S BROCK McELHERAN famously observed in his book Conducting Technique: For Beginners and Professionals, only one percent of conducting is conducting. After many years on both sides of the baton, I’ve found the same thing to true of singing. Of the many secrets of good singing, only a few have to do with singing itself. In fact, the vast majority of them have to do with the physical and mental preparation that takes place in the split second just before singing. To that end, here are five pro-level tips that can help your amateur choirs to both sound more unified and feel more confident.
1) Use the right muscle groups.
I always tell my choirs that singing is a “whole body sport.” Amateur singers often conceive of singing as something that happens from the collar bones up, but professionals know that a well-supported sound depends on the large muscle groups in the thoracic, abdominal, and pelvic regions. I tell my choristers that they should be expending energy from their collar bones down (the intercostal muscles, abdominal wall, glutes, etc.) and from their chin up (lifting the soft palate, and using their lips, tongue, and teeth to articulate consonants and vowels), but that in between (that is to say, in the neck) they should feel nothing whatsoever. Anything more than the bare-minimum use of the muscles surrounding the larynx leads to a sound that is audibly strained and forced; instead, singers should feel that the work of singing happens elsewhere, and that their larynx is just “along for the ride” or “flapping in the breeze!”
(By the way, don’t ever let a choir director tell you to “use your diaphragm!” or “sing from your diaphragm!” The diaphragm doesn’t have any nerve endings in it, and therefore it cannot be consciously controlled. We choir directors ought to be precise in the language we use to educate our singers on vocal technique.)
2) After hearing, before singing, audiate!
Many amateur singers jump right from hearing a note into trying to sing it. I make the concept of audition explicit for them by breaking it into three steps: 1) listen to the starting pitch, 2) imagine singing that pitch; imagine what your body will have to do to make that sound precisely and beautifully, but don’t actually sing it. Only after spending a moment in imaginary singing, 3) start singing.
3) Breathe in the shape of the vowel.
Rather than breathing any-which-way and then having to form the initial vowel of the word or phrase, I insist that my choirs form whatever vowel shape is needed for the first word of each phrase and then breathe in through that mouth shape so that they are ready to begin singing immediately. This is the most efficient way to breathe, and also makes the singers have to think ahead about what word comes up next.
4) Initial consonants with duration come before the beat; initial consonants without duration come on the beat.
That is to say: initial pitched/voiced consonants that have a duration (think [l], [m], [n], etc.) should come before the conductor’s beat lands, so that it is actually the vowel which coincides with the precise moment of the beat. Unpitched/unvoiced initial consonants, or those that don’t have substantial duration (such as [t], [p], [d], etc.), should come precisely on the beat.
If you’ve never thought about initial consonants this way, it might take a moment to wrap your head around. But if you explain this to your choir and have them try it, I guarantee you’ll be amazed by how confident and unified their entrances will start to be!
5) Take your time stagger-breathing.
I instruct my singers to drop out for a whole beat (or longer, depending on the music and the size of the choir) when it’s their turn to stagger-breathe. This gives them enough time to take an unhurried and fully restorative breath, rather than a frantic and shallow catch-breath.
I hope that these five pieces of advice are a big help to you and your choirs! May the Lord bless us all as we begin this new liturgical year.