce high and low sounds primarily by raising and lowering the larynx which is placed high in the vocal tract at birth. The cry of a newborn infant is pitched around B4 (500hz). Average vocal pitch remains the same for males and females until around age 7 when it settles at around D#4 (286hz) until the extraordinary vocal morph experienced in puberty.

 
• The laryngeal structure starts a gradual descent to around the 4th or 5th vertebrae by early adolescence. It grows quickly from birth to 3 years of age, and it continues a slower growth process through puberty.

“During the early years of life, the muscles and ligaments of the human vocal apparatus begin to develop, and vocal habits learned by children during this time help shape the vocal muscles that directly affect how the child uses the voice for speech and singing throughout life.” Valerie Trolinger (2003)

 
With all these differences it’s important to understand that these are formative years for the child voice, and it is not be handled like an adult voice. Healthy singing and lifetime singing means allowing the voice of the very young child to function and sound like a child.

[1] Vocal ligament binds the muscles together that cause registration events for singing. McKinney.

REFERENCES:
Foster, J., Dawson, J., Davis, P., & Dahlen, H. (2017). Airway suctioning for newborn infants at birth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: Plain Language Summaries. Issue 4. Art. No.: CD010332.
Kwong, K. (2015). Current updates on choanal atresia: Literature review. Frontiers in Pediatrics 3:52 (pp. 1-7).
McKinney, J. (2005). The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults: A Manual for Teachers of Singing and for Choir Directors. Waveland Press.
Sataloff, R. T., Spiegel, J., & Rosen, D. C. (1998). The effects of age on the voice. In R. Sataloff (Ed.), Vocal health and pedagogy (pp. 123-133). San Diego, CA: Singular Publishing.
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.

BUILD A WORKING LUNG AND DIAPHRAGM
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.

STROBOSCOPIC VIDEOS

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!

References:

Pro-Singing Voice, LLC. (2012). Images. https://www.google.com/search?q=Bernoulli+Pro+Singing+Voice+2012&newwindow=1&safe=active&rlz=1C1CHZL_enUS761US762&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjtuKy1-IbbAhVHslQKHXOPBY0Q_AUIDCgD&biw=1266&bih=585#imgrc=db7r9VNlHP7Q0M:

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

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