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Mousy, quiet girls

I'm wondering what to do with the painfully introverted (high school) girls who simply refuse to make any sounds above a mezzo piano (if I'm lucky). They seem to gravitate together and almost conspire not to make any sound. I've really tried to make choir an emotionally safe place for them, I don't ever single them out, I warm the choir up at a good volume level, and I've tried moving them around - sometimes next to strong singers, sometimes with each other, etc. But I just haven't been able to break through, and I'm wondering if there are any successful strategies for getting these girls to sing out.
Replies (13): Threaded | Chronological
on May 14, 2014 3:57am
I would call attention to your use of the word "mousy," which I find to be objectionable.  Your role here is to teach them as best you can and not to get them to be other than they are at this point of development in their life.  I would also question if they "refuse"  or "conspire."  Those words are judgmental.  They may be dealing with a host of issues unknown to you.   Leave them be and concentrate on making music with the group.  
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on May 14, 2014 9:15pm
Marilyn I'm sorry if you took offense. I would never use that language in their presence, I'm just trying to make light of the situation, while emphasizing the extremity of it. Frankness can be just as important in our profession as empathy, if one is to remain sane.
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on May 15, 2014 3:52am
If a teacher's role ISN'T "to get them to be other than they are," then what is it? My teachers expected me to improve (change), and if any of my daughters' teachers encouraged them to strictly stay within their comfort zone ("leave them be"), I would be livid.
And since a teacher cannot know everything about a student, there will always be "issues unknown." That's no justification for playing it safe and doing nothing, which is a complete abdication of a teacher's job.
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on May 14, 2014 5:47am
Hey Bruce, 
You and I have the exact same problem!  It's definitely a super frustrating thing.  Here are a couple things that I do in order to really get my ladies to sing out a little bit.
1) Teach them about how much breath it actually takes to make a good sound.  They are all used to listening to pop music on the radio, in which the sound is so much supported by computerization.  Demonstrate for them as well.  Once they have a better idea about how much sound it takes to sing properly, you need to...
2) Teach them how to use that air.  Again, the music they are used to listening to on the radio is a much airier, lighter sound than what most choral directors are looking for from their ladies.  They need to understand what their vocal mechanism should feel like as they sing in a choral setting.  Describe it in detail.  Side note: If you choose to talk about the difference between choral singing and pop singing, don't tear down the music that they love.  It will only make your already uphill battle a steeper climb.
3) As you vocalize, use exercises that initiate with voiced consonants such as /b/, /d/, /z/, /v/, /m/, or /n/.  The added air pressure that is required to create those sounds will help really help them kick into a larger tone through the exercise.  
4) Give praise to the ladies who are giving you what you ask for.  They will then give you even more, and the others will follow.
5) Allow your younger women time to grow (physically).  A characteristic of the adolescent and developing female voice is airiness. 
6) Finally, be patient and keep at it.  At the beginning of the school year, my women's chorale's sound was INCREDIBLY soft and airy.  We are now working on our fourth concert of the year, and they have come an incredibly long way from that original tone.  There are still plenty of days where they sound airy, and I remind them of the things we have learned to change that.  The tone they have could still be described as "soft", but just for reference what they now would call a mezzo piano used to be their fortissimo.  
Good luck!
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on May 14, 2014 11:08am
Joshua Cheney's #4 can not be over emphasized.  There's no getting around the fact that humans tend to repeat rewarded behavior and praise and acceptance is at the top of the rewards list for most of us.  Also, use the power of peer influence as the opportunity presents itself.  If there's one singer that is seen as a leader by the others, concentrate on that one using the praise motivation but don't over-do it to the point where they see it as manipulative.
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on May 14, 2014 12:15pm
Very good advice Joshua. Bruce I don't know how long you've been at trying to encourage these young ladies to sing out, but I've found that sometimes it just takes time--  alot of time, and this requires patience. I've had singers who seem incapable of singing above a mezzopiano for over a year, even two years. But with patient and steady encouragement have heard them build up the courage to sing out. Reticent singers are generally afraid that they won't sound good and that they may embarrass themsleves so they "play it safe." On a few occasions I have met privately with a singer to put them in a situation where there's less risk of experiencing embarrasment, With steady encouragement like "Could you sing that just a little louder? Great! How 'bout still a little louder? YES! Beautiful! Give it even more this time." Through this process they discover they can sing loudly and what that feels like, and that they can do it, and it sounds good! I do the same process sometimes with a section that is struggling to sing out. Some may respond quickly, but other may take well over a year.
