In every elementary classroom across the globe, teachers try to create a room full of good listeners.
Any teacher worth their salt knows that when a student opens their mouth to talk, their ears magically shut off and they stop listening. Unfortunately, this applies all too often to singers as well!
When we open our mouths to sing we tend to focus only on what is coming out of our mouths. We begin to ignore everything going on around us: other singers, the accompaniment, fire alarms… and any other noise that might distract us from listening to our own voice!
It’s no wonder that most singer jokes revolve around the idea that singers are self-centered! This madness has to stop. In order to function as a member of a choir, singers must listen to the other voices singing around them.
If you sing in a choir or lead one, I’m going to share some ideas that I hope will help you open up those singer’s ears.
In choral music, I believe that a large proportion of the issues most choirs face can be solved with the ears, not the voice. We teachers often tell our students they need to listen to one another, but we often don’t teach them how to listen, or rather: what they should be hearing.
Is it pitch?
The blend of timbres?
Balance among voice parts?
The first step toward a choir that uses their ears is to be very specific about what they are listening for.
Or more specifically, what the “ideal” sounds like.
Learning to sing in tune
If you ask your average 10th Grader the question “Is this choir in tune?” you will be stared at like you are a Martian. As musicians we forget how years of listening to music has given us a keen sense of pitch – so much so that when an instrument like a piano is out of tune, the hairs on the back of our neck stand up or we have some other visceral or physiological reaction.
But children are still very much developing both their definitions of things like “pitch”, “tuning”, “blend”, and “balance”… and their ear for these fundamental aspects of music. As music teachers, we must help them develop these aural skills right alongside learning the terminology and definitions.
This can only come through listening. Find opportunities to teach these listening skills! It seems most schools have a practice room piano, gone out of tune, sitting forgotten in the back of some practice room or office. Before it gets tuned, use this valuable tool!
Let students experience what being “out of tune” feels like.
Train their ears to cringe, like ours do!
Another tool to use might be to have students listen to pieces specifically designed to throw our ears into bedlam. I suggest “Three Quarter-Tone Pieces for Two Prepared Pianos” by Charles Ives.
Though these are not technically “out of tune” (they feature two pianos that have been specifically tuned a quarter-tone apart) it will give your students that same sense of pitches pulling apart from our carefully-trained chromaticism.
Finally, have students listen to great examples of balance, in-tune singing, and harmonies. YouTube is bursting with exceptional choirs singing pieces from your own repertoire. These can be used as classroom tools to demonstrate the ideal.
Ear Training Exercises for the Developing Choir
Once your choir knows what they should be listening for, they begin the journey of listening to one another. There are several exercises that can be used to build their listening skills.
“Half-steps by part”
The first exercise that I like to do as a warmup activity shortly before we get into rehearsing our music covers the three areas of balance, blend, and tuning. In an SATB choir, I put basses on the root note (I start them in the key of C) tenors on the fifth, altos on the third, and sopranos on the upper root.
Once everyone is singing their note, we repeat a “Ta Te Ti To Tu” pattern. You can ask them to crescendo or decrescendo, and ask certain parts to sing out or back off depending on your balance.
Then have one voice part at a time move up a half step. Tip: Save the altos for last so the altos learn to switch the tonality from minor to major. Ideally this entire exercise should be done a capella.
It is very important to “debrief” at the end of the exercise by asking them to apply the skills they learned during this exercise into the rest of the rehearsal.
The “Magic Chord”
This is a variant of the half-steps exercise which I use for middle school, where the voices have often not yet changed (and where attention spans are shorter!) I ask them to sing a solfege scale ascending, and then on the descending scale ask my front row to stop and hold the high do, the middle row to stop on the sol, the back row to stop on mi, and I finish it off myself by singing down to the low do.
They must watch the director to know whether they should sing louder or softer, and if they are out of tune.
My choir calls this the “Magic Chord” warmup because of how the major triad chord seems to magically appear.
Putting it all into practice when singing
The most important part of the lesson comes with applying these concepts to music that you rehearse. Here are three steps you can use:
- Pull a small group out of the choir and have them listen to the rest of the group.
Sometimes I ask them questions about what they heard, and sometimes I just thank them and have them rejoin the group. For a quick fix, cut off the group and periodically ask them what they think of the blend, the balance, or the tuning.
- Let choirs act as judges for each other.
It is often easier to judge the performance of another before judging your own, so use this as a stepping stone toward listening for your own choir’s skills and areas of improvement. Before contest time, have a day when the students are themselves adjudicators for a choir. Use the grading system the students will be judged by, and have students listen to another choir and listen for the same criteria their judges will be using to judge them. Include both excellent examples and not-so-excellent ones.
- Record rehearsals periodically
and have your choir adjudicate themselves. Have them do this toward the beginning of rehearsals, near the midpoint before a performance, and then shortly before the performance event for maximum effectiveness. When they begin to hear themselves like a judge rather than just hearing their own voice, they get a great incentive to focus on the overall sound of the chorus rather than just their own personal performance.
In order to function as a choir, the singers must work as members of a team and listen to one another. Success will only come when the singers are acutely aware of one another, and how they fit into the overall structure of the music. The skills we teach as music educators can focus and hone these skills with just a few simple exercises used in each rehearsal.
Once this level of awareness has been reached, you may well find that the “issues” that have been plaguing your chorus simply disappear.