A Band Director’s Guide to Teaching Choir

Guide to Teaching Choir

In an ever-shifting job market, the ability to teach both band and choir has become a necessity for many music educators. Combined with the considerable research touting the benefits of singing for instrumentalists, it is clear that many band directors can benefit from learning more about basic choral pedagogy. Luckily, there are exercises that easily bridge the gap between band and choir, ways to leverage existing repertoire, and even opportunities for sharing technique.

Using Good Vocal Technique

Introducing vocal techniques that promote register unification and encourage effective breath management are essential strategies for strengthening your singers’ musical capabilities. Vocalists can borrow from the brass in order unify the vocal registers (Ex 1). The unification of registers also helps singers achieve the breath management required to navigate the passaggio (vocal break).

Ex. 1 (to be sung at a slow tempo with varied rhythms)

Derrick Fox Example 1A common misnomer related to breath management is that singers can control the diaphragm in the inhalation process. This misinformation is perpetuated by the usage of the phrase “sing from the diaphragm.” The movement of the diaphragm in the inhalation process is an involuntary action akin to how the heart knows when to beat. The brain sends a signal to the diaphragm to contract, beginning inhalation.

Activities that Inspire Low Breath Inhalation

  1. “Hot mashed potato breath,” where you pretend to inhale air as if you are cooling hot food on your tongue.
  2. “Filling up a glass,” where you visualize the air filling the lungs from the bottom to the top.

Efficient breath management is essential for fostering the musical growth of your singers. Avoid using the phrase breath “control” as it is likely to encourage your singers to contract their abs in the production of tone. The benefits of breath management include building stamina through increasing the duration of the sustained note, encouraging breath management and NOT breath control, and strengthening tone.

Again, choirs can borrow from brass players, who often buzz the mouthpiece to practice breath management. Long tone exercises, referred to as messa di voce in the choral world, can also be quite successful in developing effective breath management for your vocalists. Messa di voce is characterized as singing a on a single sustained note maintaining consistent resonance and vibrato (pitch variation) while evenly increasing and then decreasing volume throughout the note (Ex. 2). One can also make this exercise more interesting for the singer by utilizing a four part singing texture (Ex. 3).

Ex. 2Derrick Fox Example 2c

Ex. 3Derrick Fox Example 3c

These exercises provide opportunities to incorporate kinesthetic learning and reinforce musicianship through the exploration of dynamic contrast. The consistent implementation of vocal techniques that foster the unification of registers and development of effective breath management should be at the core of all vocal music programs.

Starting Each Rehearsal Strong

Rehearsal planning is essential for setting you and your students up for success on a daily basis. Well-planned warm-ups are staples of the band and choral rehearsal but introduction of words and the necessity for classroom proficient piano skills bring new challenges to instrumentalists who teach vocal music. Vocal warm-ups should engage the voice and the ear. Exercises for engaging the voice should focus on range and tone. The Happy Go Lucky exercise allows your male singers to explore their falsetto and your female singers to work on bringing the head voice down, avoiding belting (carrying the chest voice too far up in the vocal range). (Ex. 4). This exercise should be shifted in key as to allow the singers to improve tone throughout the vocal spectrum and for developing range extension.

Ex. 4: Happy Go Lucky – sung on a sustained syllable “bee”Derrick Fox Example 4

Exercises for engaging the ear can aide singers in improving their vowel unification, vowel modification and personal intonation.

Exercises for Engaging the Ear

Activity: sing descending solfege scale

  1. Encourages vowels unification – singing the vowel the same way
  2. Helps improve la, fa, re – the AH and EH vowels tend to spread creating poor tone and flatness
  3. Tackles the increase in weight of voice – encourage singers to not press or force the tone as the execute this exercise

Activity: Sing an ascending scale on solfege

Do, do-re, do-re-mi, do-re-mi-fa, etc…  (Borrowed from marching bands)

  1. Have singers practice using the flipped “r” in order to eliminate the American “r” that is problematic when singing foreign languages. The American “r” is called the retroflex “r” because the tongue tip is raised and the tongue is back (ex: rose, red, and river). The flipped “r” is much like the British pronunciation of the words “berry” (bed-dy) and “very” (ved-dy).
  2. Encourages intervallic integrity and singers will sing better in tune with themselves

The introduction of words/text in the choral setting marks one of the largest differences between the choral and vocal rehearsal. Rhythmic execution of consonants is vital for clarity of diction and text projection.

