Preparation, Practice, Performing, and Pondering

by Thomas Blue
ACDA-MI R&R Chair for Junior High/Middle School Choirs

Editor’s Note: The following is an outline of a session presented at the ACDA-Michigan 2016 Fall Conference. A related article will be published in the Winter, 2017 Edition of ACDA ChorTeach.

Using the reading packet as a guide, the presenter shared ideas, strategies and “thoughts along the way” based on experiences in and out of the classroom, experiences that have proven to engage adolescent singers in the choir room.  Teaching/ rehearsal strategies and reflections from a career in choral music were intertwined throughout the repertoire selections that have been proven successful for middle level and high school choral singers. Handouts, a reading packet including variable voicings were provided to participants. Attendees left the session with ideas and repertoire to effectively engage their singers and confirmation that what we do is meaningful and relevant for students.

Preparation, Practice, Performance and Pondering: A Thoughtful Reading Session


I. Preparation:  What do we look for? Suggestions from ACDA’s R&R website

Repertoire Selection

  • Know the vocal range of each ensemble. Choose repertoire that sits in that range comfortably but also will occasionally challenge the singers to strengthen the high and low vocal registers as well.
  • Choose selections which are historically significant and also new compositions seek repertoire that has stood the test of time as well as those that are new, interesting, and representative of world cultures.
  • Include a cappella selections as well as accompanied ones. The accompaniment must enhance the selection as well, and be an integral part of the composition.
  • Choose repertoire that strengthens musicianship skills, vocabulary, exposes singers to historical practices and also strengthens vocal ability.
  • When possible, commission new works and allow singers the opportunity to meet and work with composers.

Repertoire Presentation

  • A choral program should demonstrate balance between varied historical selections (unless genre specific as indicated in the mission of the program), including varied tempo, mood, text, and color.
  • Allow the repertoire to dictate performance practice various cultures and periods require certain performance practices and tone colors. It is the responsibility of the conductor to study the score, research the background of the piece, and present the music in a way that respects the historical and cultural significance of the work.
  • The use of movement should be well thought out, and respectful of the culture and art of the music
  • Seek musicians within the community, school and choral ensemble who would offer the ensemble exposure to different accompanying instruments. Utilize the highest caliber of musician possible to enhance the product and overall artistry of performance.

Vocal Production

Vocal Health

  • Conductor/teacher must be aware of individual vocal health and developments in the group.
  • Changing voices
  • Conductor must have knowledge and skills to assist with changing voices, both boys and girls.
  • Teach basic healthy vocal habits including breath support and control, vowel formation, tongue placement, tone quality.
  • Teach general vocal health including the importance of hydration, sleep, avoidance of smoke, caffeine, coughing, etc.


  • Vowel formation, placement of the voice in the resonating chambers, and breath support are important to vocal health and intonation.
  • Learning to listen, teaching the ensemble to listen to one another, and analyzing the ensemble’s tone will assist with intonation.
  • The individual singer’s understanding of pitch in the context of the scale and chord will also aid intonation.
  • Place singers with similar voices together in order to avoid tension in the voice or over-singing due to contrasting vocal quality.


  • Modify tone color to fit style.
  • When healthy vocal habits are established, singers can modify the tone in a healthy manner to imitate the timbres found in world music.
  • Teacher/conductor should be knowledgeable about the performance practices of historical repertoire; Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, etc.

Rehearsal Techniques and Instruction

  • Literacy is important to independence and should be taught in the manner that is most comfortable for the conductor, whether that be through solfege, available sight-singing resources (books), or the repertoire. Conductor/Educator must address pitch literacy at the readiness level of the ensemble. Strategies can include recognition of intervallic direction/melodic contour, interval identification, and solfege or kinesthetic relationships such as hand signs
  • Rhythmic literacy can be taught using numbers (count-singing), Kodaly or similar processes.

Ensemble – Warm- up

  • Physical: Stretches (arms, head and neck)
  • Mental: A-1, 1-A (thinking activities – not necessarily musical)
  • Rhythmic snapping, clapping
  • Rhythmic mirroring – “Watch the Conductor” – game
  •  Vocal
    • Rhythmic vocalizations on neutral sounds  (consonants)
      eighth note/ quarter note patterns in duple (4/4)
    • Sighs: “How are you today?” –  “Fine, Thank you.” – “Today, we are going to cook …”
    • Descending five note scales
      • Lip trills
      • “oo, oh and ah”
      • Kodaly pattern cards
      • Solfege ladder

II. Practice

Today We Shall Be Merry – Vecchi/ arr. Porterfield (3pt mixed) 15/1420H-3
Flow Not So Fast, Ye Fountains – Dowland/ arr. Thoburn
Gloria Alleluia – Crocker (3-part mixed) 42307040
Same Train – Gibbs
Viva La Musica – Brunner (SATB) 48022619
A Dream within a Dream – Cobb (SATB) SBMP 1292
Wide Open Spaces – Quartel (SATB)
True Lover’s Farewell (SA (T) B) Arr. Unterseher WW1445
No Mark – Effinger (SATB)
Tonight – Ulrich (SATB) MP 1532

*tenors (unchanged voices) can sing either the alto or tenor part and can be used as a transition part through the voice change

III. Performance:  Concerts, Collaboration and Community

“Collaboration in the Ensemble Arts” – Tim Sharp

IV.(A) Pondering People and Ideas

What are the texts/ poets that cause your mind and heart to pause, reflect and give thought?

