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The Choral Challenge: Practical Paths to Solving Problems

The Choral Challenge: Practical Paths to Solving Problems

by Michael Kemp

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From common to not-so-common problems facing choral conductors of all experience levels, Michael Kemp brings a lifetime of experience living and working in the choral world to create a truly remarkable and practical book of solutions. This comprehensive handbook starts with a myriad of quick fixes to familiar choral challenges and then provides in-depth


From common to not-so-common problems facing choral conductors of all experience levels, Michael Kemp brings a lifetime of experience living and working in the choral world to create a truly remarkable and practical book of solutions. This comprehensive handbook starts with a myriad of quick fixes to familiar choral challenges and then provides in-depth explanations for choir directors who need more. What follows are sections on planning and preparation—including 62 warm-up exercises—as well as enlightening discussion on motivating and recruiting choir members. True best practices are poured into a single incredibly useful and well-organized resource.

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The Choral Challenge

Practical Paths to Solving Problems

By Michael Kemp

GIA Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 GIA Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62277-027-4


Loosening Up The Articulators

In the same way that runners stretch their muscles before actually running, singers need to stretch their bodies; that is, they need to lubricate and build the flexibility of the various vocal articulators (face, jaw, lips, tongue) before singing warm-up exercises.

Lubricating The Voice

Several hours before a rehearsal or performance starts, drink one to two glasses of water. Drinking just before singing is moderately helpful, but drinking water earlier allows time for it to be assimilated by the body, providing lubrication for the voice. Avoid caffeine, since it has the opposite effect on the voice; it dries out the voice. Whenever possible during singing responsibilities, keep a bottle of water with you and take small sips often.

Loosening The Torso

Grab hold of the two handles of an open door (or any stable object that is about waist high). Back up about a foot and a half, and pull out with your lower back, holding that position for a count of twenty. Then, for personal warm-up, hold a broomstick or similar long handle across your shoulders behind your neck, arms draped over the handle. Keep the top of the spine in a tall position throughout. Now, initiating the movement from your sternum, turn slowly to the left, looking over your left shoulder. Then repeat on your right side. Go back and forth between the sides several more times. In choir rehearsals where broomsticks are obviously impractical, take your left arm under your right arm and hold it at the elbow. Then pull the elbow to your left, turning the entire torso and looking over your left shoulder. Repeat on the right side. Finish this loosening of the torso by rolling your shoulders forward and up in circles with elbows held slightly out from the body, hands in a conducting position — palms down, keeping your hands horizontal to the floor as if pointing forward with your little fingers. Always keep the top of the spine stretched tall. Note that rolling your shoulders back and then up (instead of the more helpful forward and then up) creates unwanted tension in the neck and displaces correct neck and spinal alignment. Proper spinal and head alignment is discussed later at length (see chapter 1).

Abdominal Exercise

Developing better strength in the abdomen, lower back, chest, and shoulders makes a substantial difference in the vitality of conducting gestures. Consider finding out about light weight- training for the chest and shoulders, and specific exercises for the abdomen. There are many effective abdominal exercise devices that would be of significant benefit for conductors.

Loosening The Neck

Standing or sitting with good posture and keeping the top of the spine tall, drop your head all the way down until it is hanging free. With the head still lowered, shake your head slowly side to side, as if saying no. Slowly roll the head back up to its normal position, always keeping the top of the spine tall. Twist the head all the way to the left as if looking over the left shoulder; then the same on your right. Now, without collapsing your spinal alignment, let your left ear lean down toward your left shoulder. From that position, let the head roll slowly forward and then up to the right side, right ear leaning toward the right shoulder; then back down and center again and back up to the normal position. Make sure your breathing is regular throughout — avoid holding your breath. Now pretend that a flashlight is coming out of the top of your head with the beam going straight up. Make little imaginary circles on the ceiling, first starting one direction, and then the other.

