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New Choir Teacher. Not sure how to approach some issues.

Hi guys.  Thank you for taking the time to read this.  Here are some things that I'm dealing with:
 
1.  I have a select group, and one of my pieces has a G above the Treble Clef in the soprano 1 line.  While trying to emphazie relaxing, having a good core support, and exhaling the note, a few of my sopranos aren't quite getting it, which causes stress, and self doubt, and makes it even harder.  Now, I'm a male, so the female voice is somewhat a mystery.  I do tell them to sing on the vowel, avoid consonants, and to just support each other.  They're great ladies, and I want to make sure I'm doing everything I can for them.  But when one of them asks for specifics, I draw a blank.  I warm them up each day, and we do go into that range and beyond, just to vocally stretch them.  Honestly, I think it's psychological, but I can't look at a 17 year old girl and say "It's in your head".  Another explanation could be that they just aren't ready to sing that high, but I have no idea how to tell it's that from any of the other reasons.  Anything you guys can advise?  They're terrific students and I want to make sure I'm the best teacher I can be for them.
 
2.  Now, I also have a non select group.  These are students, 9-12th grade, who have joined choir due to it being an elective, and probably one they viewed as an easy A.  Unfortunately for them, I demand excellence and have a high quality to my expectations, which so far, they seem to be into.  However, as well behaved as these kids are, the soprano section can not hold pitch.  To the extent, where I'll play an A in the treble clef, and they will sing anywhere but there.  What I usually end up doing is figuring out the closest note that the section is singing, play that on the piano and work on that, but it's time consuming, and not always guaranteed to work.  I move them around the classroom frequently, so that we can try and find the best placement,  but it's hard.  They're relatively enthusiastic, which is great, but if I teach them a part, and it could be 5 measures, the second they sing it as a section, it falls apart.  As with the first issue, I think it's in their head, but I have no tricks in my bag other than what was taught me.  Firm core, relaxed shoulders, big belly of air, and a wide and deep vocal space.
 
3.   Final issue (for now, and thanks again for taking the time to read this).  Any advice on how to slowly move an airy, spread tenor sound to something a bit more forward?  I'm modifying the vowels constantly, and it's working a bit.  But it could just be that these are young men and their voices are still changing.
 
I appreciate it guys.  Thank you.
Replies (9): Threaded | Chronological
on September 19, 2013 12:42pm
Hi Alex.  Thank you for caring enough about protecting your students' young voices to seek out help!  I don't have all the answers, but I do have a few thoughts that you might consider:
 
1.  Regarding your sopranos on the high G: you might consider how the note is approached (via stepwise movement or a skip).  I'm a soprano, and I learned in private lessons a few years ago an awesome technique for avoiding tension when approaching a skip to a high, intimidating note.  You give each student something soft and harmless to toss, like a bean bag or yarn ball.  The idea is that they wind up like a pitcher as they are approaching the note and then toss the object at the very first onset of the intimidating note.  (You might have 2 rows facing each other so one can toss and one can catch.) They should think of "tossing" their voices away on the air just like the object.  Once they get the hang of the exercise, they can even do it without physically tossing an object, just by making a tossing gesture. The goal, of course, is to teach them how it feels to have the breath lined up properly at that point so that they eventually don't need any gesture.  This exercise has done SO much to help free up my upper range.  It really helps to distract the mind from the anxiety about a scary note and resulting tension which can mess up technique; it allows those notes to just fly right on out unhindered for me.
 
2. For your significantly out-of-tune students: Another thing I read or heard several years ago:  Try a 3-step process.  Students are instructed to listen silently and concentrate.  You will play a pitch on the piano once while holding up one finger; for that step they are to simply listen to the pitch.  Sustain that pitch for several seconds. Then you play it again with two fingers held up; for that step, they are to listen to the pitch and imagine that they are singing or humming it, but remain silent.  Sustain that pitch for several seconds.  Finally, you play the pitch a third time, they take a breath, and sing it on a neutral vowel.  I've found that so much of pitch matching really has to do with simple concentration; people often "sing at" notes without really giving themselves time to find them.  When they are imagining themselves singing the pitch, their vocal cords are making involuntary adjustments for that pitch.  Give them time to learn to focus on tones, and often these problems will correct themselves.
 
Hope something here helps!  I'll be curious to see what others share.
 
