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Instrumentalists teaching choir

As an instrumentalist I don't have too much experience working with a choir. The only experiences I have are thourhg assignments in college. I personally have very little vocal/choral experoence as well. What would be some suggestions to help a non-singer in their first year of teaching to direct a choir?
Replies (14): Threaded | Chronological
on April 15, 2014 4:40am
First thing to do is join a choir, the best quality you can find with the best director possible, although it may be too late for this season.  Next, now is an excellent time to make plans to attend as many summer choral conferences as you can.  Pick the brains of as many others there as you can.  I don't see any indication where you are, but the ACDA-PA Summer Conference is always excellent.  Although this is too late for your circumstances, it is intended more for others who may read this.  When I started teaching Coral Methods where I currently teach, there was no requirement for the Music Education majors to have participated even one semester in a choral ensemble.  This posed serious problems trying to teach students to teach something they had never actively done themselves.  Now they MUST have been in Concert Choir at least one semester before they are allowed to take Choral Methods.  Now I am transferring to another school that again has no such requirement.
Applauded by an audience of 4
on April 15, 2014 5:47am
I agree with Henry.  The first thing to do is find a great community choir in which to take part, and if you are a religious person perhaps joining the choir (if there is one) at your place of worship as well.  There are a plethora of workshops offered all over the country for choral music educators, many of which require no audition.  I have personally attended symposiums at East Carolina University, the University of Michigan, the University of Georgia, and am scheduled to go to the University of Toronto this summer.  The three that I attended were fantastic, and I expect no less from my trip to Toronto.  
I would also encourage you to find a place to take a private voice lesson.  So much of what I do in my classroom every day I learned in the voice studio rather than the choral rehearsal hall.  Vocal pedagogy is incredibly important for the choral music educator; you are most likely your students' only avenue in to the art of the voice.  
Finally, it has been my experience that the best singers and choral musicians are instrumentalists, and the best instrumentalists are singers and choral musicians.  The more time you spend honing skills in both areas, the better off your students will be.  
Best of luck!
Applauded by an audience of 5
on April 16, 2014 10:11am
My dominant training in college was in instrumental music but for any of my jobs in the past 29 years of teaching has involved at least one choir.  The learning curve is steep at first but remember you are first and foremost a musician whose medium for creating music has so far been on an instrument.  The musicianship part is truly the hardest to come by and you've done that, trust that what you have to learn is a different set of pedagogical parameters to train musicians who use their voice as the instrument for creating music.  That being said I cannot agree enough with other replies in getting to as many clinics and workshops as you can find near you.  I did much of my learning from being in a good community choir.  It so happened that the director was a friend of mine from college and I could ask questions pretty easily, however, he would have done that with anyone so don't be shy about asking questions.  Another area that really helped me was to have my students involved in local and collegiate sponsored honor choirs and sit in on the rehearsals, masterclasses for students as well as directors and meet with other choral teachers during breaks or other sharing times.  This was invaluable ways to build a knowlege base to make me a much better choral director (and probably band director too).  What was admittedly an annoyance in my schedule (due to my lack of confidence and knowledge) has become a welcome spot in my day.  Good luck!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 19, 2014 10:48am
These comments are somewhat related:
I often wonder what benefit we could receive by interacting with high quality musicians from any instrument.  There are things I learned in long years of piano study (how all the "voices" work together, quick multi-staff score reading, hamonic motion, absorbing the whole of the piece, etc), things I learned from private vocal study (the technical use of my instrument and specificity of textual interpretation), years of choral singing (ensemble work, balance, different vowel/articulation because of the large group..."how does the sound really behave in the room"), and working on the organ really sharpened my ear to the powerful observance of rests and separation/articulation of notes and how those also behave in the space.  All these areas inform how I do any one of them, it seems.  As I play piano, I find myself thinking like a singer ("what am I saying in this phrase? how do I want to color it? phrase shaping")  As I direct choir, I find myself thinking like a pianist (absorbing the whole score quickly), or as an organist ("let's make that release really crisp, let's use glottals/separation in these places to help a line cut through the texture, etc").  As an organist I find myself thinking like a choir ("get your fingers off the keyboard at a powerful rhythmic moment and let's give everyone a breath!")
