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Why Settle for “Half a Singer"?  

            Are you in Survival Mode?  If you find yourself scraping along from concert to concert, barely keeping up with overwhelming commitments, noise in the room, or distracted singers - that’s survival mode.  The weight of the choir is on your shoulders - you push, you cajole, you grasp for incentives (trips, competitions, grades?) to motivate your singers.   We don’t have to accept “survival mode” as the norm - there is another way to go about this!

            Half a singer?  How do you identify a half-singer?  He tends to sneak in on entrances a half-beat late, without a decent breath.  She’s looking down exactly when you cue.  He’s talking while you’re talking.  She wanders in a bit late and never takes her folder home.  He acts like a typical “chorister”, and rarely auditions for solos.

            I often work with choral directors and their choirs, and I sometimes witness half-rehearsing along with half-singing.  That’s when I renew my resolve to develop “whole” singers by supporting whole teaching.  Who wants to be half a teacher?

            “Whole teaching” is my antidote to the degrading forces of today’s “entertainment” industry.  I find the term “rap artist” incredibly ironic.  I’m not about to hip-hop to deafening video violence and I never watch “American Idol”.  The stretch from karaoke to song-learning CDs is too close for comfort, and choral singers deserve more than passive mimicry.  Our singing culture hangs in the balance here, so don’t be fooled - singers in schools and colleges may hide it well, but they are desperate for structure.

Does the singer serve the choir, or does the choir serve the singer?

            The thrill of performance folks love so much in concert is exactly what l seek in each class and rehearsal every day.  More than concerts, more than competitions, more than trips or festivals, my question is “What has each individual singer learned, fall to spring, year to year, and how confident is that singer when he sings?”  Only when we commit to consistent fundamental instruction will each singer commit to disciplined learning.  Yes, we need those extrinsic activities to get things rolling with singers, yet we must balance those external group incentives with intrinsic personal motivation.  Let’s nurture an innate love for singing into a desire to learn, improve, and achieve.

            I want to develop confident singers who sing with feeling.  Confidence is gained by mastering fundamental skills with carefully laid foundations, and the bedrock for singers is music literacy.  A singer who reads and understands the signs and symbols of notation with fluency will sing more freely.  She is ready to create better tone, precise intonation and artistic expression - not from being “programmed” by rote - but by gaining a solid skill set with a vivid musical imagination.  She can read and perform music in any style from any period.  She owns the music.

            Time spent learning to read well does not interfere with a rehearsal - quite the opposite.  A continual investment in reading proficiency SAVES time.  To me, “program” means program of instruction, within my building, within my district, or even K - college where possible.  The performances are bright points along the learning curve, not the organizing force of my “program”.

              We need to introduce and perfect musicianship skills in singing ways, and the best process for that is solfeggio with handsigns.  An efficient rehearsal technician who has developed handsign/solfeggio “chops” teaches singers to see, hear, and shape tone with clarity and precision, without excess verbiage, and with quiet in the room.  Singers are singing every minute, discipline is not an issue, and the pace tends to be exhilarating.

            Of course, singers need to hear and produce the sound of each solfeggio syllable accurately while they form each sign with you before they can hope to decode those dots on the page.  They improve dramatically when they connect a clear vowel with a specific sign.  Each note develops a precise identity in the singer’s imagination.  The singer soon masters the relationship of that tone to other tones when we continually practice patterns that “stick” musically.  Handsigners learn to show and sing the contour of each phrase - they breathe, sign, and sing together. 

            We call this singing “In the Air”, and singers enjoy the subliminal rapport that builds back and forth, as they respond to you, and you react to them.  A deep, non-verbal communication develops as the singers look into you with great care, aware of minute facial expressions and subtle gestures.  They become highly sensitive to all those conducting nuances you hope to show in concert.

            Many teachers seem rushed about music reading, moving to the page before the building blocks are in place, so frustration - even failure - often occurs.  Worse, an accompanist may mask that failure by covering the parts, so singers lose the opportunity to discover their true powers, and they become passive.  If we’re not careful, the page becomes a source mostly for text or a cooling fan on warm days.

