Directors' Toolbox

Vocal Health: How Choral Directors Can Help Students

October 2, 2018

One of the most important but sometimes overlooked jobs of a choral director is to help their students take care of their voices. With the stress of repertoire preparation and the other time-consuming aspects of our job, it can be something that we cognitively recognize but don’t necessarily have the time or energy to pursue. Our students, no matter the age, are going through critical times in their vocal development. We ask a lot of them vocally – range, projection, volume, facial expression, blend, tone, and many other skills – and we need to help them protect their voices and learn to care for them in a healthy way.

Discovering Their Voices

One challenge choral directors face is to help students find their unique voice. Our young students of course hear all different types of voices as they listen to pop music or stream music from Broadway shows, and it can be very confusing for them to distinguish healthy sounds from improperly produced sounds. Their first inclination is to try to mimic what they hear and like, but they generally lack the vocal technique to produce many of these sounds in a healthy way. Students may become misinformed about what their voices “should” sound like, especially since their voices are still growing and developing. They may be tempted to push their voices and belt in ways that aren’t healthy for them.

Vocal students, particularly at a young age, need to be aware of how some “typical” behaviors can harm their voices. This includes screaming, which can cause damage when done improperly, and speaking in a vocal range lower than normal, also known as vocal fry, which can create bad vocal habits. It is crucial for choral directors to take the time to help students find their individual vocal sound – teaching and encouraging them to apply proper vocal technique, as well as positively reinforcing that it is more than okay for them to sound this way. Developing an age-appropriate sound, rather than one that is too mature for our developing students, should be the goal of their vocal development throughout their school-age years.

One way to reinforce these concepts with our students is to approach vocal training the same way you would teach a student to play an instrument. I often tell my students that “I’m not teaching you how to play an instrument; I’m teaching you how to BE an instrument.” When they grasp this concept, it really helps them understand the importance of posture, breath support, hydration, adequate rest, and general care of their bodies. It IS their instrument.

I also encourage my voice students to have a bottle of water with them at all times during rehearsals, class, and practice time. Water to the voice is as critical as valve oil or grease to a brass instrument. Proper hydration is critical for overall health, but it’s more important during active singing. From there, you can spring into the fundamentals of healthy vocal production with a relaxed and natural tone, pure vowel shapes, and healthy warm-ups.

I often tell my students that “I’m not teaching you how to play an instrument; I’m teaching you how to BE an instrument.”

Warm-ups

For developing voices, I often begin warm-ups with sighs, lip buzzing, and descending exercises that encourage them to access their head voices first. I’m careful though not to spend too much time on warm-ups. The time of day in which the class or lesson is held can help determine how long to spend on warm-ups. For example, I taught on a rotating schedule, which meant that I would see my choirs at various times during the entire school day across a six-day schedule. When I saw them first thing in the morning, I would incorporate physical warm-ups to activate the body, as well as vocal warm-ups to awaken vocal flexibility. I would include music literacy in the form of sight-singing as part of the warm-up.

As the rehearsal time progressed to later in the day, the emphasis would be less on warming up and more on vocal flexibility, vowel consistency, placement, and intonation. The total amount of time spent on warm-ups would also decrease as the rehearsal time became later in the day due to the fact that students actively use their voices more in the course of normal communication throughout the day.

Listening Skills

An equally important concept for students to grasp is the listening part of their vocal development. Students need to learn how to listen to themselves and accurately assess the sound they are making. They should be able to discern pitch and intonation, but also the type of tone and vowel sounds they are making. This helps them become more comfortable and consistent with the type of sounds they create.

I have found that students are often relieved to find out that their perceived vocal troubles are just as likely to be stemming from their ear as from their mouth. This is a crucial part of helping them to accept themselves, develop their own unique sound, and maintain a healthy voice. From there, they can learn to listen to the people around them in their ensemble. They can listen for blend, pitch accuracy, tone, and uniform vowel sounds within their ensemble.

Changing Voices

Another challenge for educational choral directors is to help their students sing through the changing voice transition while maintaining a healthy voice. This can be a defining issue of teaching this age group. Voice changes can be early or late, sudden or gradual, quick or prolonged, extreme or minor. Encouraging our students through these challenges is paramount to creating lifelong singers who will continue to sing in our programs and become music enthusiasts as adults.

Again, encouraging students to be self-accepting and creating a safe space for sound exploration and change is important in the rehearsal room. Letting students know that this is a normal and necessary part of their vocal development can really help them maintain a positive attitude through the transition. Continue to apply all the principles expressed above, and teach them how to utilize their head voice as the foundation of their healthy vocal production.

Sore Throats and Sinus Woes

Additional challenges for choral directors arise during certain seasons of the school year. There’s allergy season, cold and flu season, and musical theatre season! Continuing to cement and maintain healthy vocal habits is more important than ever through these rough patches in the school year. Encourage your students to utilize their head voice and to avoid certain over-the-counter products while they are singing – some of these can mask symptoms or cause harm to the voice, such as vocal anesthetics and vocal analgesics.

During cold and allergy season when sore throats can flare, recommend non-menthol cough drops. As detailed in a takelessons.com blog: “Menthol, the active ingredient in most cough drops, numbs your throat. It’s just like taking a painkiller to mask pain from an injury. The injury isn’t gone; you just don’t feel it (and are therefore more likely to do further damage). Menthol can also be drying, which is the last thing you want if you have a sore throat.” Hydration is critical during these seasons, as well as achieving adequate rest for the body.

Water to the voice is as critical as valve oil or grease to a brass instrument. Proper hydration is critical for overall health, but it’s more important during active singing.

With all the activities in which students participate, choir might be the one place they can learn to use their voice in a healthy way. As their directors, our students’ long-term health and well-being are a primary concern, and assisting them in understanding how their voice works and how to care for their voices now will yield benefits for a lifetime of music making.

For more information, view some helpful books and resources.

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