Singer motivation: Variety in the high school rehearsal
I received some outstanding ideas from people regarding variety in the
choral rehearsal (see original post below.) Many of you asked for the
responses, so here they are.
Lincoln-Way Central High School
New Lenox, IL
I teach high school and have great kids, but sometimes the
inevitable feeling of "routine" gets us down in rehearsals. I have
tried to keep things interesting by doing things like mixing up,
switching seats, etc. (they liked that) and having students conduct
(entertaining, but not always productive.)
Do any of you have ideas for simple activities like these to shake
things up a bit but still stay focused and be productive?
If anyone is interested in responses, let me know.
Lincoln-Way Central High School
New Lenox, IL
Have you tried singing staccato?
Another favorite is to have the students sing mentally, and bring groups in
out. It really helps them focus. We call it point and sing.
At a workshop last year, we did a "silent" rehearsal. The conductor says
nothing, but rather gestures, makes faces, or otherwise communicate
I'd love to see your list of responses. I'm always stealing other people's
You're certainly on the right track...variety is the spice of life! I've
just started asking my groups WHY they think a composer might have used a
ritard. (modulation/particular tone color/unison sound...) at X point in the
music they're singing. Engages them and helps with expressivity. Some of
the answers have amazed me. (As always, I learn from my students.) Good
luck. (Any chance you'd be willing to post the responses you receive?)
Anything but Routine
The beginning of the school year is a time for establishing procedures,
classroom rules, and a rehearsal routine. Those with established programs
expect the returning students to model the customary routines for the new
students. Teachers coming into new positions may find routines left over
their predecessors. These routines may be helpful procedures, or they may
routines that will need to be broken and replaced with more appropriate
Routines can be very useful in choral rehearsals. Routines provide
students with security, a predictable atmosphere where they know what is
expected and how to achieve success. Routines can also lead to boredom, low
energy, and lack of spirit. In his chapter entitled "The Choral Conductor
the Rehearsal," Lloyd Pfautsch states, "When the same [warm up] procedure
is employed, it suggests mere routine and thereby encourages apathetic
participation and a lack of attention."11 Decker, H A. & Herford, J. Choral
Conducting- A Symposium. New York: Meredith Corporation, 1973, page 65.
Variety can make warm up time more meaningful and productive, and
help avoid falling into a routine that may cause students to dread the first
fifteen minutes of rehearsal. Pfautsch continues, "A variety of procedures
prove stimulating, engaging, and interesting to the singers."22 Ibid. This
give suggestions to enhance routines, specifically the warm up routine, in
order to keep singers interested and challenged.
* Get away from the piano. If your warm up routine involves sitting
down at the piano and accompanying the vocal exercises, consider
doing an entire warm up without the aid of the keyboard. Being
behind the piano limits your hearing and may allow the chorus to
rely on the support of the piano and not on their own ears. In
addition, because of the percussive nature of the piano, it is a poor
model for singers. Choose a pitch in your lower range to start on,
and warm up the choir on a familiar exercise, using your voice as
the only model.
* Break out of the rhythmic repetition. At the end of a vocal
exercise, instead of doing the standard chromatic shift in rhythm
and mechanically moving to the next attack, consider holding the
final note of each repetition and giving a release cue. Warm up
time is ideal for improving cut-off execution, a technique that
probably requires significant attention during the rest of the
rehearsal. Have the singers cut off using a variety of voiced and
unvoiced consonants, including plosives (e.g. [b], [p], [d], [t]),
fricatives (e.g. [v], [f]), and nasals (e.g. [m], [n]).
* Use something other than major tonalities. Challenge the ears of
the singers by exploring minor scales and arpeggios. Use the warm
up time as an opportunity to introduce the concepts of natural,
harmonic, and melodic minor scales. If you choose literature
composed in other modes (e.g. Dorian), you may want to
introduce the particular modal scale in the warm up. You may also
wish to try a whole tone scale, or have the choir outline a
diminished or augmented triad.