Loosening The Face, Lips, And Jaw

Using the musculature of the face, brow, and head, wiggle and stretch your face all around. Now massage the temple muscles on both sides of your forehead with your finger tips, and then your whole face. With the jaw closed, purse your lips as far forward as possible into the shape formed for /u/ (as in "soon"). Then move back and forth between extreme facial changes for that /u/ and a very wide /i/ (as in "see"), activating that part of the face. Now repeat this facial exercise more rapidly. Then place your fingers lightly over the back part of your jaw (right under the ears). Clench your teeth and locate with your fingers the masseter muscles that bulge. Unclench them and gently massage that area with your finger tips. Now that the jaw is loose, do an imitation of circular open-mouthed chewing. Then, while continuing to chew, speak the following words several times each: "Yum, yum, yum" and "meow, meow, meow." Check to see that your spine is extended up toward the ceiling. The flexible movement of the articulators (face, jaw, lips, tongue) is to singing and diction as fingers are to the violinist.

Tongue Position

One of the most common vocal problems is a throaty, swallowed sound, usually accompanied by a slow or wide vibrato and a tendency to flat. These vocal characteristics are caused by a tongue position that is too far back in the throat. It is, admittedly, confusing to singers that such a back-tongue position produces a sound that seems to the singer to be mature and powerful. In reality, this tongue position decreases resonance and the voice's capacity to project, causes a slowing of vibrato because the throat is not open (the vocal tract is constricted), and causes the voice to neither tune nor blend well.

Settling The Tongue Forward

Tongue stretches in these pre–warm-up procedures help develop healthy forward positioning of the tongue. Stretch the tongue out and down toward the chin as far as you can, making your tongue fat (like a spatula). Hold it there for five seconds. Let it slowly slide back into your mouth, but only until the tip of the tongue touches the back of the lower front teeth. Do this several times. Then, with the tongue again stretched out and down, begin speaking numbers, from one to twelve, three numbers to a breath. Relax for a moment, and then put the tongue back out, this time saying the months of the year, a few at a time. Articulate as well as you can. When the tongue returns to its normal position, the tone quality is often noticeably more free and clear. In a mirror, the pharynx (the open space behind the tongue) should be visible while singing, not hidden by an arching back of the tongue. To build flexibility in the now-forward tongue together with a loose jaw and ample airflow, whisper, "Lah-lah-lah-lah-lah-lah" several times, being sure not to collapse spinal and head alignment.

Related Vocal Concerns And Suggestions

• Be aware that the tongue should always remain a little forward, with the tip of the tongue touching the back of the lower front teeth.

• On vowels related to /a/ (as in "father"), the tongue should be fat, touching both side edges and the front of the lower teeth.

• For vowels related to /i/ (as in "see"), the still-forward tongue is narrower, not touching the sides of the lower teeth, and humped toward the front (unlike the /a/ vowel, for which it is humped a little farther back).

I am indebted to the writing and philosophies of Dr. Robert Sataloff, MD, DMA, Professor of Otolaryngology at Jefferson Medical University, Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, and to Michelle Horman, CCC-SLP, voice pathologist and singing-voice specialist, for sharing her expertise in this area.


Posture And Spinal Alignment

Singers strive for good posture because it allows the body to function at maximum efficiency. The process of breathing and breath support are enhanced, the air flows upward unimpeded, the vocal folds are drawn together naturally, and the vocal sound is able to take full advantage of the resonators. However, an inherent danger is that too rigid a posture is almost as detrimental to good singing as bad posture.

The Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique suggests that, rather than setting ourselves in a certain posture, we would be better to think in terms of balance, mobility, and integration throughout the whole body. The following introduction to the concepts of the Alexander Technique was written for The Choral Challenge by Judith Grodowitz, an AmSAT Certified Instructor and extraordinary teacher in New York City:

The Alexander Technique suggests that with an optimum organization of the body, all the movable parts will work together in dynamic connectivity. Imagine a three-dimensional model of a human skeleton. Within this model, the skeleton acts as a kind of powerful, flexible scaffolding, which is mobilized by the muscle tissue surrounding it. Muscle tissue can have a very fluid, streamlined quality when there is an egalitarian distribution of effort.

