How does one obtain vowel unification in an ensemble? How do your singers know what you want? During a performance how do you communicate to the singers that the [a] needs to sound more like the [a] in the word “father”.
Using gestures is helpful to any singer and may even be necessary for those tactile learners in your choir to retain information and learn more easily.
There is a growing body of research indicating gestures and Kinesthetic Symbols used by teachers are powerful symbol systems that promote learning, retention, and transfer of learning. Gesturing is extremely important in cognition, problem solving, and cognitive development. Students who are taught to gesture as they learn, learn more. Merely observing the teacher gesturing during instruction increases achievement. Dr. Spencer Kagan
While working with my young Chinese singers it was apparent that we didn’t always transfer our unification of Latin vowels from our choral training exercises to the text in the music. You might imagine how often a singer may need to be reminded of what that sound should look like on their face especially if they are singing a foreign language.
The Latin taught at the Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies uses the long [o] as in the word “oval”. The children in particular, have been accustomed to singing through a small opening with their mouths. Much of the time, the top and bottom teeth are touching and the jaw is tense. I tell them singing with the mouth this closed is like trying to walk through a closed-door!
I can say fang4 song1 or relax all day, but it is easily forgotten as there is no part of their language that requires a relaxed tongue and jaw.
Dave Munger shares his experience witnessing the miraculous use of gestures although outside the context of singing – I was a member of my high school debate team, and I did fairly well, but my partner Glenn, always got better marks from the judges. Most often, they praised his hand gestures, which we proclaimed to be “expressive” and “informative.” One year our topic was arms control, and our opponents were arguing that “NATO standardization” could help reduce U.S.arms sales. Glenn didn’t understand their argument, so during our precious three minutes of preparation time, I explained it to him. Then he stood up and delivered his rebuttal, using the most graceful hand gestures imaginable. The judges unanimously said on their ballots that they thought Glenn understood the arguments better than any of the debaters on their side.
Could those hand gestures really be the key to Glenn’s high marks from the judges? Research suggests that the person doing the gesturing can learn more effectively than someone who doesn’t gesture while learning. Maybe during the course of his speech, Glenn actually did come to understand the argument better than anyone in the room.
In the choral setting, creating hand gestures for the five basic Latin vowels that are relevant to one’s culture may solve many problems. The Latin vowels we stress in choral training are [u], [o], [a], [e], [i]. In this culture, they often refer to their smiling muscles as ping2 guo3 or apple. Shaping the mouth as if biting into an apple solves many issues. What better way to remove tension than to smile.
Secondly, the [i] vowel is extremely bright among Chinese singers. They are taught in English class to over-emphasize the vowel which places the tone completely in the nose, bringing the top teeth in contact with the bottom and causing the jaw to clinch. To create a more pleasant tone, we alternate between placing our pinky finger between the teeth and pulling the hands floor to ceiling.
The most important thing for me in using gestures for vowels is that the gestures are easily made flowing naturally from one to the other.
You will see in the videos provided the gestures custom-created for my Chinese singers and then gestures created by other conductors for their choirs. The important thing to remember is to keep it simple and be consistent no matter what you decide is the most effective use of gestures.
Chorister Nikko demonstrates vowel hand gestures created for our Chinese young singers.
Niccole Winney, Music Educator: NMWinney@yahoo.com
Jamea Sale, Contributing Author: JSale@FestivalSingers.org
Student model compliments of Allegro Choirs of Kansas City.