I am sure I am not the only one to have experienced these things, and I often have thought we could benefit one another as musicians across the instrument/medium fields.  Some mediums invite certain great habits and certain bad habits.  For example, string players and organists and pianists can play with almost completely uninterrupted sound, but music must breathe.  The audience is following along inside their heads and they deserve mental breaths.  Wind instruments (voice and brass/woodwinds) are forced  to breathe, so we can learn from them.  String players are masters at "messa di voce" and wonderful subtleties of phrasing...we can learn from them.  The quality of their down bows vs. up bows is also an interesting thing to think about as a singer.  Sometimes we singers get so caught in fine shaping of phrases, that we forget there is a time and place to just blast in like a brass section!  And brass players would do well to add to their playing style many of the phrasing subtleties that are more easily thought of by singers, etc.
It's really very exciting to see how these fields are intertwined!  Not only is music making integrative to all of life, but within itself it is also so integrative.  Always a new angle to discover!
Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 20, 2014 12:02pm
Wonderful points, Joy!
If I had taken the time to think deeply about this issue right now, my words would have been quite similar.  Thank you for expressing what, quite likely, many of us know, but fail to access.
If we bring the awareness(es) you describe to our students/choristers/members, we will foster wonderful musicians - regardless of which instrument (including voice) they choose.
P.S. If we all think with more artistic unity,  as Joy describes, hopefully there will be no more scenarios like, "How do you like the new director they hired?"  "No so much...s/he's kinda pianistic..."   Or, "S/he  is a wonderful singer/director/teacher/music minister, but we need someone who is a whiz at playing the piano."   ... or ... "Don't bother hiring a choral director.  Just give it to the band/orchestra person.  If you know the notes, you know the notes."  Let's think of ways we can  creatively/positively educate society on the wonderful tree - music is the trunk, and all the branches (vocal, string, brass, percussion/keyboard) are still necessarily, and beautifully, connected.
on April 16, 2014 1:11pm
Dear Joann:
I totally agree with what has been said above -- join a local community/church/temple choir and observe the director and their rehearsal techniques; take voice lessons to familiarize yourself with the mechanics of singing; and trust your innate sense of musicanship.
I would add one other thought: Read voraciously all the threads and entries included on ChoralNet... This website is a treasure trove of experience and professional opinions!!
Good luck!!
Ron Isaacson
Germantown MD
on April 17, 2014 7:46am
It is great that you visited this forum to ask!
I agree with the suggestions for joining a quality choir (the very small, "local-church-choir" might be a wonderful ministry with much heart - I have conducted/coached a few, and still love them - but unless they have a really well-schooled director who is definitely moving them forward, they will probably not educate you very much.   But you'll know if its a well-schooled ensemble.)
Sylvia McNair, [world-renowned soprano who also started as an instrumentalist ] when she came here to sing/teach a master class, said, "Let's face it; anybody can 'hang out a shingle' and say they're a voice teacher.'"   I would recommend getting lessons from a college or master's-level instructor.  This is not about opera-technique; this is about learning to coordinate your body, breathing, and jaw-mouth musculature so that your voice becomes an excellent model, which it can!
Some specifics, based on other situations I've seen that were ...ahem...less-then-ideal  :
1. Approach your chorus positively, and sing with confidence (otherwise they will likely pick up on your lack of it, and that will be hard to overcome.  It could affect enrollment.)
2. Begin immediately to teach sight-reading - vocally.  They might gripe, but they need it - do your best to make it fun.  (I recommend the Hal Leonard, Nancy Telfer, or Kjos "Independent Singer").
