Isn’t it strange that princes and kings
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people like you and me
Are builders for eternity?
Each is given a bag of tools, a shapeless
mass, a book of rules, and each must
make ‘ere life is flown a stumbling block
or a stepping-stone.
Poem by R. Lee Sharpe
This article addresses the tools of our vocal experience. I think we all enjoy the hunt for the music that stirs souls, challenges singers, and captivates audiences. Finding the right blend of text and composition is so much fun, especially when we are successful at gleaning the perfect selections. Each of us has our own method of building programs but in this article I am going to discuss building competent singers. I will list a “bag of tools “ that have worked for me during my 30 year career. Hopefully some of them will be useful to you as well. I will also admit that many of these ideas have come from colleagues. I will share the names of the ones I can remember.
My initial teaching experiences were at the elementary level and many of the concepts I taught therecarried over into my secondary teaching. One of those ideas was to create a 3X5 card file index of creative ideas, Orff & Kodaly techniques, rhythm games, finger plays, etc. It was an easy crossover to make a 3X5 card file of choral warm ups, sight-reading ideas and listening lessons for high school students.
It is important that students understand why they are doing warm-ups. Each of my cards has a heading and so I will list warm-up ideas by the vocal concepts that they represent. Let your students know what each exercise is intended to teach and refer to these warm-ups as your octavos demand specific concepts or elements of musical knowledge.
- Stand with feet slightly apart and one slightly ahead of the other. Lift the arms straight up in the air and then bring them out and down to sides. Keep the chest up and the rump tucked in, with shoulders up but not back like a soldier.
- Stand with feet apart, the chin level with the floor, shoulders straight but not back. Zip your jacket up, with back straight.
- Have the choir turn sideways with one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them and the other on their rib cage. Have the students inhale and check each other for low breathing and full expansion of breath. Have them do this by sections to avoid guys checking girls so there are no personal issues. (Jean Ashworth Bartle - Toronto Children’s Chorus)
- Have students put one hand under their own rib cage on one side and the other across their abdomen in front and breathe in slowly and then exhale on a hiss.
- Breathe in 4 counts – hiss out 4 counts. Progress to 8 counts in and 8 counts out.
- Breathe in low and expanded and hiss out on short hiss sounds to engage the diaphragm. Have students feel the quick engaged expansion as it happens.
- For breath control have students try to hiss out at full engagement for 8 seconds,10 seconds, 12 seconds etc. Try having a contest to see who can remain hissing the longest.
- Sing “Greensleeves” or “What Child is This” at a moderate tempo with full 4 measure phrases on one breath.
- Sing any neutral syllable, Oo, Ah, etc. on the C & D whole step repeatedly for aslong as possible. As students run out of air have them sit down.
- Do tongue twisters or just speak the text you are working on. Have the students hold their hand about two inches in front of their mouths to feel the air.
- Sing up by half steps, using the rhythm ta, ta, tripl-ti ta with words “lips, teeth, tip of the tongue.”
- Using the rhythm ti-ti, ti-ti, ti-ti, ta and the notes C,D,E,F,G,E,C sing the text “ Crispy,Crunchy, Consonants.” Move up by half steps.
Open Mouth, Loose Jaw & Tongue
- Open Mouth- Visualize a big apple and prepare to take a bite.Imagine a bumblebee inside your mouth and if you close it you will be stung.
- For a loose tongue sing the scale tones D,T,L,S,F, on the words” Lucy, Lucy, Lucy, Lucy La" with the rhythm ti-ti, ti-ti, ti-ti, ti-ti, ta. Move up or down by half steps.
- For a loose jaw and lips try these pitches: S,F,M,R,D,R,M,F,S,F,M,R,D and this rhythm ti-ti, ti-ti, ti-ti, ti-ti, ti-ti, ti-ti, ta quarter rest. Move up or down by half steps on "Blah,blah,blah,blah," with two pitches to each "blah."
- On a descending scale sing "Alleluia" twice. Give students a lifesaver to put on theirtongue to experience space inside the mouth, keeping the tongue only lightly touching behind the teeth. This is a fun activity!
Harmony & Chord Tuning
- Use the vowels "Me -Eh-Ah" on descending triplets for each scale tone,D,T,L,S,F,M,R,D. In an SATB group, have the men sing down the entire descending major scale and hold the bottom Do. The altos start two notes later and descend on Me-A-Ah triplets to the scale degree Mi and hold. Sopranos start two notes after the Altos and descend on Me-A-Ah triplets to Sol. The group will end on a major chord and then can move up or down by half steps and repeat. For women’s or men’s chorales just modify to TTB or SSA starting with the lowest voices doing the entire descending scale. (Phil Clissold)
- Sing the whole scale in solfeggio starting each section in thirds or two notes after the previous section. Men, Altos, Sopranos. SSA, TTB. It does not matter which section leads. You can move it around for variation.
- Using a tonic triad, have lowest voice sing “Mary had a Little Lamb” on Do, while the next highest voice sings it starting on Mi, and the highest voice starts on Sol. Work at a slow tempo to tune the chords perfectly. This can also be done in intervals of fourth, fifth, sixth and Major 2nds.
- For an SATB chorale try singing up the major scale in unison and then have the sopranos stay on Do, the tenors hold on La, the altos hold on Fa and the basses hold on Re. All parts except the soprano then move down to the next scale toneon a cue from the conductor. Once you are tuned on the final major chord you can move the whole choir up or down by half steps to start over in a new key.
Descending Interval studies to keep the latter tones centered
- Sing the descending scale tones S,F,M,R,D, on the syllables "Va ____ Va ____ Va." Think of having glitter under your eyes!
