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Speaking of Voice: “Choral Festivals – Let’s Lead by Example!” by Mary Lynn Doherty

       It is truly an honor to be invited to conduct a choral festival and I enjoy each and every one.  A few weeks ago, I was preparing to lead a day-long event for high school students.  Twelve high schools from a local conference sent trios or quartets for the honor choir, and in addition to singing in a mixed choir, each student sang in the men’s or women’s choir as well.  The day began at 9am and the schedule included almost 7 hours of rehearsal time before the evening concert at 6:30pm.  Sound familiar?  The singers came together from different schools that vary in the amount of choir rehearsal time per day.  In an informal poll, I asked a few students how much time they usually spend in rehearsal on a regular school day –the answers varied from 45 minutes to 2 hours.  I also asked them how long their bus rides were – there I heard 10 to 90 minutes.  While this is not empirical data, I believe it is pretty typical for other festivals of this type. 
       Going into the event, I made an effort to get enough sleep the weekend before, to tank up on water the day before and throughout the festival day, and I used a microphone for as much of the rehearsal time as I could.  I had my singers do a long warm up at the start of the day, chose healthy repertoire for them, tried to give them “vocal breaks” in rehearsals, asked them to do buzzing and humming between pieces, reminded them to drink water and to minimize voice use on breaks.  And I could still hear that some of their voices were tired by the time we were ready for the concert! 
       How do we support healthy vocal technique in these types of festivals?  Can we program less and include more down time that is quiet/focused?  During rehearsal, couldn’t we make use of quartets (a strategy I saw used countless times by the great Weston Noble in Nordic Choir rehearsals) to teach style, phrasing, and other musical elements while the rest of the choir listens?  Or, what if we had some of the other directors lead mini-seminars on vocal health or diction or auditioning for college music programs, as some examples, between rehearsal s? How can we make sure kids don’t overuse their voices on breaks/at meals/on the bus ride?  What if we brought a movie or made kids bring their pillows and required they be quiet on the way to the event (no singing!)?   I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but I have begun to think more and more about choosing music that allows me to make a connection with the students but that will also honor the vocal contributions they are asked to make throughout the day.  I want them to leave feeling inspired by the experience but also, with a healthy and strong voice that they bring back to their school and community groups the next day.  The rehearsal strategies used by the clinician are only one piece of the puzzle; rehearsal schedule, supervision during breaks and meals, transportation, quality of the rehearsal and performance space (ever done one of these in a gym?)  are just some of the additional factors that need to be considered.
       I welcome additional tips and suggestions from those of you who are thinking about this as well!  The more we discuss this from our varying perspectives, the better the experiences we can provide for our students. 
on March 31, 2014 3:09am
Thank you for this post, Mary Lynn!  It truly is a team approach in getting our students braced for the marathon experience of a festival. One of my students compared her experience to one of a surgeon...standing for hours on end. I take the expertise of collegial coaches who are conditioning their athletes for endurance/stanima and address these issues with students prior to the festival weekend. It's our responsiblity as teachers to give them concrete strategies of how to endure the physical demands, in addition to preparing the music, so that they can actually sprint at the end. How many of us have been to a festival where the students use all of their steam in day 1? Together with a consientious conductor who implements the rehearsal pacing and methods you mention, students can walk away really knowing their full potential for an in-depth experience and rise to that challenge.
Voice matching/voicing of a choir has been a super strategy I've seen used by our recent guest conductors. The students (and teachers) are fascinated with the process - as it solves so many intonation and blend issues.  Our festival also programs an overarching theme/title/story with it - so we have incorporated activities in the schedule that nurture vocal rest/health - reading poems written by students prior to the festival, having a guest choir perform for the students, or even using similar concepts as a retreat - including community building exercises. The students love it, and in a matter of a few days, they really bond as an ensemble. After all, isn't that one of the reasons we invest in it? Building in ways for them to connect encourages them to sing more unified as a choir.
I'm excited to read more ideas from others! :)
on March 31, 2014 7:59am
Great topic for discussion. I've had the privilege and honor to be a guest conductor at the middle level during the past 12 years and have used many different "tricks" through the years. The local school district, with 8 middle schools uses the following schedule: 1st day - rehearsal from 9:00 to 3:00, then an evening concert. 2nd day - perform at as many as 5 of the district's middle schools. The choir is usually around 90 voices singing in three parts. I start day one with extended warm- up that incorporate proper voice production exercises and vocal health. Sing through the 6 to 8 pieces that have been prepared, then woodshed as needed. I try to include movement in at least one of the pieces. I will also move the choir from stage to audience seating and back again as I sense energy is leaving the group. Humming parts as we woodshed always helps to keep the voice fresh. Silent rest periods - usually one in the morning and one in the afternoon are essential. I also try to select music that has a variety of vocal challenges so they do not end up with 6 or 7 really demanding vocal selections. Finally I encourage the students to practice good vocal health during down time, before the performance, and on the bus ride during the school tour the second day. All that having been said, they still get vocally tired. Before each concert I continue to warm-up the choir with healthy vocal exercises to constantly encourage good vocal technic and healthy singing. I look forward to other postes