3. If you are the accompanist, try to find time to look at them. Constantly check their posture (necessary for air flow!) Consistently remind/reward them for holding their music where the top is level with their chin - they can see you, maintain good breathing support.   They should not bend their neck (blocks air) and also this way they become accustomed to singing toward the audience.  Ideally, get a good accompanist that will respect you and "think" with you.  Then you can move about, listen, assist..  If you have to play, train them toward acapella.  Student directors are good if they are very well-trained and confident.
4. Be prepared for some possible negativity, and how you will immediately turn it positively.  Some of it might be their own concerns about their voice.  If they criticize each other, "How dull our woods would be if only a select few birds were to sing.  Music is for everybody!  Now, lets start page 3 again..."
5. When approaching a new piece, it is often helpful to lead them in speaking the words in rhythm first.  Otherwise, you are expecting them to multi-task - words, pitch, rhythm, harmony line,  - even adults/professionals get lost in choral music sometimes!  This also keeps from embarrassing those who don't read words well.  And be prepared for questions about the meaning; you will likely get them.  Also, new choral singers need instruction in how octavos are set up - clefs, braces, left-margin lines that connect each system, etc.  Many come to you, accustomed to following only one line of words - maybe music.
6. Bear in mind that they have to audiate their notes (hear them in their mind's ear/predict their sound) before they can sing them. (Unlike an instrument where keys can be pressed/bows drawn and the sound comes out "automatically".) Give pitches before each phrase, until they learn to stay in the key.
7. If they have not sung in parts/harmony before, choose at least some pieces that are unison, but a mild challenge.  Again, Choralnet will have great suggestions.  Unison with descants works well as they develop head tones.
8. Find a time - non-threatening, but mildly exciting - where they can perform just one or two of their simpler  pieces.   (PTA party?)  Singers like to know that they're working toward.
9. Visualize your wonderuful chorus, and share how you will guide them there.  You already have the great musicianship!
Best Wishes!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 18, 2014 11:00am
I am an instrumental guy (saxophone, jazz ensemble and band director)  who has morphed into a choir guy due to the circumstances in my small private school.  The preceding posts contain many of the things I did to become successful.  Joining a good community group that does standard choral lit was fun and educational.  The college professor who was the conductor became a mentor, and that was very helpful.  Going to my state ACDA summer gathering helped me to meet colleagues, learn concepts, and acquire reading packets.  I found Rodney Eichenberger's summer class at Cannon Beach, Oregon fabulous both as just a participant and as one of his students.  Plus you get a packet of over 100 pieces at all levels and voicings.  He also does one on the east coast.  
You need to get familiar with repertoire.  If you have district or state contests, go to those and hear the choirs and note the repertoire you like and think might work.  Network with colleagues.  They are usually willing to help with suggestions.  Being active in ACDA and your MEA helps as well.  Choralnet is becoming an increasingly valuable resource as well.  I found a piece my students love from a composer in England through Choral net this year. :-)
Anyway, good luck!
on April 19, 2014 9:31am
Having taught both instrumental & vocal, I agree with the comments so far. Not yet mentioned, however, is that the directing techniques have some distinct differences - vocal is more phrase oriented than meter, and dynamics are more dictated by the director than the printed music. As to vocal technique, I would highly recommend the book (and contact the author - she is a wonderfully helpful person) The bel canto Buzz, by Debra Lynn. It is available on Amazon, even as a kindle book. The bel canto (beautiful singing) style was widely taught in the pre-Wagnerian 'heavy opera' era, and has found a resurgence of interest as a very natural, beautiful, immediately effective method.
on April 20, 2014 2:40pm
I would urge you to seek financial assistance to help you attend the 7.5-day course that has been offerred by The VoiceCare Network each summer for about 35 years. Just about everything you'd ever want to know about voices, voice health, voice development over the lifespan, and how conductor language and gestures can facilitate leaarning efficient vocal abilities and beautiful vocal sound production throughout singers' pitch and volume ranges (and how some uses of language and gestures can teach vocal inefficiencies and pressed-edgy voice qualities and limit singers' pitch and volume ranges). Many instrumentalists have attended since the course began, and all of them have thanked the VoiceCare staff as they have gained confidence in what they are doing and heard noticeable differences in how their singers responded to them vocally and as human beings. Regardless, gooooood luck to you and be well!
on April 21, 2014 11:16am