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on May 15, 2014 2:34pm
As a formerly mousy girl, I can say that I sang quietly because I didn't know how to make a bigger sound.  My body just wasn't working well for me and I had a lot of noticeable breaks in my voice. If I tried to sing louder, I never knew when it would crack and really embarrass me.  A good teacher helped me learn to use my body well and now i have incredible volumne and confidence.  I use the same techniques to teach my choir on a broader level and while some of the girls are still timid, it's a big improvement from the begining of the year.
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on May 16, 2014 6:41am
I've had some luck coaxing healthy sound out of my middle school students by working on dynamic contrast in warmups.  If they work on cresc/decresc they will begin (hopefully) to feel the support that is needed to sing at that louder volume.  When you hear the good sound you are seeking from them, give them the positive reinforcement, and remind them of what it felt like when they got it when they revert to old habits. 
on May 17, 2014 3:38am
And I think this points out that, with obvious difficulties in the male voice occurring at this time, we (especially guy directors) fail to recognize the substantive and important changes occurring in the female physiology at the same time - it may occur earlier than with the guys, and not so obviously - but it's there.  I have an adult choir which has a number of sopranos (esp.) who are very breathy and very subdued.  I keep hoping that by being in a larger group, they'll feel "safe" about making their sound - but there's some excellent advice here for them as well, although there is also a good deal more long-learned behaviors that need to be overcome.
Chantez bien!
on May 17, 2014 7:22pm
I have been reading this thread for awhile, and every time I see the title, the "mousy" name-calling still galls me. Men need to try a lot harder to fathom what it is like to be a female singer at any age (but especially in the adolescent years) and be more empathetic. I think I can preach here to my fellow XY dudes since I have succesfully directed a professional women's choir for 6 years, directed special summer programs for gifted SSAA singers, composed dozens of works for SA through SSAA choirs, worked directly (again with my composer hat on) with skilled directors of female choirs such as Emily Ellsworth, Janet Galvan, Lynne Gackle, Nancy Menk, and Robyn Lana just to mention a few. Please guys, become more sensitive, and here is what I REALLY want you to do to educate yourself a lot more, and have way more tools for success with your choirs:
Purchase the book "Finding Ophelia's Voice, Opening Ophelia's Heart"  by Lynne Gackle. It is full of brilliant insights into the female adolescent voice and psyche. This is required reading. The other required reading is "Conducting Women's Choirs", edited and compiled by Debra Spurgeon. There are chapters on an amazing breadth of topics by many great contributors (essentially a who's-who of the women's choir movement over the last 25 years- but especially for this subject please read the sections by Sandra Snow and Sandra Peter) which are invaluable resources for anyone who directs women either in an SSAA type ensemble or within an SATB ensemble. The Spurgeon book also contains Lori Hetzel's U of Kentucky choir in a DVD demo of all sorts of important vocalise and warmup issues. Buy these two books and sit down with them for a week or two. They are both worth it to anyone in our profession. And let's drop the term "mousy", please!
Lynne Gackle's book, published by Heritage/Lorenz:
Deb Spurgeon's book, published by GIA:
Paul Carey
Applauded by an audience of 3
on May 18, 2014 5:22am
I'm sorry, but I have to comment on the commentary on "mousy."  Let's admit it's not the best choice of wording.  On the other hand, let's also, having made the point, get off it.  It's not the real issue; not really.  Rather, it was an attempt by someone to describe in shorthand a kind of problem we've all encountered, and we've all understood.  Let us also be sensitive to the person who made, perhaps, a choice of words we wouldn't have made - but who of us is not guilty of this?  But if we beat the poor fella to death with it, we're missing the broader point, which has been made splendidly by others.  Remember:  when you point a finger at someone, there are three pointing back at you.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
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on May 18, 2014 6:12am
Finding warm-ups that require a coordinated use of breath and long tones has had the best result with young girls for me.
Some useful ones:
--arms out 'holding a beach ball'  (raises rib cage, elongates posture, changes breathing w/o all the tallk)
--standing on one foot   (forces body into balancing, which usually elongates posture and changes breathing and singing)
--'Though the notes may rise.....and the notes may fall -- vocalises from .......(I'll have to look that up at school!)
