When recalling my first guest conducting experience with a treble-voice choir in Bemidji, MN in 1998, my thoughts were that I would love to work with a similar group every day. Little did I know that I would have the fortune to work with the women’s choir at North Dakota State University every day—well…actually every other day—for over ten years and to serve North Central ACDA as the Women’s Choirs chair.
Do you eat your vegetables and try to exercise daily, or every other day? As in eating vegetables and exercising, there are ways to implement “what’s good for us” into our women’s choral ensembles. Please do not interpret the following as drudgery, but as ideas that can pay large dividends. Similar to the way in which many conductors learn techniques from other conductors, I frequently steal ideas from colleagues. Therefore, I am including vitamins from three fantastic conductors of women’s choirs with own my tips for working with women’s choirs. Thank you, Sandra Peter, Stephanie Trump, and Debra Spurgeon, for sharing your techniques for women’s choirs.
From Charlette Moe, Assistant Professor of Music at North Dakota State University:
1. Remember that choral experiences benefit and are life-changing for all students, regardless of talent. Though I was an average basketball player in high school, the tenacity and grit I learned from that experience constantly transfers to my daily life. Our singers, even those with average instruments, gain much from their ensemble experiences and become life-long advocates of choral singing.
2. Program music which isn’t your “go to” or your choir’s natural “fits us like a glove.” Your ensemble benefits in many musical and non-musical ways when singing music that is out of its comfort zone. An awareness of different genres, styles, and backgrounds of pieces often builds empathy, understanding, and community, along with technique. Although I love conducting and teaching accompanied works with long phrases that allow a bending and stretching of the phrase, my women’s choir and I have benefited and learned better vocal technique, rhythmic precision, and stronger listening skills from programming a cappella works.
From Sandra Peter, currently at Stetson University, and conducted and taught at Luther College from 1991 to 2013:
1. SINGING! What is the vision for the group? Why does the choir exist? There must be a vision. Choirs exist so people can sing. Focus on singing and sound, not on people’s expectations or hopes. Have the vision that singing changes lives. Believe that finding your voice and developing your voice can change a person.
2. PURPOSEFUL WARM-UPS: The minute the bell rings or the rehearsal time begins, start stretching, then vocalizing. We all have a lot to say and announcements to give, but wait with that until the end of rehearsal. Focus on the reason everyone is here: to sing! Build voices. Focus on standing tall, exhaling fully, then using the air they take in. Relax the jaw and tongue and encourage them to send air through an open, relaxed space. Purify vowels. Celebrate what unison singing can do to build voices and strengthen the ensemble. Make use of canons and rounds. Help your singers expand their range and their own awareness of what they can do as a singer.
3. FLEXIBILITY—BEING OPEN-MINDED: Change is a mindset. It is the mindset of a lifelong learner. We are open to new ideas, new sounds, and to our students, many of whom are new to us on a yearly basis. There is something new to learn each day. We foster this open-mindedness in our students so that they can experience music, choral singing, and being a part of a choir as fully and freely as possible. For example, resist labeling singers (“You are an Alto II.”), but rather, speak of voice parts simply as assignments. In a treble choir, many singers can comfortably perform more than one of the voice parts in any particular score. Also, physically move them around. Sing in a circle, sing in two rows facing each other, sing in mixed formation. Help them hear in new ways.
From Stephanie Trump, Director of Choirs at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School in Plymouth, MN and conductor of the Women’s Chorale at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul:
1. Remove the “underdog” stereotype for women’s choirs. Work diligently to ensure that women’s choirs are not perceived as second-place to the mixed choir both inside and outside of the ensemble. Women’s choirs are capable of much, given their unique chemistry, maturity, and aptitude. They will work at their premium when they know their conductor believes in them. They thrive on both praise and challenges. Women’s choirs are capable of quality leadership, fellowship, and musicianship.
2. Women’s choirs need high-quality repertoire rehearsed with equally high standards for process and outcome.
From Debra Spurgeon, Associate Professor of Music/Choral Music Education at the University of Mississippi:
1. Teach fundamental singing skills. Just like a daily vitamin, this is something we do in every rehearsal. There is simply no avoiding the need to build voices, whether it is a high school, collegiate, or community choir singer. If you want to achieve a high level of performance, singing skills must be systematically taught: physical awareness, breath management, teaching the head-voice-down approach, vowel alignment, and resonance balance. This work should be done in the daily warm up, but it can also happen in the middle of rehearsal when the conductor hears issues that need to be addressed and then devises an exercise on the spot to address it. Make voice-building a priority; know your singer’s voices, and don’t be afraid to stop to teach technique that arises in the repertoire. All singers, beginner through advanced, will benefit. For the adult female singer in particular, this will help the voice stay agile and expressive as aging and hormone changes take a toll.
2. My next “vitamin” applies to the conductor. We should always be searching for repertoire that suits our ensemble, and search for historical repertoire that is often overlooked. From the Medieval and Renaissance eras we have the music sung by nuns in convents. The Venetian Ospedale repertoire contains hundreds of scores written for the prodigious female singers and instrumentalists trained in a conservatory environment, such as Vivaldi’s Gloria and Porpora’s Magnificat. From the Romantic period, Brahms, Schubert, Rheinberger, and later, Holst, composed many works for women. Though it takes extra effort on the conductor’s part to research and locate this music, some scores are available for free download on the Choral Public Domain Library and the International Music Score Library Project websites. The conductor who does the work and delves into the historic women’s repertoire will find stunning pieces and will lead their women’s ensemble to a rich choral experience.
One final thought from the author:
Within households, mothers are often the ones who organize the family calendar. This notion, along with many of my personal friends and family, is supported by writer Brigid Schulte in “Why I hate ‘mom’ calendars,” a February 3, 2014 Washington Post article. Picture a portion of the singers in your women’s choirs as future mothers who organize their family’s calendar and give advice to their children with regard to schedules. Hopefully, we give the singers in our women’s choirs the right “vitamins” to assure her future advocacy of the choral art through encouraging her children to sing.