Applauded by an audience of 4
on September 19, 2013 1:03pm
P.S. - I forgot to mention this... For the "tossing" exercise, they should sing the note as they are tossing the beanbag.  It wouldn't do much good to just throw things without the singing part!  (Althought they might get some frustration out...)  :-)
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 20, 2013 4:23am
Hi Alex, 
 
Being a guy doesn't mean you don't have the tools to demonstrate good vocal technique to your female students.  You also sing high notes.  (High for you.)  How do you do it?  You relax.  You have good breath support.  You stand correctly.  You warm up.  And some notes are too high for you.  And some notes are normally fine, but too high on days that you are tired, dehydrated, over-caffeinated, your allergies are bothering you...  Students are usually chronically sleep-deprived.  That's a big limiting factor right there.  Keep it in mind.  
 
A high G is a high note for sopranos.  Even well-developed ones with excellent technique and fully-developed voices.  Even adults.  In professional groups, singers are expected to know their own limits and drop out for a note if necessary.  (While raising their eyebrows intensely and opening their mouths really tall so that it still looks like they are singing).  There are usually plenty of singers who will be able to hit it, so that it won't be noticable.  Not every singer will be able to safely hit that note every day.  It's an important lesson to learn your limits.  
 
Learning to open up the top of your range takes time, and it will only open so far safely.  Don't rush this one, and let students know that it's okay to drop a note without making a big fuss.  Remember that you have young singers.  Some of them may actually have instinctively gotten a handle on good vocal technique, making them sound like undeveloped 1st sopranos when they are actually well-developed 2nd sopranos.  Some are actually 1st sopranos, but they don't have rock-solid technique yet to allow for reliable production on those high notes.  But don't encourage them to push.  They will hurt themselves, and it will get harder the more they keep trying instead of easier as they fry their voices.  
 
And remember that if finding a pitch is tentative, they won't be singing in a supported manner to get that note.  Do they know the pitch?  Is it on a  friendly vowell, or will they need to modify it to more of an "Ah?"  Do they know it is okay and expected to modify it?  Can you practice that line a fifth below pitch.  Then a third below pitch.  Then a second below pitch...  to let them work up to it and feel how they need to change their breath support and lift their pallets?  Can they then sing at pitch but just on an "ah?"  Then add in all the words except the one problem note, which is still an "ah?"  Baby steps.  
Applauded by an audience of 2
on September 20, 2013 4:34am
Oh, and also it can be very helpful to alternate between a "bad" breathy sound, and a focused pure tone to help students learn what it feels like when it's right.  On a lower pitch.  Say, C above middle C for women.  Demonstrate a really breathy, unsupported "ooh,"  and then morph it into a focused tone over, say, 4 beats.  Have them mimic you.  Repeat for "ah", and "ee" and move around the scale so they can feel how the focus changes as they move through their register.  Don't spend a lot of time explaining.  Demonstrate the difference.  Sing a breathy note.  Have them mimic.  Sing a focused note.  Have them mimic.  Sing a breathy note.  Have them mimic...  They have to FEEL the difference.  When they get it say "Good!  Remember how that feels!  Again!"  
Applauded by an audience of 2
on September 20, 2013 6:54am
Hi Alex,
 
Mary is spot on about usinging some sort of kinesthetic motion to distract the mind, because you're right, it's in their head.  You could add to that a non-pitched exercise that fairly closely mimics the pitch range, interval, and vowel/s in the spot in the piece.  Often times it's the music that limits us from allowing our voice to function gynmastically, how it is meant to.
 
The pitch problems might be a result of one soprano more than the others.  I would suggest figuring out which one is most likely to go out of tune, and also which one is most likely to stay in tune.  Speak to them both privately, encouraging the one with the stronger ear to sing out and be a leader, and the one with the developing ear to occassionally listen to a passage a few times if she feels she's not quite on.  There's no harm in listening.  You could consider moving one of your altos with good intonation up to soprano.  If the range gets too high for her, allow her to drop out in those areas, or go back down to alto temporarily.
 
With your tenors, think baby steps everyday.  Encourage height in the sound, dropped jaw, (hands on the face) and remember what Pavarotti said.  "90% of all problems in singing technique are related to breath."
 
Hope that helps.
 