--6 beats of sssssss, followed by singing on (i) ee  vowel   to the tune of My Country Tis of Thee.  The sustained, legato line on ee vowel often triggers a good tone automatically
--singing any lyrical passage just on a single vowel, and can try it on 2-3 different vowels then point out results, and how it feels and sounds
--gestures around the  head include circling with a pointed finger around ear, pointing to forehead, , arm and hand in basketball shoot action, etc. usually from other choral directors
--anything that helps with more inside mouth space:   'teeth apart' for Ah, and Oh,   'yawn space',  imitate British speech, echo spoken text with altered space
Good Luck!
Jolyne Antista
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on May 18, 2014 4:44pm
Brava, Jolyne!  I nominate you for the "Most Great Stuff with Fewest Words"  Award!
(Quick suggestion first; my general response below that)
This is in the "crazy-enough-to-work-really-well" 'cat'egory:  In short, I would tell them to sing like cats.    Usually they will laugh and their attempt will be still breathy.  You may have to try several times, and demonstrate an extremely pinched tone quality - one that most folks associate as "nasty/whiny/nasal".  I generally have to say, "No, that's way too sweet/breathy.  I need it much nastier/more whiny; like this:" [holding your jaw, tongue, teeth close together, but still sing fairly loudly] "Ammmeezzzeennnnggg  grreeess, haooooo sweeeeet theh saoooonnnddd".  Eventually they will engage their vocal folds, instead of letting too much air ascape. Then, "The cat took opera lessons."  (Exaggerate an elongated mouth position w/ a stereotype "Lahw, lahw"..or "Awh mawzihng grawihs, hawoh ...", but be sure they maintain the forward-focused tone, allowing their air, and tonal feeling/presence, to gather and  flow through the facial mask/nasla area.)  Working this way is fun, helps the comfort quotient, and can get them to actually feel where to send their air (resonance) for a fuller tone.  The next week you can follow-up; have them sing 5 tones in a row, "Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah" . The first must be as breathy as possible. (We point up the "wrong" to realize the "right".) The last must be as focused as possible.  (Like the cat, but with the mouth open.)  If some singers come in the next day and ask, "Ew.. is he goin to make us sing like a cat again!?"  Remember:  the fact that they remembered it, probably means that they sense that it is working....or that they want your guidance to get there.  Good Luck; keep us posted!
These replies are interesting, and I especially appreciate *Paul Carey's book suggestions.
In general, I hear choral/vocal professionals discuss the breathiness in tones of young girls (sometimes other ages, too).  It seems to be blamed on everything from shyness, to puberty, to pop music, to braces...[the latter can actually fluff out resonance - students will generally resonate better when the braces are removed, and the teeth have their original resonance],  the list continues.
While these are certainly real factors, I think one major factor we'd do well to attend and address, is focus.  Most singers - any age, any gender [including transgenders] need a solid foundation in technique.  We may be asking them to do something that  they really do not have the know-how for.
This is why I applaud Jolyne's great gift-bag of ideas!  Thank you, Jolyne; I'm saving this and crediting you.
Let's help them understand that air needs to be focused through their vocal folds - not pushed, or spread.  If professionals in  Bruce's situation have already taught this technique, then encouragement/gentle reminders, along with prayer/positive thought, and patience, may be our remaining resources.  But I have seen, in many choirs, and private students, that they simply need further technical guidance, and encouragement that singing with focused resonance will not make them sound dorky, operatic, loud, nasal, or any other negative association they may have with it.  They might not all be Jackie Evancho, but if she has learned technique at such a level, many adolescents can learn the basic relationship of support and resonance.  (Might not hurt to play one of her videos as inspiration.)
Another book I would suggest is Barbara Harlow's "You, the Singer".  Her chapter on resonance includes a great game where you touch/close off different parts of your face while singing - immediate "Hands-on' resonance demo - that they can feel.
*I observed Lynn Gackle's work with my daughter's Honor Choir here at Spivey Hall and the results were uplifting ... appropriate to the pieces, they produced tones from strong to etheral; most of the time they produced both simltaneously.  {But none were "mousy".  Of course they had auditioned choristers, and meticulously-planned acoustics...;/ }
Bles-Sings to all,
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