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Trouble with decrescendos

Hello all. If there's anyone out there that has any advice on effective choral decrescendos, I would greatly appreciate it! My choirs are good at the crescendos, but when they decrescendo they tend to go breathy and flat. I also have to really coax them into singing softly. I try to explain the need to maintain a pure sound without the breathiness, and to...well, not go flat. It's not a terribly clever way of putting it, and they often have trouble getting it. How can I get my choirs to do a first-rate decrescendo?
Replies (17): Threaded | Chronological
on April 24, 2014 4:40am
One trick you may try is to have them spin their arms in a circle in front of them as they decresendo to keep the air moving. Another I've used is to have them pretend to lift something heavy (from their legs, not their back!), such as a piano or weights, while they decresendo. Both have worked for my kids, and after a couple of times they should just need reminders instead of having to do the action.
I also like to use the "swan on water" analogy where on the surface they look calm and are singing piano, but underneath they are kicking and working hard to keep the breath sustained so that the pitch doesn't fall.
Hope one of these helps!
on April 24, 2014 6:00am
This sounds like classic problems with effective use of air and a good focused tone.  How experienced are your singers?  Do they have good breath support most of the time?  If so, then all they may need is a more definite cue from you:  a confident, early indication of a good full breath, so that they know you will actually give them time to breathe properly and their next entrance won't be late, and a consistently conducted phrase so that they know exactly how long their air needs to last.  It has to be exactly the same from you each time so that they can decide how to use their air most efficiently.  No fair stretching out that rit. sometimes, but not all the time!  If they know it's coming, they can budget for it, but they have to know it's coming!
If they are fairly inexperienced or young singers, you can add decrescendo excercises as a component of your warm ups.  Pick a note.  Conduct them to breathe for one up-beat and then sing, decrescendoing for 3 beats, breath, then 3 beats, breath... Then 7 beats...  Once they get the hang of the excercise, don't stop in between repititions, keep it perfectly in time, so that they are confidently dropping in the maximum amount of air at each breath, in rhythm.  
A good forward, focused tone as you get softer is key and but words always seem to fail to communicate what this means until a singer has that "aha!" moment.  So demonstrate what you mean by that.  You guys sound breathy and unfocused, like this: "lahhhhhhhh."  Your air will last longer and you will get more sound with less work if you keep the sound focused, like this:  "laaaaaaa!"  Ham it up and have them immitate you.  Singers are often afraid that they sound overly operatic and over the top, or just too loud, with a focused sound, because of the way it really rings in their heads.  They aren't used to the sensation and they feel like they stick out.  Assure them that they sound great from where you are standing.  As they are laaaa-ing at you, go around the room and pick out a few people.  "Anne's got it right, Robert's got it right, Sean has it..."  
Point out how much air gets wasted on a breathy sound.  Have them try a "hhhhhhhhhhh" as if intentionally breathing one's garlic breath on someone.  "Hhhhhhhhi!  Hhhhhhhhhow are you?"  See how quickly they run out of air.  Then have them try a "psssssssssssssss" as if about to say "psst!" to get someone's attention.  The later is the unvoiced version of singing with a focused sound and uses air correctly.  Their air will last and last and last.  
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 24, 2014 6:34am