* Allow a student to lead the warm up. After a few weeks, when
your choir has a basic repertory of warm up exercises, consider
choosing a student to lead the warm up. If necessary, allow the
student a day to prepare or plan the warm up exercises with the
student. Offer to sit at the piano if necessary, or even better, stand
in the choir and participate. Provide a good model as a singer as
you temporarily switch roles.
* Change the room set up or the seating arrangement. Depending
on the rehearsal space, be creative with set up and seating order.
Consider rotating the rows so that you see and hear everyone in
the front row at some point. Place the tenors and basses in the
center for a day. As the choir becomes more confident and
experienced, consider having the choir sit in quartets (assuming
nearly equal numbers in all sections), or request that they scramble
so that they are not singing next to anyone else on their own part.
Changing the singing environment will challenge the singers to
become more independent. Students may react negatively at first,
but later some may actually prefer the mixed positions and request
* Play a recording. It is possible that some students in your choir
have never owned a choral music recording. It is also possible that
your singers dont listen to recordings of choral masterworks on a
regular basis. Use the warm up time as an opportunity to play a
recording of an outstanding choral performance. You might play a
performance of a madrigal you have recently sung with the choir,
or a spiritual in the same style as something currently in the folders.
If you are preparing Mozarts "Ave Verum," play other examples
of Mozarts choral music, perhaps "Laudate Dominum." It is an
opportunity to expose your singers to additional repertoire and
provide them with good choral models.
* Have the warm up in the middle of rehearsal instead of at the
beginning. Start the rehearsal with a selection (or part of a
selection) that does not use extreme range or dynamics to start the
rehearsal. You may have the singers hum or sing [u] instead of
singing full voice. When you reach a trouble spot (e.g. awkward
leap or rapid melismatic passage), address the challenge and
provide a few warm up exercises to help with the particular
* Choose quartets to sing alone. Singers may equate singing in
quartets with unpleasant experiences like playing tests and
auditions for All-State, but it is unnecessary to avoid quartet
singing until these situations. In a low-pressure, informal setting
like the warm up period, quartet singing can allow singers to hear
themselves, hear others, and gain confidence. Intermittently during
the full chorus warm up, pause and ask four singers (can be from
any combination of sections) to continue the exercise for a few
repetitions. You may wish to avoid extreme ranges when putting
students "on the spot." Simply allow them to sing a few phrases,
give appropriate feedback and praise, and then move back to full
Planning for effective teaching relies on the balance between providing
enough consistency to make students secure and comfortable and enough
variety to keep them interested and stimulated. If students are lulled to
during the first ten minutes of rehearsal they will be less effective than
have been stimulated and challenged with a variation of the ordinary
At the beginning of a new school year, it is good to evaluate our rehearsal
procedures and strive for new and better methods for developing our choirs.
The result will be continued progress toward rehearsals that are an
in great music making.
I had my high school kids occasionally sing in groups of 4 or 8 or ?? in
front of the others in the class. You could work on some aspects of
phrasing or dynamics or even balance with this small group. The other
students seemed to like to watch their friends in that situation, and
generally paid attention since they may be called upon next. It also is
easier on the voices of the group as a whole if you are working on
something that could be a bit straining for them. (This is a Weston
Noble technique -- he also likes to pick out individuals to demonstrate
or model certain things, but that would depend on the comfort level of
Hope this can be of help,
Sometimes I have people switch parts -- altos become basses, tenors become
sopranos, etc. That's especially effective if when they have learned the
piece, they all read everyone's part. Or you can have every other tenor
become soprano, etc, switching seats.
I've also had them sing only selected pitches, perhaps the Do, Re, Mi and
Also try having them "mentally sing" at a given signal. At the same signal
they come back in. See how long those segments can become, having them
still in tune. You could try this one with having them sing a phrase, but
clap the rhythm of the next phrase, singing mentally, etc. . . .
Sing their own part, but tap the rhythm of a part adjacent to their in the
score. More fun with polyphonic things.
walking around and hearing different people as everyone sings.
Recording a piece at rehearsal and listening to it.