            Other directors will program pieces that are beyond the reading level of many singers, relying on a few gifted leaders (instrumentalists?) and a pianist to think, read, and count for the rest of the singers, who become “half-singers”.  Are they singing over their heads, without true comprehension?  Does the director act as “the source of all notes”?  Do the singers sit back and slouch?  “I Love A Piano”, but I rehearse a cappella pieces strictly a cappella .  Accompanied pieces are learned sans piano too, until right before the concert – then we temper our tuning to match that instrument.  If you become insecure about maintaining pitch and time without constant keyboard help, you might question their preparation for the music you’ve selected.  Notice the excitement level of the singers.
            If the learning program is logical, sequential, and fun, and if the music is within honest reach, singers become whole musicians, and teachers really teach.  You simply insist on gorgeous tone all the time.  Teachers need to link keys and meters from those beautiful warm-up sounds to successful sight-singing work to a disciplined rehearsal process with the choral literature.  The group gets better one singer at a time, and the singers keep singing long after they’ve graduated from your program.

Handsign/solfeggio Reveals Commitment

            A whole teacher will establish a program of solid fundamental instruction - consistent and appealing, so that all students will be challenged, yet find success at each level in their development.  Singers will sing at their best every day if they really know their stuff.  The choice is yours - do you program literature that forces you to “teach to the test” by concert time, or do you lay the groundwork for the future?  We have a vast choral repertoire that offers artistically appropriate music for singers to learn at every level, and if we’re smart, that level will continue to rise from fall to spring, year to year, and within a few years the most challenging pieces are well within reach.  Are you patient?  How long do you plan to teach?

            A whole singer will become independent and secure.  He will ask to take the music home because he is able to practice away from you, and he will look forward to that.  All he needs is whole teaching, so he can understand the score - the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts because the parts are in place.

            Why solfeggio?  Solfeggio - sung well - offers much more than “neutral” sounds.  With careful teaching of movable DO, each syllable vowel conveys rich information.  A proper “Oh” sound for DO and SO is full of rich “Oh”vertones, which offer a solid foundation for tonic and dominant “anchors”.  The “Ee” vowel can lead the singer to “place” all half-steps with correct intonation.  MI to FA, TI to DO, and all raised chromatics (DI, RI, FI, SI, LI) will lead favorably if nurtured with precision and bel canto tone.  FA and LA pose more of a challenge, “Ah” threatening to fall back in the throat, yet the FFFF aspirate can bring the “Ah” forward on FA, and the flip of the tongue on LA likewise - if taught well - can propel the “Ah” into a much better placement.  From my forty years of teaching experience at all levels, I can confidently state that 95% of singers gain the most by learning movable DO with relative pitch.

            This focus on vowel clarification with solfeggio enhances choral tuning.  A simple DO - MI - SO chord almost tunes itself if the MI singers are shown how to listen and blend.  Once singers can sing a piece in tune with clear, disparate vowels, they can tune beautifully later with uniform vowels on the text.

            I teach a Bel Canto approach with solfeggio all the way through each session, continually reinforcing tone and intonation, whether we sing warm-up patterns, a sight-reading exercise, or the actual choral music.  When ready, we also link the handsigns to the choral text - the singers are actually conducting - showing style, phrasing, and expression.

            Why handsigns?    Read “Smart Moves” by Carla Hannaford, or “The Body Has a Mind of Its Own”, by Sandra and Matt Blakeslee, “Musicophilia” by Oliver Sacks, or “This is Your Brain on Music”, by Dan Levitin.  Antonio Damasio wrote “Descartes’ Error” about an unfortunate perception in western culture - the error being an “abyssal split between body and mind”.  Damasio turns Descartes on his head, saying “I am, therefore I think”! 

            We should do likewise, because the evidence is overwhelming - choral singers need to think, and they think best with the entire body engaged with mind and voice .  The trick is to get the body/brain ahead of the voice.  Too often these days we see the opposite - the mouth is in motion before the brain catches up!

            A singer who signs while she sings with you demonstrates a clear commitment to learning.  Everyone knows who is “on task” every minute, and the director can see if the material is challenging - or too challenging.  Mistakes are welcome, but they have far less sting, because we all make mistakes, and we can giggle about it as we all keep singing.  A singer may have missed a sign or a pitch but the singing continues, which is far better than stopping to correct each note.  Otherwise, we soon hear “I can’t do this”, or “where are we?”  Do you really want to start from scratch with each new piece of music?

