HOPE MY LAST ARTICLE, Give Them Permission to Be Awesome, inspired you to consider offering private voice lessons to your choir members. A quick recap: private lessons can help you hear how each singer sounds when they’re not leaning on their section leader. Lessons give you a unique opportunity to help singers increase their body awareness and internalize the elements of vocal technique that you teach during warmups and rehearsals. They’re the perfect setting to make those corrections that might embarrass a singer if you addressed them in front of the choir. And you’ll probably come away from lessons surprised at how much untapped potential you have in your choir.
Here are a few practical considerations on how to launch your lesson program.
How to sell your program to singers
The best way to get singers interested in private lessons is to announce your lesson program face-to-face. Present the idea at rehearsal, or approach singers one at a time and tell them. They’ll benefit from your positive tone of voice and body language. But if you spread the word by email, you run the risk that some choir members will misinterpret your generous gesture as a punishment for a struggling choir.
Make it clear to your singers that private lessons aren’t remedial. Every accomplished musician in the world had private lessons, and even star musicians still visit their teachers from time to time for “brushup” sessions. Explain that lessons are a chance to work on the points of technique you don’t have time to address in rehearsal. I like to tell singers that if everyone in the choir improves their vocal contribution by just one notch, the difference in the overall sound of our choir will be astounding. This approach reinforces the notion that every voice in the choir matters.
Let your singers know you’ll be teaching them at no cost. Most people know that private music lessons usually cost money. Most people also love to get anything for free.
Consider scheduling your lessons during your summer break, if you take one. That way, you can use the time you normally spend at Thursday evening rehearsals to give people lessons—and your choir members will already have Thursday evenings blocked off. Or, if you don’t schedule all lessons during your usual rehearsal time, consider choosing times right before or after daily Masses—or Eucharistic Adoration—so that people have two good reasons to come to church.
What to work on in lessons
Although I want to use singers’ time well, I like to begin each lesson with a brief conversation. I’ll ask them how the choir is going for them musically. I’ll then ask what kind of spiritual experience they’re having as choir members. The first question gives me an idea of what to work on in the lesson. But the second is far more important to me. I want to make sure each singer feels more engaged in the Mass—not less—as a choir member. I can’t bear the thought of a choir member trying so hard to sing well that they forget to pray. Thanks be to God, my singers have told me that singing the Mass helps them to love the Mass more.
As for technique, there’s no shortage of issues to work on in lessons. The best music teachers don’t go into a lesson with an agenda to make each student sound like “one of theirs.” They tailor their instruction to each student’s needs and are truly present for that singer. Still, I use some of my lesson time to reinforce with everyone the overarching technical concepts that I’d like the whole choir to embrace.
If you’re at a loss for ideas, consider focusing on the areas of technique that will give you the most bang for your buck. As I wrote in my last article, a motivated beginning student can make enormous strides after receiving even a few basic pointers on vocal technique. Make sure your singers are:
Opening their mouths. There’s a sweet spot with the opening and more space isn’t always better, but many amateur singers need constant reminders to open up and let their sound out.
Forming the five Latin vowels properly. A choir that doesn’t match vowels will always sound out of tune. Go into lessons prepared to model the vowels for any singers who are struggling to form them correctly.
Lifting the soft palate. Singing with a low soft palate (sometimes called “velum”) produces a bland sound that lacks resonance. Be prepared to help your singers find their soft palates, lift them on inhalation, and keep them from collapsing as they transition from vowel to vowel.
Controlling the breath. For most singers, this is about breaking the habit of pushing out air while singing. Good air use begins with a good onset (some people call it an “attack,” but that sounds violent). One simple exercise to help singers use air well is to have them: 1) take a deep breath and let it out on an airy sigh, 2) repeat the process but add a bit of a moan with the sigh, 3) keep adding more moan on each repetition until they’re producing pure tone with no sound of air escaping. The goal here is to let the vocal cords control the amount of air that escapes rather than pushing air into them. I’ve seen many singers’ eyes light up after completing this exercise.
Why lessons work
We all want our choirs to grow. But the larger your choir becomes, the greater the chances that some singers—especially the newer or younger ones—will feel unimportant. Giving private lessons to every choir member proves that every voice matters.
Your results may vary. The “Susannah” I mentioned in my previous article is a remarkable person. Not everyone has the drive to be excellent at choral singing. But some singers do, and they may be waiting for you to flip the switch.