Unification of Your Choir’s Vowels

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.Vowel.Gestures (2)

Jamea Sale, Contributing Author: JSale@FestivalSingers.org

Student model compliments of Allegro Choirs of Kansas City.

Continue reading Unification of Your Choir’s Vowels

7am Children’s Choir Rehearsal?

Honor Choir coming before school to rehearse? How do you structure the vocal warm up? Is the warm up the same as the afternoon class? Should the warm up at 7am be the same as the vocal warm up at 7pm? This video shows how  to get the brain, body and voice engaged so the early morning rehearsal is the most productive it can be.

In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.

Your Body is Your Instrument.

Keeping in great physical shape is a professional necessity for singers.

Exercise improves singing by increasing your cardiovascular strength and breath stamina. A good sweat stimulates your endorphins and strengthens overall muscle tone.  If you chose the right kind of exercise at the right time of day, you will feel relaxed, clearheaded, and invigorated.

Recommended Exercise for Singers


One of the best exercises for singers is swimming. It conditions your heart and lungs, strengthens your abdominal and rib muscles, and increases your breath capacity.

Martial Arts and Yoga

Both of these can help with stage anxiety. Body alignment, breath control, power confidence and energy will also improve. Yoga can further help with strength, balance, mental clarity, concentration and relaxation. Tai Chi, a fluid Chinese martial art, can teach you to center your energy while building a sense of connection to the breath.

Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) possess greater volume in people who exercise as opposed to people who don’t.

What’s good for the heart is good for the brain . . .

  • Aerobic exercise improves brain function, but also acts as a “first aid kit” on damaged brain cells.
  • Exercising in the morning before going to work not only spikes brain activity and prepares you for mental stresses throughout the day, but also produces increased retention of new information, and better reaction to complex situations.
  • Hitting a wall or mentally exhausted? Try rebooting with a few jumping jacks for your brain improvement exercises.


Active brain cells stimulate a better blood supply so cells get more oxygen and nutrients. With increased connections, cells get more stimulation and generate more activity.

Breathing is a function that is fortunately controlled by our bodies autonomic nervous system. Autonomic control means that our body can effectively regulate respiration without us having to consciously think about every breathe we take. Basically, for the majority of our day our diaphragm and lungs are on cruise control.

Early Morning Sequential Vocal Warm-Up

Structure your vocal warm up to include movement to stimulate circulation, engage the diaphragm, and jump-start the brain with exercises that make the brain think.

  • Body movement to call on the diaphragm to be more efficient – taking it out of cruise control.
  • Establish head voice, mixed voice, chest voice
  • Differentiate resonators from articulators
  • Aural training and intonation

Continue reading 7am Children’s Choir Rehearsal?

Keep Singing and Carry on!

Two videos [instructional and performance] attached ~

How well do you know your singer’s voice?

How do you know if each singer is really prepared for their upcoming performance?

Andrew Webb-Mitchell has created a process by which the performance will be guaranteed its greatest possible success . . .

the submission of MP3s – for each and every piece in the repertoire.

Yes! This can add an inordinate amount of time to the schedule especially for the staff that is assessing the submissions. The singers must also commit to personal practice time before submitting recordings in the hopes of scoring an 85 out of a scale of 100 on each piece.

Listening to these submissions helps the music staff understand the strengths and weaknesses of each singer as well as hear how the voice is developing. This aids in rehearsal planning, making the rehearsal more efficient for all.

If the singer does not receive a score of at least 85, the singer is not allowed to perform the piece on the concert. This ensures the performance will be presented at the highest level possible.

Five categories are graded on a scale of 1 – 5:

  • Melody (includes correct notes and rhythm)
  • Intonation
  • Diction
  • Breathing/Phrasing
  • Musicality (pleasing voice, dynamics, articulation, nuance, etc).

At least two staff members must review each submission. The average grade in each category are added together to arrive at the final grade.

Obviously, the more advanced ensembles produce the highest scores. If a score is not 85 or higher, the singers will continue to re-submit the piece. They receive specific feedback concerning the areas that need improvement. This is all conducted online.