Striving for special effects - changing the dynamics, the speed, the tone
Forming judges among the kids that give out votes on the efficiency of each
Having a solist from each section sing each piece alone, as a trio in three
Just some ideas,
One of my favourite techniques for keeping the choristers interested is
asking for someone to demonstrate: "Who thinks they can do this?" when a
tricky note or rhythmic problem arises, or just to keep them reading. This
avoids having them hear it from the piano, or listen to me (again!) sing it.
It also allows the choir (and me) to hear individual choristers. I always
have a positive comment, even for the inevitable tries that don't succeed in
the solving the problem ("not quite, but lovely tone!"; "Sarah, what a huge
improvement you've made in freeing up your voice!"). Sometimes I'll take a
moment to work with the chorister, and will tell the choir what we're going
to try ("I'm going to ask David to do that again and open his mouth a little
more, and you see if you can hear a difference"--of course, we always do,
and can compliment David!). I've found that even those who won't volunteer
will listen, and will certainly evaluate the product and the note or rhythm
problem is inevitably solved, and the choir has come back to focus.
like getting them up and moving as well.
Try movement with the music to elevate movement in the music.
Also, my kids love to get up and sing in a circle. It allows them to hear
themselves much better.
Then each singer gets over the year a time or two to stand in the circle to
hear the sound in total.
I find that the more animated and the more enthusiastic I am, the more they
respond. I also try to make each rehearsal personal in some
aspect...bringing the music to their lives and to mine.
I direct a choir of boys, age 8 - 14, so my issues may not be quite the same
as yours. I am a believer in regular structure in rehearsals, partly so
that the singers
will know what to expect, but more importantly, so that we can get the
maximum acomplished in our valuable time together. Always a vocalise first,
exercises, and having the choir "compete" in teams, and asking for volunteer
groups of two or three to take a couple of samples.
Then 10 minutes of sight-singing. I have a deck of cards with each
singer's name on a card. I draw from the deck and those singers go to the
board. On the
board are a couple of staves with a long string of scale notes on them. The
singers "race" to fill in a key signature and write in the 1's and 5's of
the scale (we use
numbers, but works with SolFa too). Then we do a three-voice sample of 6-8
measures, laid out as a round, so that everyone sings all voice parts.
Then to repertoire, which is listed, with timings, on a flip-chart.
Sometimes we do sectionals, sometimes full choir, sometimes I draw a group
of 6-8 singers (the
cards again) to demonstrate. Keep the repertoire revolving, and select the
most needful spots in each piece. The first time through a piece, we might
start at the top,
but after that, we always take the most needful spots in any piece, not
putting the whole thing together until the segments are all in good shape.
It's a quicker trip to
finished work that way, I find.
Always, the pop questions about tempo, key signatures, time
signatures, diction, breathing, composer, etc, to keep them alert. The
important thing is to PLAN
AHEAD, and then be quick on your feet during rehearsal.
I'm sure you do things like this, and that this is nothing new. But
you asked, so I answered. If you do a compilation of responses, I would
prefer not to be
named, as this is quick response. If my name were to appear, I would have
thought out my response more carefully!!
ike: these ideas are by no means original with me, but I found them to be
useful in building ensemble: have them sing standing in pairs, back-to-back;
sing with the lights off-careful here, but done right it really produces
listening; stand in circles(s) and move to the tempo; sing unconducted and
learn the phrasing and nuances from each other; some of the Robert Shaw
rhythm devices: one row clap/tap, the others sing, one row learn how to
sing/count(one-and-two-three to the melodic contour) while others sing;
definitely have them stand in quartets, not next to a person of their own
part. Good luck and enjoy the fun and growth that will ensue.
ne thing I've seen conductors do is just pull new music and give it to the
singers. Not for performance, necessarily, but just as a sightreading
excercise. sometimes a piece of music they've never seen before,
mid-rehearsal, that you know you're only planning to spend 10-15 minutes on
can be quite an experience. Not only is it fun, but it'll improve the
singers' sightreading skills, open their ears to more choral repertoire, and
possibly give you more feedback as to what they enjoy singing most. Good
on occasion, without warning, ask for volunteers, one or two on a part, to
come down in front of the whole choir and perform some of the music
learned. Also, try having only one grade level perform for everyone else,
or mix and match two different grade levels. The competition sometimes
livens things up.
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