- Sing “Lolly, lolly, lolly, pop” on this descending pattern: High D, S, M low Do, with two eighth notes per word and a quarter note on "pop." Move up by half steps. Lift the arms up as the notes move downward.
- Sing a descending major scale yourself and make one note flat. Have the students listen to discover the out-of-tune pitch. (You may have to practice this one)
- Sing "Zing, Zing. Zing, Zing, Zing" on D,M,S,M,D . Place the index fingers along the sides of your nose to feel the buzz. Move up and down by half steps.
Intonation & Breath Control
- Have the students move slowly over 8 counts to go up only a half step. This is very difficult but a fun experiment in interval spacing.
- Sing rounds and canons as a part of your warm-ups.
- Sing partner songs as part of your warm-ups. Some partner songs include:"Are You Sleeping," "Row, Row, Row, Your Boat," "Three Blind Mice," "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Just remember to make sure they are in the same time signature and that the measures come out equal. It is sometimes necessary to sing one of the songs twice through to make them come out correctly.
- “It’s what happens between the notes that counts.” (Jerry Blackstone - University of Michigan)
- “Long notes need to grow or go.” (John Tyner)
- Use familiar tunes like "America," "Happy Birthday," etc. to practice making rainbow phrases. As the music ascends increase dynamics slightly; as it descends, relax the dynamics a bit.
- Practice making long notes increase and decrease dynamically.
- Use the dot on a quarter note to grow to the eighth note for forward motion.
- Repeated notes also need to either grow or recede, depending upon the placement in the phrase.
- Place a list of 16 two-syllable vocabulary words on the board. Sing them each on an ascending and descending scale stressing the correct syllable. Be sure to include a few on the list where the second syllable is stressed rather than the first.
- Speak the text of your songs with correct syllabic stress and then add the notes.
- Echo clap and have students clap back what the hear. Use student volunteers to lead.
- Echo clap in rounds. The leader begins a 4 beat phrase. As students repeat this pattern the leader is already doing the next pattern.
- The leader claps a measure of rhythm. The students clap it back. The leader claps a new measure but the students must clap back the first pattern and the new measure. This continues through 4 complete measures.
- Clap out a 2 measure pattern and have the students notate it on paper. Extendevery few days until they can do 8 to 16 measures for rhythmic dictation.
- On a single note do these gestures as you sing:
|oo - || with a gesture of thumb and index fingers pulling away from the mouth |
|ee - || pull in same manner from the bridge of the nose out the forehead|
|oh -|| circle the mouth |
|ae -|| place thumb and index at corners of mouth in mock pinch forward lips|
|ah - || lift your hand at the side of the head and curve over the ear|
| || (Jefferson Johnson - University of Kentucky)|
- Using the above gestures for appropriate vowel sounds, sing the following syllables, "Me, May, Mah, Mo, Moo" to the rhythm ta, ta ,ta , ta, / ti-ti, ti-ti, ta-ah, on the notes S,S,S,S, / S,F,M,R,D. Move up or down by half steps.
- Sing the following on eighth notes until the final note which is a half note, using any vowels: S,F,M,R on "Oo," D,T,D,R on "Ah," M,F,M,R, D on "Ae." Move up and down by half steps.
- When working on a piece with many separate entrances, have the students standwhen they enter and sit when another voice takes over.
- When students have a suspension or a moving part where no one else sings have them raise their hands as they sing in these spots.
Writing Across the Curriculum
Have the students write responses to any selection of music or a recording of a piece of music on which they are currently working.
This music makes me feel……….
This music makes me think of………
I liked the part in the music where………..
If this music was a color it would be _____________ because………… etc.
Have students listen to other recorded choirs and use the choral rubric as if they were adjudicators. You can also do this with recordings you make of your own choir and have them listen and give critical feedback.
Some of these ideas may be new to you and some of you may use these very exercises on a regular basis. One thing I do know is that warm-ups, listening skills, and sight-reading are essential if you want to build musically literate students. Constant attention to existing problems is the only way to improve. If the students understand how to fix their musical issues, they will try their hardest. No group wants to sound mediocre! With the proper tools, variety, good literature, and a caring conductor the students will rise to any challenge.
“If music be the food of love, play on.” - William Shakespeare
Catherine is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University where she majored in music education. While pursuing her Master’s Degree she served as assistant conductor of the EMU Madrigal Singers. Mrs. Brodie retired from Monroe Public Schools, where she taught for 25 years. While at MHS her choirs received consistently high ratings. She has also had the past honor of conducting Oakland Singers, Toledo Opera Children’s Chorus, and the Monroe Youth Chorale. She is currently teaching in the music education department at Eastern Michigan University. In addition she conducts the Agora Chorale at Monroe County Community College and the River Raisin Centre for the Arts Cantate, a youth chorale. She is an active member of the Michigan School Vocal Music Association, where she has served on both the full board and the executive board, and currently serves on the adjudication committee. She is also on the executive board of ACDA-Michigan as treasurer. Catherine was chosen by the Michigan Music Teacher’s Association in 1997 as Teacher of the Year for her work in elementary music education. She was also honored with the 2005 teacher of the year award from Michigan School Vocal Music Association for secondary choral music education. She has had the past honor of conducting two Michigan State Junior High Honors choirs and is thrilled to have recently been chosen by her peers to conduct the 2010 SSAA Michigan State High School Honors Choir. Catherine is a member and soloist of the John Tyner Chorale and St. Paul’s United Methodist Chancel Choir. She and her husband Bill have three sons: Matthew, Andrew, and Brian, as well as three grandsons: Liam, Aidan, and Caleb.