On page 51 of In Search of Musical Excellence by Sally Herman (no relation), she talks about holding a paper cup, held with the opening toward the choir, into which you pull the sound out of your singers. She says most young singers mistakenly believe that in order to sing softly they have to hold the tone within them. Having your singers imagine they are putting the sound into the cup causes them to "place the sound forward in the mouth" and "causes them to focus on a specific point."
I have used a similar idea with my church choir by asking them to put the sound into the cupped palm of my hand which is held up (as in waving "hi") and have found that it works well.
I would highly recommend her book. She has many more ideas which I have been able to use.
on April 24, 2014 7:20am
I had the same issues you described above with my middle school students.  I was able to solve the issue when I started using visual aids with the kids while teaching this important technique.
To address the intonation issues, I use a "Bullseye" with labels on it that include the words "sharp" and "flat".  To see the bullseye, go to this blog post:
Here are the instructions on how I use it in the classroom:
Tell your students that the bullseye represents a single note.
Play a pitch on the piano.
Take a deep breath.
Sing the pitch on "doo" a capella in tune.
Point with your finger to the red portion of the bullseye.
Then, while holding the note, go flat just a little bit and drag your finger downward into the other colors.  The flatter you go, the further you drop your finger. Obviously, you may have to sneak a breath, but try to keep it going as long as you can so you can help their ears to hear what sharp and flat singing really sounds like.
Do the same thing with sharp singing.
Then, refer to this bullseye often when your children demonstrate bad intonation by pointing to where you think they landed.  
To teach dynamics, I use a similar "finger sliding" technique while presenting this visual on the front board like this:
I play a pitch.  I sing the pitch a capella and fortissimo and point my finger to "FF", and then I slide my finger as I descrease the volume.
I do it again while starting with "PP".  
I explain that is the proper technique for crescendo and decrescendo.
They really connect to the combination of the visual aid with the aural aid.
Then, I go back and re-do the dynamic finger-pointing exercise with incorrect use.  For example, I play the pitch.  I sing the pitch a capella and fortissimo, except this time, when I drag my finger toward "PP", I lower the pitch instead of lowering the volume.  I explain to them that is NOT a decrescendo.  I do the same starting with "PP" and going to "FF" except I go sharp.
I noticed that my middle school students struggled with the difference between "softening" a pitch and "lowering" a pitch.  In fact, I noticed they often use the term "low" interchangeably with "soft" because they don't recognize the difference.  I make sure to correct this misuse of terms.  
I hope that helps you!
Dale Duncan
To learn new techniques for teaching sight singing that will improve intonation in your choral literature, go to:
on April 25, 2014 10:59am
There is no such word as "descrescendo" in the Italian language. Use diminuendo.
Robert Shaw had standard warm-ups: 1) On a unison pitch, using the syllable, "nah," crescendo from piano to forte over a period of eight beats, quick breath, Then, begin forte and diminuendo to piano for eight beats. 2) using either a unison pitch or more than one pitch, have sopranos and altos begin forte, while tenors and basses begin piano. Then, have the chorus sing eight-beat crescendos or diminuendos (depending upon the beginning dynamic), continuing for several counts of eight. 
You can also do it pulsing the counts.
Don't ask the group to oversing at the climax or they might blow out and not reserve enough air and energy for the controlled diminuendo. I used to say, "ease off the gas."
on April 26, 2014 12:05am
There is no such word as "descrescendo" in the Italian language.
Actually there is, according to Zingarelli.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 26, 2014 6:59am
Hi James,

