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Near-Continuous Engagement of Singers During Rehearsals Plus Some Ear-Brain-Voice Training

[From a ChoralNet Forum reply]
Try out these specifics, if you like:
1. Before every rehearsal begins, you or one of the singers sustain a comfortable pitch on any selected vowel as a signal for all the singers to sing that pitch/vowel--a unison or an octave below or above, depending on which gender provides the pitch.  Then, ask various sections to sing pitches that form a major or a minor chord.  Establish the root of the chord first, then the fifth, and then the third of the chord that determines major or minor.  Whole-choir chords, then, can be moved up or down by half or whole steps, and the vowels can be changed.  And, any of the sections' pitches can be moved around by whole steps or half steps to strengthen their abilities at singing dissonances, as well as the 'interestingness' of dissonances.  Should the group sing music that has lots of dissonances, they will be less inclined to make yucking sounds and reject it.  Dissonant chords also can be moved up and down.  You can plot out how to sequence the pitch changes so that recognizable chords finish the 'game.'  It can start out as a 'can you do this' type of challenge game.
2. An alternative to #1:  At the beginning of each rehearsal, without playing or singing any pitch ahead of time (but perhaps writing out the notation on a dryboard), ask the whole choir (or one of the singers), "How close can you come to singing the pitch A4 (for women and unchanged boys voices or some changing-voice men), or A3 (for changed-voice men) and sustain it til you start to run out of breath, then breathe and start singing it again."  At first a tone cluster will happen, so while they are sustaining it, you ask, "Converge onto one pitch that everybody sings.  Can you do that?"  When unison happens, stop them and have the A4/A3 octave played for feedback, then ask them to sing that pitch on one designated syllable--I've use /maw/ at first. [This is how Robert Shaw started every rehearsal of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus when I was a member, 1965-1967.]  Then, ask them to hum the pitch and proceed as in #1.  Do that at the beginning of all rehearsals, AND everytime you transition from one musical selection to another, until they have memorized the A4/A3 pitch and can sing it every single time without the pitches being given ahead of time.  After that happens, begin to change the syllables on which they sing the A4/A3.
3. Add-on to #2: while continuously humming or /oo/-ing the A4/A3 (re-breathe&resume), call out choir sections and pitch intervals for those sections to change to (half-steps or whole-steps at first) so that harmonies happen.  Example: "Altos, move down one half-step.  Basses, move down one whole-step.  Tenors, move up one half-step. Sopranos, move up one whole-step."  Whenever you choose, ask the singers to hum the pitches they happen to be singing (if they aren't already), and then begin to make necessary announcements during the continuous humming.  KEY ELEMENT: Each individual singer sustains their pitch until they know they will need to breathe soon, they then breathe, and resume their pitch in the chord.  Continuously sustained harmonies is the goal.  To maintain interest and attention, regularly raise and lower the whole chords by whole and half steps, or change the pitches that the sections are sustaining.  Side benefits: Increased ability to sustain pitches independently of other pitches that are sounding, and familiarity with singing dissonant harmonies. Also, you can 'plot' the pitch changes so that a recognizable consonant harmony emerges 'unexpectedly.'
4. When rehearsing the music and there is a need for feedback and/or goal-setting or clarification, quickly ask the choir to hum the last pitches they sang (rehearse in whole phrases, or as nearly so as possible: polyphony will be a challenge) and then speak the feedback/goal.  Or, ask the choir to sing the tonic chord of the piece while you talk.
5. Hounding never works, as you have found out.  But Tom's ideas about singers in a choir supporting each other in getting done what choirs do and getting it done WELLER and WELLER and WELLER..., well, that's when the Captain of the football team in the tenor section stands up and says, "Guys, we have to support each other."
5. My experience has been that when singers have sung several phrases and the conductor stops them, the talking is actually about what just happened during their singing and is thus quite productive and part of the learning experience. To interrupt that, I believe, interrupts useful learning and can be frustrating for some singers.  So, after singing a section of the music and there is a need for feedback or goal clarification, tell the singers, "Talk about what just happened in the music for [:15-sec, :20-sec, :30-sec, :45-sec, 1-min]."  Then ask some of them to share their observations or say, "What do you think we can do to make the music even better than it was?" [responses] "OK, sing it again and do all those things."