Welcome to the choral world! It’s a wonderful and fascinating place.

There are similarities and differences between the vocal instrument and non-vocal instruments. The similarities include each being made of three distinct parts: a power source, a vibrating source and a resonating source. In a violin, for example, the power source is the player's arm and bow, the vibrating source is the string itself, and the vibrating source is the sound box. In the vocal instrument, the power source is the air from the lungs, the vibrating source is the vocal folds (not cords!), and the resonating source is the throat and mouth. A major difference is that the resonating source in the vocal instrument is movable! That resonating source is responsible primarily for vowel sounds.

I believe that the best thing you can do for the sound of your choir(s) from a technical aspect is to make sure the various vowel sounds are being formed by your singers in the same way. Again, this is a resonating source issue. I find it helpful to think of vowel sounds, in a choral perspective, as lip vowels, tongue vowels and jaw vowels. “EE” and “EH” are tongue vowels. Always keeping the tip of the tongue touching the back of the bottom teeth, unless needing to be temporarily moved for a consonant, the front half of the tongue will curve up a little for the “EH”, more for the “EE”. “OH” and “OO” are lip vowels. The lips are puckered for the “OH,” more for the “OO”. (I tell my students to mentally picture someone they really like on the other side of a chain-link fence and kiss them through the fence – pucker out!) The “AH” is a jaw vowel. If the jaw is not vertically opened enough they will sing “UH” instead. In each of these vowels you need to ask your singers to make sure there is also a little vertical space between the back teeth. Otherwise the tone will become thin. When singing lip vowels, the tongue and jaw are to remain relaxed, when singing tongue vowels, the lips and jaw are to remain relaxed, and when singing the jaw vowel, the lips and tongue are to remain relaxed.

An exercise I use for uniform vowels sounds throughout the choir is 5-note descending “OO-AH-EE-AH-OO”. If you hear an “EW” sound, similar to what someone might say when seeing or smelling something disagreeable, instead of a pure "OO" then the tongue has been raised. Remind your singers to keep their tongues flat when singing the “OO”. If you hear an “IH” instead of an “EE” then they have either not curved their tongue far enough forward or they have pulled the tip of the tongue backward. Be prepared to hear a second “AH” which does not match the first. The reason for this is that the first “AH” is coming out of an “OO” and the second is coming out of an “EE”. It is easier to relax the lips after the “OO” than it is to flatten the tongue after the “EE”. You will know they are not flattening the tongue enough when the second “AH” is spreading. I find the easiest way to fix the "AH" is to tell my singers to close their mouths, put their finger on their chin, then by using their finger only open their mouth. You will have created a natural "AH." I then tell my singers to make sure the second "AH" matches the first.

An exercise you can use to demonstrate the importance of uniformly formed pure vowels on tuning is to have your choir sing a G major chord – basses on the G below middle C, tenors on the B below middle C, altos on the D above and sopranos on the G above. Have all parts except the tenors sing a pure “EE” vowel sound. Have half your tenors (or all if you are limited in the number of tenors you have) sing an “IH”. Tell your tenors to morph to an “EE” on a prearranged signal, and your choir will hear the chord tune when they do.

A second resonance issue, related to timbre but not specifically to vowel sounds, is space in the throat. I compare this to blowing over the opening of a coke bottle. When blowing over the opening when all the coke is in the bottle, the pitch created will be relatively high. As there is less coke in the bottle, and therefore more air space, the pitch will be lower. Likewise, with more space in the throat, the vocal timbre gets warmer and rounder. Have your singers inhale through the sensation of the beginning of a yawn. This will allow the throat to open (technically you are inhibiting the swallow muscles) and the larynx to comfortably lower. A comfortably lowered larynx, seemingly paradoxically, will also allow your singers to get into their higher notes easier.