Tips for Improving Rhythmic Execution of Consonants

  1. Students should count sing
  2. Students should snap at the releases
  3. Students should practice voiced and non-voiced consonants
  4. Speak the text dynamically and rhythmically and transfer the results into their singing.

Directors should also have an understanding of vowel unification and modification. Incorporating vowel unification teaches singers to “match vowels,” while vowel modification give singers the option of opening a vowel or closing a vowel in order to allow the healthiest phonation possible throughout the entire vocal range. Generally as singers are higher in the tessitura, the vowel can be more open and while singing in the lowers ranges vowels can be more slender/closed.

The quality of a singer’s musicianship is most obvious in the way they being and end words or phrases. Vowel unification and modification are two ways to set your singers up for musical success. I also encourage directors to know the translation of all text in a foreign language in order to help students have a better understanding of the text they are singing. This will also help you avoid having students be aware of any awkward or inappropriate words before you can address or modify them.

The final key for finding success in the choral classroom as instrumentalists is through developing you CLASSROOM piano proficiency. Most music teachers are required to pass a piano proficiency but knowing all of required scales and accompanying a solo instrument does not prepare one to teach from behind piano. Piano proficient and classroom piano proficient are quite different.

Tips for Improving Your Piano Skills

  1. “Add a part” technique for open score reading
    1. Learn the bass part (outlines the harmonic structure)
    2. Then add the soprano vocal line (generally the melody)
    3. Next add the alto or tenor part (whichever is easiest to play with the soprano and bass part)
    4. Finally add the fourth part once all voices are secure and drop the soprano part because it is the melody and the singers will have mostly likely learned it via the previous repetitions
  2. Music learning aides (technology aides)
    1. Create vocal tracks with technology
    2. Search for YouTube tracks
    3. Visit http://www.cyberbass.com/
  3. Simplifying piano parts (chording)

Write in chord symbols in the piano part and forgo trying to play the piano part as written. This will allow you to maintain the harmonic rhythm for the student, which will help reinforce what you have already taught.

Most instrumentalists who find themselves teaching choral music must subscribe to the school of “Do It All,” meaning you are the choral director, band director and private lesson teacher for many students. We may not be fortunate enough to live in areas where the resources are available to provide students with supplemental musical instruction and if we do, our students may not be able to afford those services. We have to continue to grow our knowledge base so that we can effectively and efficiently provide the necessary instruction our students need in order to support their musical growth. The practical methods outlined in this article will equip you with the tools to successfully employ these techniques in your choral classroom.

Additional Resources

Language/IPA:  Diction for Singers by Joan Wall

Comprehensive source with many ideas: Directing the Choral Music Program by Kenneth H. Phillips

Score Prep/Rehearsal Planning:

  • Choral Conducting/Teaching: Real World Strategies for Success by Sandra Snow
  •  Foundations of Choral Conducting by Kevin Fenton

Changing Voice:

  • Finding Ophelia’s Voice, Opening Ophelia’s Heart by Lynne Gackle
  • Strategies for Teaching Junior High and Middle School Male Singers by Terry Barnham

Dr. Derrick Fox is an assistant professor of choral music education and choral conducting in the Ithaca College School of Music. A native Arkansan, he earned his D.M.A. at Michigan State University, and has also taught choral music in Arkansas and Missouri.

Dr. Fox is an active soloist, having collaborated with various organizations across the US and Brazil, as well as a busy adjudicator and clinician. He currently serves as the Multicultural and Ethnic Perspectives Repertoire & Standards chair for the New York chapter of the American Choral Directors Association.

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