  • Biblical writers (Psalms, OT stories, Song of Solomon)
  • Teasdale, Dickinson…maybe even Michigan’s own Gwen Frostic
  • cummings, Frost, Whitman, Hughes, Angelou
  • Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert

Who are the people that influence your thinking and cause you to grow intellectually?

  • H. Gardner (intelligence)
  • J. Maxwell (leadership)
  • M. Csikszentmihalyi (flow)
  • R. Shaw (choral conducting)
  • C. Kleiber (conductor)
  • L. Von Beethoven (life and music)
  • G. Mahler (life and music)

IV. (B) Pondering Self: An Unexpected Life in Choral Music or “Is the hokey-pokey really…”

The Road Not Taken
Robert Frost, 1874 – 1963

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

You see, we never dreamed that…

  • We would have become a musician.
  • We would have become a singer.
  • We would have gone on to college to study music; you see…some of us might have been told to become a…doctor or lawyer, “some profession where our intellect would not be wasted.”
  • We would have become a teacher in choral music; you see…some of us wanted to become a…high school band director
  • We would have been teaching choral music the rest of our lives?

As a musician, it is easy to get “burned out” …so to quote a Quaker hymn, “How Can I Stop from Singing?”

All along this choral journey, we have all had significant “mentors” who have perceived in us those things that we never dreamed and those things necessary for success in the choral art.

John Maxwell states that “Mentoring is who you are as much as what you do.”

We have all had mentors that come to our minds…these are the ones who knew!

Tim Sharp states that “For the mentor, the desire to pass on information and life experiences is part of generativity – contributing to the good of the profession and to the good of another individual.”

We have been mentored and hopefully, continue to be and we all continue to be mentors

You see…we think often about former students like

  • Those who are teaching or have taught choral music
  • Those who have directed a church choir or are currently doing so
  • Those who are studying to be choral music teachers/ conductors
  • Those who are professional singers, actors
  • Those who are leaders in their community choruses or sing so that their souls are engaged and never run dry

You see we think about our current students like… (You fill in the blank)
It not just about choral music education and choir, it’s about art, it’s about being a family, it’s about teaching creativity, it’s about teaching kids to think artistically, it’s about teaching problem-solving in the arts, it’s about something beyond what we often cannot express in words.

You see we think about our students because… we feel an obligation to them… to give them an experience like we had… an artistic experience that will stay with them for a lifetime.

Tim Sharp again states that “The community known to musicians as an ensemble is both a vibrant learning environment and a subtle mentoring environment. The fact that the ensemble is part of an “ancient profession” obscures the fact that in the 21st century the musical ensemble emerges as a robust learning community and social organization.”

“Is the hokey-pokey really what’s it all about?”

We can call to our attention to the national scene in choral music…

We can call our attention to ACDA-MI…

But what we really need to call our attention to this…

You see… our students know that “the hokey-pokey is not what it’s all about.”

Our students know what it’s like to…

  • stand on the stage in an honors choir
  • wear t-shirts that say “Choir Rules”
  • perform a solo at s/e festival
  • perform at choral festival
  • sing in the great cities of America
  • commission a composer
  • work with and be trained by outstanding high school and college faculty
  • have an audience member tell them that the performance was so beautiful that he/ or she wept
  • sing in multiple languages
  • receive standing ovations
  • sing around the world
  • perform with professional musicians
  • eat pizza and celebrate performances and each other
  • sing at conventions
  • perform for the community
  • to do a choir “flash-mob”
  • to sing the national anthem for special events
  • be music students at colleges and universities across the country
  • write, perform, record and sing their own music
  • perform in an opera
  • sing on the Broadway stage
  • be singers
  • be teachers
  • be actors
  • be performers
  • be friends
  • be family

An Unexpected Life in Choral Music, yes that’s what’s it’s all about and I close with these thoughts…

In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer speaks eloquently about “the grace of great things,” He writes:

That phrase comes from an essay by Rilke. When I read it, I realized that our conventional images of community ignore our relationships with great things that call us together – the things that call us to know, to teach, and to learn. I saw how diminished the community becomes when it excludes the grace of great things and relies entirely on our own limited graces.
By great things, I mean the subjects around which the circle of seekers has always gathered – not the disciplines that study these subjects, not the texts that talk about them, not the theories that explain them, but the things themselves.”

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.