Speaking of Voice: “Choral Festivals – Let’s Lead by Example!” by Mary Lynn Doherty
Date: March 31, 2014
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.