Speaking of higher notes, for acoustic reasons as your ladies’ pitch rises you need to have them lower their jaws. Somewhat arbitrarily, I tell my ladies to begin thinking about unhinging their jaw at the middle line treble clef B and to be unhinged at the top line F and above. For different acoustic reasons you may need to have your sopranos round the vowel a little (slight pucker) between the E a 10th above middle C and the G# above that. If you put your finger just in front of the flap at the front of your ear and open your jaw, you will feel the “unhinge” I’m talking about. For the same acoustic reasons, your men will NOT need to unhinge. Space between the back teeth, yes. Unhinge, no!

To strengthen and coordinate your singers’ power source (breathing) there are two exercises which are my favorites. In the first exercise, have your singers inhale completely over a 4 beat count, hold all that air - without closing their throat or mouth! – over a 4 count, hiss out (sss…) as much of the air as physically possible over a 4 count (purposefully allowing the rib cage to contract as much as possible without affecting the singers’ posture), then hold that airless position over a 4 count. By holding the air in, without closing the throat or mouth, you are holding the inhalation muscles in an active position and by holding the airless position you are holding the exhalation muscles in an active position, thereby strengthening each set of muscles. In the second exercise, have your singers inhale completely over a 2 count, then hiss out as much of the air as physically possible over a 4 count (withOUT allowing the rib cage to contract!). The goal is to be completely out of air at the end of the last count. Then inhale over a 2 count, exhale over an 8 count,…12 count…16 count, etc. This helps coordinate the breathing muscles. It is important to remember NOT to let the rib cage collapse during this exercise!

The source which we have not yet discussed is the vibrating source. This is probably the most controversial of all. Most directors I know never discuss it. Voice science has shown the wisdom of Manuel Garcia’s “coup de la glotte” which many mistranslate as “glottal attack.” The glottal attack is an unhealthy thing, but the coup de la glotte is NOT the glottal attack. An excellent article on this is “Voice Science in the Choral Rehearsal: Examining Glottal Onset” by Duane Cottrell ( Because of the danger of the glottal attack, DO NOT teach the coup de la glotte until you understand it fully!

One of my favorite sources for choral musicality (phrasing rules, etc.) is "In Search of Musical Excellence" by Sally Herman (no relation). I highly recommend it!

Good luck and let us know how things work out for you.


Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 23, 2014 8:01am
Can someone recommend a good summer workshop with an emphasis on the mechanics of singing and getting results with amateur singers in the Southeastern U.S.?
on April 24, 2014 5:14am
E.L. ,
I would recommend coming to Atlanta and attending a class/workshop by Jeanne' Brown.  She teaches great techniques, and she is a delightful professional with a positive spirit.  She has soloed with Atlanta Symphony over the years, and still does - singing consistently lovely renditions.  She is frequently asked to do workshops for choirs.
I have studied with her regularly, and I credit her techniques  toward the fact that my coloratura, lyric, broadway ... whatever I wish to sing....has kept facility and longevity.
I have developed some successful procedures based on what I've learned from her, Peter Harrower, my degrees from Converse and Ga. State, other great teachers, and my own experience - as a soloist and choral director.  Feel free to message me and we can stay in touch about the times/dates  of these events which you may find helpful.
Any other Choral-netters interested?   Reply, and I will talk with Jeanne' about setting up a workshop for us!
on April 25, 2014 6:25am
Teaching choir, for an instrumentalist, requires an understanding of the instrument.  Think of the voice as an instrument, the same as you would in your instrumental ensemble.  You can only be effective if you understand the instruments, right?  Find out everything you can about how the voice works.  Sing as much as you can.  Take some voice lessons so you understand the workings of the vocal mechanism.  Then, just teach the MUSIC.  Ultimately, this is what is important.  But, you can't get the sound out of the vocal instrument without really knowing how it works!  Best of Luck
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