The Complexity of Singing

by Gabriela Hristova, ACDA-MI Past President

Teaching and making music with a choir is a complex process. I would compare it with the playing of an instrument, except that the instrument in our case is a group of people with various personalities and emotional sensitivity, different life experiences, and individual understanding of music as an art. We then add factors such as musical skill levels, singing experience, vocal health, and commitment to the goals of the ensemble that are inevitable and playing a significant role in the overall process. While the two music making processes might be different on many levels, they are also the same on many levels.

When I observe my piano practices and habits from over the years, I also think of my teaching methods, various techniques, and approaches that I use to cultivate musicality, expression, and healthy technique in my singers. The teaching of basic musicianship, singing skills, ensemble habits, understanding of interpretation, which we all repeatedly do in our choir rehearsal rooms semester after semester, season after season, often makes me compare what we do with what athletes do. The number of years devoted to our craft, the commitment, discipline, and perseverance of intense rehearsal schedules and performances, are similar. They are meant to build, develop and strengthen us and our students, not only as skillful musicians, but also as teachers and performers in tune with their inner sensitivity and able to communicate the finest nuances of musical context through their hearts and souls.

As I reflect on my years of training, teaching and performing, I realize that the amount of information that needs to be transmitted, cultivated, and assimilated in the choir room is vast. The gradual steps of building healthy vocal technique and ensemble awareness, the depth of musical details explained, the motivation and encouragement involved in embarrassing and loving the complexity of the singing process, are infinite.

Yet, there is a magical simplicity in all of this, a simplicity that makes the process enjoyable and fulfilling. I ask myself the questions, what are the most important aspects of this process that I want my students to embrace and care for? What are the seeds that I want to plant in their hearts and minds for them to carry on after they have sung under my direction?

Here is what I have found out, and which I communicate to them on a daily basis:

  • Music is more about responding to sounds (after we have understood the meaning of the musical story), than making them.
  • Listening is the key to sensible ensemble awareness.
  • Connecting with those around us makes all the difference.
  • There are three aspects to every sound: beginning-duration-ending. Care for the duration of each note as you would for a child, and respect the silence between sounds.
  • Meaningful words set in music are powerful and have the potential to change someone’s life. Absorb them in your heart and let them come out through your singing.
  • Think in shapes and colors. Affect is derived from phrasing, not rhythms and notes alone.
  • Be your own conductor and take ownership of the inner pulse.
  • The intake of breath is the essence of life. Think about the first breath of a newborn baby.
  • Emotion breathes life into the notes and rhythms we sing/play. Without it, however perfect the notes and rhythms are, they are just notes and rhythms. The good news is, emotions is what we are made of.
  • Eagles have an incredible vision and are able to see many things at once from a broad perspective with complete clarity. Chickens have poor vision and can only see what is immediately in front of them. Be an eagle.
  • Posture is audible. Share your joy an appreciation by visibly engaging in the now.
  • Share your heart. Singing is the most instinctive reaction and reflection of our emotions. That is why it is so powerful.
  • Allow yourself to be vulnerable and open your mind’s ear. Our minds have an incredible potential to understand musical content on both intuitive and analytical level.
  • Making music is a privilege. Invest yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. This summary is by no means comprehensive and is perhaps nothing new, but it could be a starting point of communication with our singers in the exciting and complex process of teaching and making music with them. It has been for me and it has worked beautifully.

Gabriela Hristova is Director of Choral Activities at the University of Michigan at Flint and serves as Past-President of ACDA- Michigan.