Most untrained singers find decrescendos difficult. When they start to sing softer they disengage the muscles used for energized breath support and suddenly you get a flaccid, subito piano instead of a decresc. To avoid this I often ask my choirs to crescendo instead of diminuendo. I show the cresc clearly in my conducting gesture.  I then say "let's sing it again please, but this time, while you are making the crescendo, please get softer." This, of course, causes them to look at me like I'm crazy, which they enjoy. (Unlike dim., they are good at that!)  I then offer more. "Feel a gentle crescendo in your body while allowing your sound to become softer." And we sing it again.

It is important for you to avoid any kind of gesture that looks weak (soft). Iow, maintain an erect posture and maintain energy (tension) in your dim. gesture. This will help them to avoid collapsing the ribcage and allowing the diaphragm to suddenly ascend (iow, it helps them maintain the breath support required to make an effective diminuendo.)

Good luck!

Don McCullough

Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 26, 2014 8:30am
To these many fine responses I might add this: I think that less experienced singers often tend to unconsciously dampen or darken their tone as they get softer.  After all, to make it softer, don't you want to make it heard less?  I think that's what tends to go through their minds.  (And of course, a darker sound can also tend to be a flatter sound, which also accounts for the flatting.)  I remind my singers that the more focused their sound, the softer they can sing and still be heard.  And as already mentioned, the breath support must not be allowed to decrescendo (or diminuendo) along with the volume of the sound.  Like Donald, I encourage my choirs to intensify their focus and support as they get softer, rather than the opposite.  And it has helped.  I hope all of these suggestions will be helpful to you and your choirs.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 26, 2014 3:34pm
Many good answers.  Here's another point of view: as the volume diminishes, tuning becomes clearer.   So you WANT the third of a major triad to fall in pitch, into a pure triad.   Or in a minor triad, you WANT the tonic and fifth to fall in pitch, into tune.   Be clear what you are hearing, and which voices you hear as getting lower.   If you plunk a major 3rd on the piano, it will for sure sound sharp, but the singers are more likely to be right than the piano.
on April 29, 2014 4:18pm
Thank you all for such excellent advice on decrescendos. I didn't expect so many responses. I have three choirs: one is grade 7-12. (They're amazing. We do alot of Palestrina and the like.) Then I have a children's choir ages 8 to 13, and a choir that ranges in age from 15 to 75. Some are trained singers, most are not. Decrescendos have always been a challenge for my choirs as a whole. I'll use the advice given above. Thank you especially to Maggie, Dale and Duncan, but others as well. As for the word decrescendo, it may not be a true Italian word, but it officially became an English word long ago and is found in any English dictionary.
on April 30, 2014 2:46am
This is a great thread - lots of good ideas to work with!
Another trick I work with is not to talk in terms of volume, but in terms of expression. So, I'd ask the singers to sing 'more intimately' rather than 'more softly'. Or as if they were telling a secret. Something that maintains the emotional intensity (to stop them disengaging vocal support), and that makes positive use of the dynamic marking for communicative purposes, rather than just taking away volume.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on May 13, 2014 7:44am
Hello James. firstly, you can get you choir to do piano without breathiness. they must sing very hard (but calm) . Word pronouncation should be very sharp, like monster )
on July 19, 2014 12:44am
Images are great.  Tie in the mechanics too.  A killer image is to imagine they get to tell you they've just won a million dollars, but the person in the other room can't hear it, and they aren't allowed to whisper (use something anger-based too once in a while). The result is an engaged vocal apparatus with excited breath.  Then break down the mechanics just like that, so they start to become aware of the physical sensation of singing quietly supported and engaged, so they don't have to rely on just the emotional or imaginitive motivation.  Finally, as someone said in this thread, once they've triangulated the concept, repetition. 
So again, nutshell:  Extreme excitement + physical understanding + repitition. 
But don't forget the 4th step..  Tibetan throat singing.  Just kidding. 
on July 22, 2014 8:16am
What a lot of good ideas on this thread!  My first-ever choral conductor, Marian Dolan, had us do hissing exercises: 4 beats from piano to forte, then four more forte to piano.  Then 8 beats each direction... and so on; I think in one summer we got up to 16+16.  Just make sure people keep their jaws relaxed.  I like to go on from this (after the exercise has become easier and longer), to singing on different vowels.  If you tell people to keep the SAME VOWEL all the way through the diminuendo it will stop them from swallowing/darkening.
on July 22, 2014 11:22am
Excellent information, especioally using the messa di voce to train controlof dynamics, is found in Prescriptions for Choral Excellence by Shirlee Emmons and Constance Chase, pp. 55-58. I highly recommend that book to choral conductors at any level.
on July 23, 2014 8:21am
One other idea in addition to all the excellent ideas here is one I heard from Bob Chilcott at a choral workshop several years ago which I use all the time. He told the massed choir to "send the sound out" on a decrescendo. Worked like a charm. It causes the abdominals to engage automatically. 
on July 23, 2014 10:51am
Yes, decrescendo is a perfectly good Italian word, just spell it without that extra 's'.
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