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This interactive forum invites questions, concerns, and even testimonials.  Members are choral directors, sight singing instructors, general music teachers and studio voice teachers who write honestly about experiences in lessons, classes and rehearsals.  We provide suggestions, materials and insight about music literacy with Bel Canto Solfeggio.  We cover everything choral, and topics include handsign work, solfeggio challenges, literature selection, (see our "Sure-Fire Winners" page) discipline, organizational techniques and ways to raise the level of your program.  We not only share those exciting moments when a choir "clicks" with the process, we than analyze why success is achieved, and how to learn from that achievement.

Our motto:  YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

Below is a sample from a recent weekly newsletter:

JOHN:  I Love to Sing, colleagues,

Do you? We have an interesting question from A. M., in Ohio.

ABBY:  Hi John,

We just presented our March concert, and both my middle school choir and my high school choir were recorded by an enthusiastic parent.  He handed me a DVD of the concert the next morning, so we viewed the DVD in each rehearsal.  To be blunt, the video revealed expressionless groups of automatons doing their absolute best, but they appeared lifeless and wooden.  After school, I played the DVD again, and I have to admit the depressing fact that my kids are not at all expressive!  Not visually, not vocally.  They looked frozen in time.

What can I do to improve this?

JOHN:  Great query, A., as expression - our ART - is the point of all we do, isn't it?  Do you Love to Sing?  I do, and I keep active by singing in an a cappella quintet (at age 70, by the way).  This keeps me in touch with how it feels to freely express text and music while blending with the other singers.  I apply a healthy voice regimen and sing from memory, so I can identify with how your singers feel in rehearsal and in concert.  An overwhelming sense of euphoria takes possession of me when I sing with confidence.

Confidence is key!

We focus on all the teaching elements, and we plan lessons around solid educational practice, yet are we in fact singing ourselves?  I am willing to demonstrate what I want with my own voice.  If I can't sing that phrase well, how can I ask my students to sing it well?  Of course, true confidence is revealed only when solid fundamentals have been mastered.  I don't sing like Bryn Terfel, yet I strive to show by example rather than criticize from the podium.  If you are not proud of your own singing voice, please find time to get the fun back in singing, and question some of those gimmicks you foist upon your students. If you have a singing way about you, the students will respond to that.

Also, speaking freely - without tension - is the best way to maintain your one and only set of pipes.  It is important to set a good example of vocal health for your students, and it's crucial for you to maintain a healthy voice for yourself.  Take time to breathe before you speak. This allows you to gather your thoughts and deliver meaningful coaching.  I've known choral directors who live the ultimate irony by developing nodes or scar tissue due to vocal abuse while teaching!  Please lead by example.

Some teaching suggestions:

Ask someone to record you from the back of the room while you teach and conduct.  Review the recording, and notice how expressive you are - visually, (face and body language) vocally (talking too much?) and aesthetically.  Often, students reflect your character back to you.

Develop expressive handsign chops.  Show the style as well as the pitch, and react to what you get from them.  They respond to you, you respond to them - an expressive cycle - and always help them keep life in their tone.

Never lead the same pattern the same way.  Always vary the style, the tempo, the articulations, etc.  This is true when singing choral literature as well as during warm-ups.  Dull repetition is death to expression.  They switch to auto-pilot, they tune out, and you've lost the very reason you get together in the first place.

Cut the verbiage.  Say things like:  "Bar 29 - watch" . . . then go.   Show what you want, how to breathe, phrase, stylize, etc.  The more you ramble on, describing each detail at length, the less involved they become.  Change what you show the next time - keep them on their toes!

Use movement as an expressive element as well as the rhythm and meter foundation.  If the piece has eighth-note syncops, step-touch eighths, then move the feet to quarters later, then move to half-notes if in 2/2 time.  This way they get the FEEL, the harmonic rhythm, the essence of the composer's intended affect.

Movement II - if they are mature enough, take them to a large space, ask them to move freely about the room or stage or corridor or gym while singing the piece.  Invite them to express the story of the piece, with expressive gestures and facial expressions as well as voices.  Try this with an accompanied piece the first time, and make sure they are sincere as they experiment with their interpretations. 

The text.  Full disclosure:  I introduce the text before the first read, but I wait to examine the text in depth until after the piece is in good shape.  We need to save time for internalizing the meaning of the text, and that involves questions from you with honest ideas from them.  Pose open questions, to avoid "wrong answers".  Take the fear away with phrases like "what are your thoughts about the first two lines of poetry?".  Or, "have you experienced anything like this situation yourself?"  "Write down a paragraph summarizing your 'take' on this message, and bring it to class tomorrow".

Do not mouth the words!  Mouthing the words creates dependent automaton singers.  Do you want confident individuals singing in your choir or puppets who are transfixed by the movement of your lips?

You are more than a sight singing instructor, so always treat them as singers, not choristers.  I see choirs where the singers are herded around like cattle in a stockyard, with everything controlled and dictated.  Yes, you want quiet and cooperation, yet you can build from that platform when you address them as singers who are learning a craft.  You help them with their individual challenges and concerns, and the onus is on them.  Help them own the music.

Don't be the "Rage on the Stage".  Be the "Guide on the Side".  When you cue, "touch eyes" with a different person in each section each time you cue.  I try to "touch eyes" with everyone in the room during each rehearsal.

Ask the singers to conduct while singing the piece.  Cajole them into showing each arch, each dynamic change, each articulation with face and hands.  You don't want them to get out of hand, yet they need a safe platform where they can let go and express.

Stop conducting!  When they are ready, of course.  Start the piece, step off the podium, watch and listen.  Let them take ownership of the music.  I usually feature at least one piece on a program with no conductor, the singers connecting directly with the audience.  They will surprise you!

Authentic expression develops when the singers take over the experience.  You reveal trust when you step aside.  They have the opportunity to lead, to create, to interpret when you stop dictating everything.  Who knows?  You might eventually have them sing a certain piece with you by the side in concert!  Nothing like singer to listener, eyeball to eyeball, a direct connection with your audience during performance.

A follow-up note from C. F. regarding "inTONEation":

C.F:  Thank you, John! I plan to try a bit of this with the choir today - I must play the piano less!  So many good reminders and tips in your email... We will practice "listening louder" today.

Also, a quick question on descending chromatic lines: should they sing La So Se Fa Mi or La So Fi Fa Mi? I would think So to Se because it is descending, but I would think So Fi Fa because they "know" about Fi and not so much about Se. I'd love to hear what you do.


John:  I would use Fi, and not worry about theoretical correctness.  The vowel is placed more forward, the handsign looks "uplifting", and they can identify the color and forward placement of the EE vowell in Fi to So to match Ti to Do and keep that half-step tiny.
Keep singing, colleagues!

- John