Regardless of whether you’re working with beginners, returning singers, or both, you can set up your ensembles for success by keeping these three things in mind.
1. Introduce Concepts of Healthy Production
It’s very important to focus on individual musicianship within the first few weeks of school. When students understand how to use their own instrument in a healthy way, they can contribute more effectively to an ensemble. As vocalists, we don’t have the luxury of taking our instrument apart to name and understand the different components. Accordingly, we must develop language around healthy and energetic production while getting students to connect to the feeling and sound of healthy singing.
How to Do It:
While this unit includes lots of moving around and studying anatomy, one of my favorite activities to lead is Constructive Rest. This activity has its foundation in the Alexander Technique, which is a method for improving body awareness, freedom of movement, and the release of unnecessary tension. Constructive Rest is an opportunity for singers to reflect and connect, and I usually use it at the end of a particularly active rehearsal. Students lie on the floor in a semi-supine position (on the back, knees bent and together) to examine their breath, areas of tension in their body, and even patterns of thought, with guidance from the teacher. More information about the function and practice of Constructive Rest is available on AlexanderTechnique.com.
2. Establish a culture of trust
The foundation of a strong ensemble is trust. In a choir, the clearest sign of trust is every singer feeling confident to sing in front of the rest of the group. Within the first few weeks in my class, every member will have the opportunity to sing alone. This happens in large groups and in partners. Sound scary? Doesn’t need to be.
Don’t make a big deal out of it, and they won’t either; at least not for long. Start small, like asking a student to model a vocalise during warm-ups. It becomes normal very quickly, as long as it’s accompanied by modeling from the teacher on how to be supportive and give constructive feedback to the soloist. One caveat: you, the teacher, have to sing alone first, and often. Vocal modeling from the teacher is vital to learning, and it shows them how to be vulnerable. Never ask your kids to do something you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself; that’s authenticity, and it’s key to building trust.
How to do it:
One of my favorite ways to encourage experimental singing and supportive listening is with an improvisational exercise called Vocal Karate. With all of the singers in a circle, the teacher leads the first round of improvising sounds and gestures: as per the name of the game, you want to channel the overacting ninjas from old-school Kung Fu movies. Everyone else is to copy you exactly. From there you can branch out into sirens, whoops, honks, hoots– anything you like, as long as it’s vocally healthy and always accompanied by a complementary gesture. Then, pass the torch. Students can lead this activity easily, and since it starts out silly, there’s no way to make a mistake.
3. Drill Classroom Procedures
One of the rehearsal skills that I really harp on within the first few weeks is focus in transitions. We establish an All Quiet signal as a class, so that I can get their undivided attention from anywhere in the room. I also time transitions using a huge timer on the projector. Students know exactly how much time they have to complete a task or prepare for the next activity. Even without the promise of a reward, they feel the need to hustle and beat the buzzer, because they know that I’m moving on right afterward.
How to do it:
All Quiet signals can look different from classroom to classroom; from hand signals to vocal call-and-response exercises, they run the gamut. Find what works for you, but keep in mind the age of the singers and the skill level of the group. “One two three, eyes on me”-type signals can feel too juvenile for secondary students. With my middle school groups, I begin by sustaining a single pitch that the students must then match while turning to look at me. The signal can differ by vowel, dynamic level, and pitch each time, and the students must match it as closely as possible before I give the cutoff.
This exercise can be tailored for more advanced groups; using the given pitch as a root, students can then construct a chord around it, selecting any pitch within their range that exists within the chord quality. Not only is this exercise effective for focus, but it helps with intonation and allows them to be creative. As a bonus, to any visitors in your classroom (perhaps the principal who’s observing you?), it looks like MAGIC.
Emily Williams is in her fifth year of teaching choral music at a variety of levels. After receiving her degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and teaching in Colorado for three years, she relocated to the Pacific Northwest and is currently teaching middle school choir in the Mukilteo School District.