Part 1: Preparing Your Singers
During my teaching career, I noticed that there were many music teachers who would have liked to have known more about teaching both band and chorus – perhaps in order to be considered for more job opportunities, but sometimes simply in order to DO or KEEP their current job.
Certainly the most desirable scenario would be that each area of music education – band, choir, orchestra, and general music – have a highly qualified, specialized instructor, but the reality is that many school districts either cannot afford or are unwilling to staff their programs in this manner. Additionally, most university programs do not have the time or program capacity to fully train music majors to instruct across all music disciplines with equal efficiency and effectiveness. Consequently, some teachers find themselves ill-prepared to teach in an area outside of their major because they lack the appropriate training. Perhaps you’re trained as a band director and you find yourself in a job where you are expected to teach a choral class, and the most training you’ve had is perhaps one or two semesters of voice. Here are a few suggestions to competently approach teaching chorus when trained as a band director. Remember, the goal is not perfection – but you want this to be a positive experience for you and your students.
Setting up and managing the choral room
Approaching a classroom of instrumental students and a classroom of voice students can be similar, but with some notable differences. Setup can typically be in rows, with sopranos in front on the left, basses directly behind them, altos in front on the right, and tenors in back. Several variations are possible; choose whatever works best for your singers. Oftentimes I would mix the singers up or set them up in quartets for variety.
Unlike their band counterparts, voice students do not have an external piece of hardware to assist with the creation of sound. It’s their mouths, in conjunction with their lungs and bodies, that are solely responsible for tones. This difference is one of the reasons that choirs can be more talkative than bands and can make for a disastrous rehearsal if you don’t plan proactively. Make sure you can move directly from one activity to the next without hesitation. Your skills as a disciplined instrumentalist and band director can be useful here, along with an effectively communicated classroom rehearsal procedure and a tighter pacing. Careful planning, as with purposeful and intentional instruction, is critical.
Breathing and warm-ups
Proper breathing is the foundation of creating a good, quality sound, whether through an instrument or by singing. As I explained it to my students, “There are two kinds of breathing: breathing to live and breathing to work. Breathing to live doesn’t require you to think, because obviously, you’ve got that one down! Breathing to work (in this case to sing), however, is very different and requires some thought.” I would then explain the process of breathing deeply by inhaling through the mouth with expansion of the rib cage as well as the lower abdomen, followed by a slow and thoughtful, regulated release of the air across the vocal folds with some slight use of the abdominal muscles to help produce a sustained pitch. Playing any wind or string instrument may use the same process, but the sustained pitch is always produced by an exterior medium: the vibration of a reed, buzzing of the lips into a mouthpiece, or the drawing of a bow across a string.
A student of the voice must learn how to properly use his or her own organic, natural medium (the vocal folds) to produce a sound, and doing it in a healthy fashion requires keeping the muscles around the face, neck and throat relaxed and free from tension. There are a myriad of exercises and warm-ups available to help your students begin to achieve this, but as their instructor it is important for you to model this form correctly. Even if you have had a few voice lessons in the past, it might be helpful to seek out a few private voice lessons with a trained colleague or voice instructor. Some of the first basic warm-ups I did with choirs were some of the same ones I used with bands – deep breathing followed by sustained long tones on a unison pitch. Here is a great resource for warm-ups.
When a student begins to learn how to play an instrument, the process of learning to read and interpret music typically starts immediately while learning to play the instrument. There are some exceptions, but for the majority of instrumentalists, reading music is a must and is typically taught early. Voice students tend to be treated differently. Most singing is experienced first in a classroom setting as rote singing. While this is a very natural way to teach singing in early grades, classroom and choral instructors often rely on rote teaching well into high school. This unfortunate pattern is experienced all too often in many schools around the country. Vocal students tend to learn to expect the teacher to play their line so they can hear it and learn it by listening only. This is a difficult habit to break in high school, especially when you have students coming from many different programs guided by teachers who may or may not have had music literacy as a priority.
Rote singing has its place, but to rely on it as a way of teaching choral music cripples the students and does them a grave disservice for their future as literate musicians. One of the first strategies you’ll want to execute after assessing the capabilities of your choir is to find and use a sight-singing method that includes an effective music literacy component. By this I mean regular practice reading notes either using solfege syllables or counting, along with daily practice of rhythmic patterns. From my experience, it’s more important that you choose a method and use it, rather than which method you choose. Musically literate students tend to be more respectful of the process of making good music due to their training, which can translate to greater respect and better behavior in the rehearsal room.
In Part 2, we’ll discuss choosing and rehearsing the music.