Objective Vocal Pedagogy in the Choral Ensemble

We’ve all probably had a worried singer ask us after rehearsal, “Am I sticking out?” Though this is a common occurrence in vocal ensembles, have we examined this question and the implications it has regarding our pedagogical approach in how to teach students to sing?

Anecdotally, singers that ask this question almost always have a larger (louder) instrument with a markedly different timbre from the other voices in the ensemble. Such aversion to “sticking out” could be indicative of a fear of sounding like themselves rather than a certain type of voice that will ‘blend’ with the group. As a result, singers diminish their sound or adjust their vocal production to assimilate to the conductor’s preferred vocal model. They could even perceive their ‘natural’ voice as being sub-standard and thus never explore their full vocal potential. Careful consideration should be taken of singers’ perception of belonging in our choral ensembles and the pedagogy that determines the quality of their experiences.

Vocal pedagogy frequently centered around achieving the conductor’s inherited or preconceived ‘ideal’ of excellent choral sound inhibits singers’ vocal development and stifles the discovery of the ensemble’s sound. Furthermore, the bias inherent in a nonflexible vocal pedagogy may impede or discourage singers who have lived-experiences singing that do not align with their experience in our classrooms. As ensemble directors, we must create structures that enable all types of vocal instruments and timbres to not only have access to our ensembles but thrive in them. We should work to make our singing spaces safe for all voices by teaching students to translate their home singing into the school or university by drawing similarities between the techniques used in their home singing (pop, gospel, jazz, hymns, etc.) wherever possible.

Does this mean we shouldn’t value cohesive goals in an ensemble setting? No! But those goals should co-exist with the development of each singer. Here are some questions we can ask to get started:

  • Does our pedagogical strategy allow the singers to discover more about their voices while achieving the goals for the ensemble, or does it force them to conform to a preconceived sound of the ensemble?
  • Are we willing to let our ‘ideal’ sound shift and grow WITH our singers as they discover their voices and when new singers come into the ensemble?
  • Are we willing to be flexible and patient if progress toward the ensemble goals doesn’t move as quickly as we hope, while we work toward the singers’ vocal goals?

There are many things we can do in order to develop and employ objective vocal pedagogy that is effective and accessible for all singers:

First, identify the implicit biases in what we each identify as ‘good’ in vocal/choral pedagogy and performance. For example, we frequently remark that a singer/choir has a ‘good’ sound. However, many times the definition of ‘good’ is inherently subjective and may vary from:

  • teacher to teacher
  • school to school
  • region to region
  • style to style
  • culture to culture

Once we’ve identified our biases, we need to examine the extent to which they are affecting — and even limiting — our teaching and our students’ experiences. This is not to say that we cannot have a particular interest or love for specific styles or idioms (and the corresponding vocal production needed). Nor should we expect to master the knowledge needed to command every style, culture, and type of music! But, with video chat, we can invite experts right into our rehearsals to help us learn – what an opportunity for us and our students!

Second, we must employ technically-based vocal directives rather than outcome and/or value-based directives to achieve a sound:

  • For example: Instead of a phrase that inherently causes assimilation of sound such as, “This needs to blend”, encourage singers to explore their vocal prowess while ‘matching’ elements such as pitch, vowel, dynamic, vibrato, and more.
  • If the specific moment needs an emotion or feeling, ask it of your singers and how it is shown in the music (“we should express joy here, and we should be forte in dynamic with vibrato”).

Third, we must commit to a shared, objective pedagogical vocabulary. This has long been a deficit in our field – let’s do the work and have the (tough) conversations to make it happen! This could include identifying the definitions of words such as:

  • Tone (meanings range from a single pitch to the entire set of characteristics of a sound)
  • Timbre (what makes a particular musical instrument or human voice have a different sound from another, independent from pitch and loudness)
  • Color (exchangeable with timbre, but sometimes used in place of tone and/or vibrato)

Fourth, we must choose activities and repertoire that develop our singers’ understanding of vocal production (not to mention history, cultures, social movements, and more).

  • This includes identifying the appropriate technical goals/needs for each piece to inform each singer as to how their voice can contribute to a cohesive ensemble sound.
  • We must be willing to learn and be flexible in executing the appropriate style/technique for the repertoire we study and perform.

Finally, we must focus on giving authentic praise when the technical and emotional goals of the ​music​ have been realized, rather than our own concept of an ideal choral sound being achieved.

This objective pedagogy cannot be limited to our rehearsal rooms and lessons – it has to be purposefully integrated into all facets of our field, including (but not limited to) adjudication forms for solo/ensemble and large group festivals, Honor Choir and All-State choir audition rubrics, collegiate entry audition evaluations, and more. If we do not consider the biases in our preferences of sound production, we risk excluding  students with diverse musical and vocal backgrounds in our choral ensembles.

So, let’s aggressively examine what we consider to be a ‘good’ sound. Let’s re-examine what is occurring in our vocal tracts and bodies when we sing and how to healthily modify them to achieve specific results. Let’s expand the vocabulary used in our field so we can work from a shared understanding, and praise our singers when they synthesize the vocal production appropriate to the music.

Most importantly, let’s encourage and allow each other to grow, together. There is a lot of work to be done, and our support for each other as we move forward is of vital importance.