Andrew
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 20, 2013 9:44pm
I think your soprano problem in #1 and your tenor problem in #3 are essentially the same issue.  I have the same issue with my sopranos, and it is a matter of not knowing where to place their head voice.  I like to have them do warm-ups that aim at getting that voice forward and high in the mask. One exercise that I use EVERY DAY to warm up for myself is one where I arpeggiate 1-3-5-8 on "zay", then do a descending pattern.  Without having a staff in front of me, this is sort of what is is:  (zay) 1-3-5-8/1--hold-- 9 (la) 8, (zah) 7-8- (la) 7, (zay) 6-7-(la) 6, (zah) 5-6- (la)5, (zay)4-5- (la)4,(zah) 3-4- (la)3, (zay)2-3- (la)2 (zah) 1.  (The arpeggio going up is sort of slow, and there is a pause on the high do, then the turns coming down go fast. They end up singing Zay- la-zah-la-zay-la-zah, etc.)  The z's pull the voice forward to the correct placement.  If I need to, I think of tossing a ball in a high arc that originates in my forehead, in order to get that high note up in my head voice.  I am gradually working my way back to good vocal technique after 10 years of vocal injury/trouble, mostly using this kind of exercise to get into my head voice.
 
As for #2, the tuning issue...I would highly recommend to you using solfege syllables AND the Curwen hand signs with them, both in order to help students learn to sight read, and to develop the ear.  I have found that my students are about 6000% more likely to be in tune this year, and I attribute that to the 15-20 minutes' work I am doing with them every day with Solfege/Curwen.  They now have a sense of where Do is, and if I pause in teaching them a line, sing (for example) the alto note, singing, "Mi, mi mi.....your starting note is miiiiiiiiiiii...." they really do have a better sense of where to place those notes.  Tuning is better, retention of their parts is better, and sight-reading is better.  Plus, it's fun, once you start playing with the solfege and signs, to mix up what they are doing, and throw out challenges.  I saw Robyn Lana (Cincinatti Children's Choir) in a workshop this summer--she walked into a rehearsal with a girl's choir who didn't know her, and taught them the first half of a piece entirely by walking them through the solfege/Curwen--and because that is a system the Phx. Girl's Choir is well-trained in, they absolutely nailed their parts immediately and perfectly.  So, yeah...if you are not yet using solfege and the Curwen signs, start now!
 
Laura
Applauded by an audience of 2
on September 21, 2013 8:30am
Hi Alex,
For the tuning issue, is there any way you can get the girls into a sectional?  What I might do is have them sing the note on an "ooh" vowel.  If it still is cacophonous, try having one girl sing it.  (Obviously one that you think CAN and one that is somewhat confident.)  Pick another girl to try to match it and they sing together.  Ask the others if they are the same note.  Often, I find that their ears just aren't used to finding the same note.  Adjust...."you go up a little/down a little."  Then one by one, add other girls.  Obviously don't focus on someone who really can't find it AT THIS POINT.  I have guys that have been in my men's choir for two years before they match pitch consistently.  And they are so proud when they finally get it.  (Obviously this has more to do with the male changing voice than strict ear issues.)  Have them support each other and they'll feel like a section even when they don't sound like one.
 
Another option is (horror of horros!) play a popular song--a tuneful ballad if you can find one--and have them sing along.  By listening, I believe you'll learn a lot about what the problem is.....lack of confidence, need of ear training, lack of communication between the voice, the ear, the brain, breath issues, placement, etc.
 
Start with simple rounds or partner songs in limited range.  The more confidence they feel, the more progress they'll make--and they'll be more willing to take risks.
 
Finally, have you ever thought of moving the girls so that the altos and sopranos are mixed up?  If the altos aren't having problems, take half and half to make new sections.  If you choose rep with a limited range, they can switch parts for each song.  Girls that age should be able to sing any part....no matter how many times they tell you they can't POSSIBLY sing as low as a middle C!!
 
Good luck!  Let us know what works!
 