In order to advance from chorus to chorus, a singer must submit between three and eight songs depending on the level of the singer and choir. Choristers are ranked first to last depending on the total average grade from the first to the most recent submission.

We have a few choristers that have submitted over fifty pieces. For every ten pieces a chorister scores a 90 or above, a gold star is given to be worn on the navy blue blazer which is sported at every rehearsal and performance.

Our repertoire covers periods of music from Renaissance to present day in the original language. Examples are: all movements of Vivaldi’s Gloria, Monteverdi’s O Domine Christe, Scarlatti’s O cessate di piagarmi, Beethoven’s Merkenstein, Perosi’s Ave Maris Stella, and all movements of William Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices.

All choirs are named for British composers but to reach the highest standing, one is awarded a place in Elgar Choir. Each singer in Elgar will have submitted more than forty MP3s with a grade of 85 or higher, but the singer must also have passed the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music’s level five theory which is offered at the centre by Andrew Webb-Mitchell, and assisted by other staff.

When a chorister is promoted to this level, the school will hold a small ceremony at the beginning of class. The bust of Elgar is placed on a pedestal. The singer is announced then comes forward during robust applause from fellow choristers. She or he is presented with a polished Elgar coin and given a star to add to the navy blue blazer. It is a revered and meaningful moment in the choral centre and endless praise is given to the singer. A great day of rejoicing for all!

This my comrades, is how choirs are invited to sing with the Israel Philharmonic Symphony, the Russian National Orchestra and for Princess Anne.

Keep Singing and Carry On!

To view our video “How to submit and MP3” created by choristers Erin and Lily please right click to highlight the link, then click “Go to https://v.qq.com/x/page/p05529mrhoo.html ” to view. If an advertisement appears, simply click on the “x” in the upper right corner of the screen. https://v.qq.com/x/page/p05529mrhoo.html

Photo Below: Constanze and I, our two laptops, and scores all function much better while scoring MP3s with natural light, plants and an open window to connect to the outside world.


Rehearsal Video: Britton, Elgar Combined Choirs with select members from Parry Choir and Parry + Choirs perform A Brief History of Choral Music at Central Conservatory in Beijing, November, 2017. The choir was invited to perform for the Tenth Annual International Chamber Music Festival. Portions of the concert were televised on Central Chinese Television Network. Works included compositions of Byrd, Monteverdi, Purcell, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Goodall and many more.

Britton, Elgar Combined Choirs with select members from Parry Choir and Parry + Choirs perform A Brief History of Choral Music at Central Conservatory in Beijing, November, 2017. The choir was invited to perform for the Tenth Annual International Chamber Music Festival. Portions of the concert were televised on Central Chinese Television Network. Works included compositions of Byrd, Monteverdi, Purcell, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Goodall and many more.


Just What Are My Vocal Folds Doing During Warm-Up?

All Voice Experts advocate warm-up exercises. The lack of a proper warm-up may contribute to vocal fatigue and even dysfunction in singers as well as anyone that uses the voice throughout the day. Poorly warmed-up voices are less durable and less sustainable!

What happens to the vocal folds during the warm-up?

Since the vocal folds contain muscle tissues as a major component they depend on efficient blood circulation in order to retain good function and viscosity. Good circulation is stimulated by a well-planned and methodical warm-up. All great athletes rely on efficient and optimal muscle function and therefore warm up their muscles as part of their initial exercise.

Just how does one warm up the voice? Believe it or not, it can be achieved in much the same way one prepares the body for a work out. This warm up includes:
• Full body movements to activate the breath, bring natural movement to the diaphragm and bring circulation to the pharynx and larynx
• Massage the jaw and facial muscles
• Gentle onsets with soft phonation using resonators
• Begin phonation with the head voice, then mixed register voice and finally chest voice
• Distinguish the articulators from the resonators by working: mouth, tongue, jaw, hard palate, etc.
• Integrate consonants with vowels and transition to forming words