            The HEIGHT of each sign outlines tonal relationships and interval dimensions that are otherwise vague and fuzzy to the singer. 

            The SHAPE of each handsign portrays a highly refined definition of tonal shading for each pitch, including all the chromatics.  Believe me, the chromatic scale can be fun to sing, especially as a round in eight parts!

            The STYLE of movement from sign to sign reveals breathing, phrasing, dynamics, and articulation.  We arch  over big leaps upward so the approach is not tense or pushed, and we sign with “small hands” for quiet passages.

            The PULSE.  We lightly bounce each sign (I could write a book on this!) to get the singer to the next note ON TIME.  The pulse is in their hands, bouncing on each rest and through the longer notes.  They learn to internalize a constant pulse, which energizes each tone.  We also step the beat, so singers are totally involved in the process - that kinesthetic mind/body connection. 

            Once the non-verbal rapport emerges, we’re all moving, signing, and singing independently - yet together.  Conducting motions are minimal, reserved for artistic gestures when the music is learned.  No need to stand in front of the group waving arms, windmill style.  Often, I walk around the room, help individuals or sections “on the fly”, and coach them with their challenges while they learn - they own the pitch, they own the time.  When they take possession of the music, this ownership evolves from inner, individual confidence, not from external praise.

            I usually ask for student leaders to sign in front of each section when singing rounds or choral parts.    This challenges singers to develop leadership skills as they model excellent “signage”  for each other.  Soon, “strugglers” rise to “above average”, who in turn rise to “gifted”, who then rise to “leader” - a stunning lift for the whole ensemble, because we have whole singers.  We also send sections to “the corners” of the room to practice single line parts for a few minutes, and when we get back together, the piece is dramatically improved with significant TIME SAVED.

            As a guest conductor in festivals, I always introduce basic patterns, rounds and even songs with handsign/solfeggio, even if we only have two or three days together, because that is my mission in life - but we also gain a huge benefit: the singers are wide-eyed, focused, and responsive.  Simply turning my hand over produces a dramatic crescendo!   Often, we demonstrate a handsign/solfeggio “choralise” right in the festival concert as an INformance, and the audience always applauds enthusiastically, pleased to see how learning takes place.  We are much more than “entertainment”.

Your Body is Your Instrument

            We all understand how keys, valves, and fingerings enable instrumentalists to produce the right note at the right time - so why not give your singers a “horn”?  Let them have “chops”!  Can you imagine giving a saxophone player a new horn with NO KEYS on it?  How well would she function?  Kinesthetic association coupled with patient syllable training and a host of visual cues on a day-to-day basis is a wise investment for you and your singers.

            If you say “Nobody taught me this”, you may have a point.  My college sight-singing profs emphasized “what” more than “how”, usually opting for doo, doo, doo, a smattering of solfeggio or “whatever works”.  My theory professors argued for using numbers, but singing “flat-seven” is not a good vehicle for learning accuracy or intonation.  My choral directors constantly used talented pianists to “reinforce” the choir, and my voice teacher recommended recordings as the best way to learn literature - I had no continuity of instruction!  Sound familiar?

            Consequently, there was a lot of blood on the floor during my first years of teaching - I simply had no idea how to go about this.  Survival mode.  Only after considerable failure did I search for ways to develop strong, secure singers.  I was most fortunate to work with dedicated colleagues who established a K-12 music literacy TEAM with a K-12 living, breathing curriculum that was practical and in use every single day.  Any teacher could make beautiful music with any choir in our district without saying a word.  A culture developed that is successful and unified.  Our singers take their craft seriously. 

            Why settle for survival?  If you are in this game for the long term, consider teaching the whole art of singing.  Assess the true abilities of your singers right now.  As our Solfeggio Support Group says: “go get them where they are”, then inspire them to “expect more”.  Whole singers who think, read, and count will commit to learning and become singers for life!

John Armstrong has championed music literacy for fifty years with choirs and their directors at all levels. 
John conducts "Bel Canto Solfeggio" music literacy workshops and graduate courses around the country, and has composed over one hundred commissioned and published choral works. 
His book, "The Reading Choir Singer", helps singers and directors succeed with handsign/solfeggio. 
John is the director of the American Music Literacy Association, which sponsors an online "Solfeggio Support Group" for directors who are members.