All of you have choirs at a different levels, from a choir (of any age group) with no vocal training whatsoever to perhaps a university or professional choir of trained singers. While one has to deal with vocal issues with any choir, right now let's speak of choirs with little or no training.
With such choirs many of you will be the only voice teacher your choir members have. I like to develop a plan to teach the fundamentals of singing, with the following basic elements:
- good singing posture
- managing breath (I tend not to use the term "support")
- learning to phonate (initiate tone, "onset")
- creating a good resonating space ("tall vowels," raised soft palate)
- getting a good balance between "space" and "ring" (it's possible to have too much vocal space and no ring to the sound, or all ring and no resonating space--Willie Nelson, anyone?) (and don't get me wrong, I like listening to Willie Nelson! But there's little choral repertoire where I'd want my choir to sound like him!)
- learning to find the best resonance for each of the vowels
- learn maximum vocal efficiency (the least physical effort to create the best sound you can make--learning not to tense muscles that are not necessary . . . which connects up with many of the previous steps)
This blog post can't be a course in voice training (I'm not writing a book about that!), but these are the elements that I believe are most important. You can find any number of resources (books, workshops, etc.) to help with this. First, the fundamentals listed above include both concepts (where the "light bulb" can go on and the choir members now understand what to do and why) and skills (which take practice to achieve). With any group I will teach the basic concepts, but then use vocalises at the beginning of a rehearsal to build those skills--which then they must be reinforced constantly as you work on repertoire.
This is important for our discussion of intonation, because singers who have difficulties with any of the above basic elements will have difficulty singing in tune. In my first post, I mentioned that the conductor has to diagnose why the choir is singing out of tune, and one of the first potential culprits is vocal production: is the choir using good posture (which allows the breath to be used well)? Do they know how to manage their breath or is it inconsistent? Is the breath flow adequate or inadequate to good tone? Is there a lack of vocal space with a low soft palate? Are vowels produced with too much space and no sense of resonance or ring? Or are they ringing, but no vocal space? Are vowels placed too far back or are they dull? Or are vowels too bright? Is there obvious vocal tension (jaw, shoulders, etc.)?
The better vocal production the individual members of the choir have, the easier it will be to sing in tune. So your training of the choir (if you're the primary voice teacher, as well as conductor) is going to be primary in your success. I don't mean for you to turn your rehearsals into voice lessons, but that you need to find a way to teach these basics, work on skills in brief warmups at the beginning of rehearsal, then interweave work on vocal skills into the rehearsal (even including a quick vocalise, if helpful) of the music itself. If you've read my post about musicality, you know I believe in teaching phrasing and expression from the very beginning. In fact, all elements must be worked into your work on the music (but at different proportions at the beginning of the rehearsal process and near the end). My rehearsals are relatively "dense" with a fair amount of drill (see my earlier post here which speaks of John Wooden's concepts of "scrimmage" vs. "drill") and (I hope!) a high proportion of singing to talk. I will probably touch on many different things in a short time working on music, from the shape of the phrase to vowel to locking intonation on a specific chord to dynamics to rhythmic ensemble. The trick is to go very quickly from an instruction or two back to singing--the goal being as little talking as possible and as much singing as possible (they don't get better while you talk!). As my earlier series of posts on building culture mention, one of the things to work on with any group (taking into account what they can currently do) is to build their ability to focus and work with this kind of density and intensity. But where ever you are with your choir, you have to find a way to teach them to sing better.
Vocal models are a quick way to get where you want to go. As a singer, I model a fair amount (which also has the advantage of giving them information about lots of things, not just the one I just mentioned to them), but I also use singers in my choir as models fairly frequently. If you are not an accomplished singer yourself (although hopefully you understand good vocal technique and sound even if you're not gifted with a great instrument), you can use singers in the choir to model for your singers. You can also bring in someone with skill at teaching these concepts. With vowel (last post's focus), the easiest way to get there is to model the vowel (whether you or someone else) in order to get unification (and better intonation).
Long enough for today! As you strive towards better intonation in your choir, know that their level of vocal skill and technique will make good intonation possible . . . or create problems! Seek to teach the very best vocal technique that you can, given the limitations of your choir and how much time you have to work with them.
And always remember, technique is a means to an end--we teach these things because ultimately they can lead to more successful, creative and expressive performances.