6. When rehearsing fewer sections than all of them together:  Ask the 'nonrehearsing' sections to hum their parts or sing them on /oo/ or /oh/ or /loo/ or /loh/ at the same time the 'rehearsing' section(s) are singing the text/lyrics.  OR..., ask the other sections to continuously hum the tonic chord while the rehearsing section(s) sings their part with or without text/lyrics.
Replies (4): Threaded | Chronological
on January 17, 2014 2:10pm
Thank you for this, Leon.  At the 2005 NY State School Music Association workshops in Albany, I heard a presentation on a simpler form of this used with elementary school students.  I regret I don't remember the name of the man who presented, but he was an elementary music teacher from somewhere in NY.  He divided his choir or class down the middle and used Curwen hand signs, right hand for one side of the choir and left hand for the other.  After a unison on sol, he had one section move to mi, then sol went to la, etc. etc, in no fixed sequence, until they ended up on high and low do.  Then one section would hold their do and the other section descend or ascend the scale to a unison.  He started this with his third graders, and it was a revelation to me, being in my 4th or 5th year of teaching at the time.  His 4th graders do the same exercises in three parts.
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on January 17, 2014 3:54pm
The procedure you shared is excellent, Bart.
One concern: Many users of the hand signs present them in a vertical orientation that follows the "high" and "low" pitch concept, e.g., when singing an "ascending" major scale, the low do sign would be in the lowest spatial location, and as the pitches on the scale "ascend," the hand locations would gradualy ascend spatially. The sign for high do, then, would be in the highest location spatially. The terms high, higher, low, lower, up, & down, when referring to pitches, are not literal adjectives. They are metaphors that are borrowed from vertical spatial arrangements of objects. In reality, of course, there is no such thing as a literally "high" pitch that is 'located' well above eye level.
The problem: When this high/low pitch concept with hand signs is put into practice with singers, it actually reinforces a motor skill of "reaching up" with the larynx to "get" a "high" pitch. The pharynx (throat), then, is shortened and to accommodate the upward thrust of the raised larynx, the chin is raised, considerably "straightening out" the whole vocal tract. And along with that maneuver, the middle and lower constrictor muscles that surround the pharynx contract to constrict the circumference of the throat. Those motor actions force the vocal folds into overworking and the 'smallened' throat produces acoustic overloading of the vocal folds which also forces them to work harder. The short/narrow throat amplifies higher partials and mutes lower partials and the resulting voice quality, then, can be described as squeezed, pinched, pressed, and edgy sounding. With repetition, those motor actions become habitual and challenging to change.
We can't change the use of the high/low terms because they are universally used as pitch referents. So we have to find ways to counteract the "reach up and squeeze technigue" for singing so-called high pitches---a very common tendency among less-experienced, less-skilled singers. It robs voices of efficient, 'easy' neuromuscular 'work" and of a balanced resonance (roughly equal distribution of lower and higher partials in vocal sound spectra---in Italian, that's called chiaroscura, a blend of fullness and brightness in perceived voice quality (also refers to treatment of light and dark in visual art).
So, instead of doing the hand signs in a vertical presentation, I recommend doing them in a horizontal presentation with low do being located just in front of a teacher's mid-torso and gradually moving in a line outward from mid-torso. But in the approach that yoiu experienced in 2005, I would recommend that the changing hand signs just remain in one place.
Hope this helps, Bart. Be well.
on September 15, 2014 12:47pm
The use of High-low hand signals is to help facilitate the actual high and low placement of pitches on a staff and is used to facilitate vocal sight reading.  Although it is true that an upward motion of the hand is problematic for the voice, I find my singers read more acurately and in in tune when they understand the relationships of the intervals to the scale. 
on January 18, 2014 4:24am
I use this same approach with my 300 middle school beginners, and it works like a charm!  It's also a great classroom management technique!  When I have a class of 84 children at once, I throw my hand out there in "DO" position and the students start singing it.  Then, I continue signing other pitches, and they sing and sign them.  I keep going until the room if focused on my hand and everyone is singing!  My non-music peers think it's bizarre when they see me use this technique with the children. They call it the "magic hand" and they are trying to figure out how to implement something similar in their non-music classes!  It saves your voice and they get lots of practice with the hand signs!
Dale Duncan
My Blog:
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