Shelley
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 27, 2013 1:30pm
I have had these problems in my 12 years as an elementary music teacher.  I  had to scramble to find solutions, for the simple reason that I never took any music education courses during my college years as a music major because I had no intention of being a music teacher.  But then--as the saying goes--life happened, and I needed a job and due to a shortage of elementary music teachers in NY at the time, was offered a job as a K-6 music teacher, based on my background in music, and what my soon-to-be supervisor said was my ability to "figure it out".  The first few years I spent lots of my own money and time going to conferences, workshops and summer school, and reading.  Here's what stuck with me, and what has worked for me,with thanks to Nick Page, Mary Goetze, Diane Rao, Jean Bartle, Helen Kemp, all the Kodaly teachers, and many others:
1.  Choose songs of power--songs with a message.
2.  Don't try to sing harmonies unless your choir can sing beautifully in unison, AND there's nothing wrong with "plain old" unison singing.  Both Rao and Bartle, among others emphasize "Choose whatever music your students can sing well."  ("Elegant simpllcity).
3.  To sing beautifully in unison, keep it simple.  Choose simpler and simpler songs until you find something they can sing--few different notes, narrow range, steps rather than skips and leaps, simple rhythms.  The Kodaly books and progression of songs are essential, basic, and developmentally appropriate.  Try different starting notes--they may be more successful in a different part of their range. 
4.  Minimize use of piano.  Instead, sing in their range (for us men, that means falsetto) and have them sing back; that way, they are imitating the same timbre, not that of a tempered-scale piano.  Use Curwen hand signs as much as possible.  Warm up with (but for short periods of time) simple sol-fa imitation--sol-mi-mi-sol; sol, la, sol mi; etc, with hand signs.  You sing and sign, then they copy.
5.  Sing short pieces.  Short and simple rounds are great, because they cover so much musical ground.  Use first as a short song in unison; then--ONLY when their singing is automatic--divide choir in half and have one half repeat phrase 1 andthe other half repeat phrase two, simultaneously, in time (in other words, they are taking their first step to sound singing, but only working on the first and second phrase).  Then move to phrases 2 & 3, etc, then try all the way through as a standard two-part round.  If another adult or older, competent student singer can sing with and direct one half while you sing with the other half, singing will progress much faster.  You can easily make a 3 minute piece out of a simple round.  For example, choirs sings through in unison, one half sings through, then other half comes in round-style, sing a few times through as round, then pick a phrase for one half the choir to repeat by giving the "R" sign in American Sign Language (crossed first and second fingers); so now you have one half singing the song through, while the other half repeats one phrase as an ostinato; now you can do the same for the other half with a different phrase;  then go back to regular round style; then make the "hold" sign to one half which means the hold the last note of whatever phrase they're on while the other half sings through the song; then switch; then have a soloist singing one part while the remainder of her section rests; nor two soloists singing the round, then back to regular round style, etc etc.  I have three basic rounds I use with all my students from 1-5th grade; of course the possible treatments vary with age and group: Peace Round (Jean Ritchie), London's Burning, and Ah Poor Bird.  I have many others I like almost as well, but there's only so much time, and I concentrate week after week and year after year on extending these three rounds.  Notice that working with rounds this way eliminates the time spent learning a longer, so called "real" song and uses that time to do more interesting musical things with something very familiar. (Of course, new songs and convential harmony singing is valuable too.)   Along with some sol-fa imitations and pitch matching, I use one or two of these rounds as the first 5 minute warmup for each 35  minute music class.
6.  Other types of short songs work well too:  street cries, echo songs, call and response, chanteys, work songs.  Try Helen Kemp's book of short folksong warmups "Where in the World"; John Feierabend's "Book of Echo Songs" and "Book of Call and Response" (and other of his many books); and the Revels books for street cries.  Also Mary Goetze has some nice arrangments of songs with simple ostinato harmony parts in her various books.  "Little Wheel a-Turning" is a favorite of mine, but I don't know which book it's in.  Her "Freeze Tone" is another entry to first time harmony singing.
7.  From personal preference, and practicality, I tend to use more folk material with my singers, and fewer formally composed "classical" arrangements.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 27, 2013 8:44pm
 These are all fabulous solutions and I shall adds some suggestions which I have found very heplful aiding high school singers through their various stages of development.
 Breathing, Focus (Placement) and Resonance are three interdependant elements essential to vocal production. As the needs of one of these is addressed, the remaining two are effected as well. Imagine a flexible three dimentional triangle. To track this, close your lips while exhaling by activalting the abdomenal muscles and diaphram. Increase the pressure as if you are crescendoing a tone. You will feel a great amount of pressure, the same pressure that you vocal cords would encounter to make a pitch because now, the vocal cords are closed, and you will feel increasing pressure in the mask. (You could alsoinflate a balloon for the same effect. These are the "Three Things" which work in concert at all times and models actual singing. The diaphragm moves up controlling air from the lungs which then causes the vocal cords to vibrate and create vibrations in the mask. When you have exhausted that stream of vibrating air, the diaphragm is relaxed the abodimin pops out and the process repeats. Sing long tones in this manner and allow these sensations become the technique. Singing is never a static event. The Three Things are interdependant at all times. Eventually, an easy equilibrium will develop in each singer and over time and repetition and guidance from you, the singer will emerge what ever the age.
 This is especially valuable when facing register issues as the male voices change and the female voices mature. You are going to have to be the model. The abdomen pops out, the air is pulled into the lungs, the abdomen supports and controls the vibrating column of air of the pitch, the pitch is developed in the resonant spaces and the tone is focused in the mask (do hums on m and n and other voiced consonents and keep relaxed, keep relaxed, keep relaxed. Develope the need to only use as much energy as needed to get the job done which is a life long pursuit.
S  
 
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