The balance of the head in relationship to the torso is essential in this organization. Head balance influences how weight and effort will pass through the whole skeletal structure. Thus, it is vital to our ease, efficiency, and freedom. To locate the area where the head balances and moves in relationship to the spine and torso, stand looking forward with your gaze out, as if you are looking into the eyes of someone exactly your same height. Do not get "set." Now, gently make a small circle with the tip of your nose, as if you are writing in air with your nose. You are now moving your head at the actual joint where your head and the top of your spine meet. Notice the difference between this place and the top of a T-shirt collar. We often initiate movement of our heads from the T-shirt top area — which is much lower down than where the head and spine actually meet. By initiating movement and freedom at the top of the spine, we take pressure off of the movable parts below. We decompress. This is good news for moving and breathing.

With the Alexander Technique, when things are working well, "good posture" is really just a "happy byproduct" of what we call "good use of the self" — that is, how we function as an integrated whole in any activity. For specialized activities such as conducting and playing music, we can look to our execution of the simplest tasks — such as standing, sitting, and walking — and discern the underpinnings of how we habitually organize ourselves to "do what we do." These patterns will usually be present, and often exaggerated, in the more complex activities of our art.

Alexander Technique work brings awareness to the phenomenon of how we coordinate mind and body. We engage a process whereby we can elicit change at a very core level. We learn how to "talk with ourselves" in the moment, and, with the most delicate of thoughts, to fluidly shift to a use of the self that is beneficial and energizing. When we impose postural imperatives and alignment formulas on ourselves, we often get stiffening and positioning — the very thing that interferes with fluidity and resonance. Try to begin with sensing and rethinking/reorganizing yourself, versus "placement." This way, you can begin to shift out of habitual "misuse." We don't want to exchange one "rigid shape" for another "rigid shape." Rather, we work to exchange rigidity for mobility and support. By encouraging movable relationships between "parts" that are clearly articulated/acknowledged, we attain dynamic support. "Balance" is the point of most possible movement ... even in apparent stillness.

Proper Alignment For Standing

Although our aim should not be a set, rigid posture, it is true that as singers we must strive for healthier alignment. Alexander Technique lessons will help you fine-tune your own unique alignment issues, but there are some basic suggestions that will be of general benefit to us and to our choir members. Regarding standing, think of the feet as tripods. In a neutral stance, there is a three-way balance between the base of the big toe, the base of the little toe, and the center of the heel. Be aware of the strong connection between the body and the feet (including the heels), as if the heels were aimed down into the floor. This configuration below changes the alignment of the body above, placing the top of the spine more in line with the heels, rather than leaning slightly forward when placing one's weight on the toes. This balance also effects a healthy change in the latissimus muscles in the lower back and also the lower abdominal muscles, creating a gentle firmness, the opposite of a sagging feeling. The knees should not be locked back, but have the flexibility as if you were about to sit from a standing position, just forward of the locked position. When attempting to "stand straight," many of us hold our chests too high, causing some alignment problems at the top of the spine and head. To correct this tendency, think of the top of the spine, rather than the sternum, leading the posture. Aim your spine toward the ceiling, whether sitting or standing. Let the sternum and chest (thorax) relax into a natural position. We need to get away from the static idea of "holding" a certain stance and instead get into the pliant idea of "aiming" the posture into better alignment. Rather than attempt a certain stance for singing and conducting, we should continually strive to lengthen our bodies with flexibility.

Proper Alignment For Sitting

Sit directly on the sitz bones, not on the fleshy muscles in front or behind. The sitz bones are the ischium bones of the pelvis, located in the center of each buttock; these are the bony parts a person feels when sitting up straight on a firm surface. These bones are like rocking chairs, so there are a variety of positions that are well seated. Placing your weight right on the sitz bones lengthens the torso and spine, puts the head in good alignment, and allows flexibility in the muscles needed for breath support. Placing your weight forward of these bones causes a swayback posture, stiffness in the shoulders, and head out of alignment. Placing your weight behind them results in a collapsed chest, inflexible breath support muscles, and head out of alignment. Many singers who slip into this posture problem also sit back in their chairs with their ribs pushing against the chair. The intercostal muscles of the ribs are interdependent, and, if any portion of them presses against a chair back, for instance, none of the set of intercostals will function efficiently. These rib cage muscles are an important part of the breath support mechanism. Without them at full strength, exhalation necessary for singing is compromised. Having choir members sit forward on the edges of their chairs guards against this problem and helps singers sustain better alignment.

Results Of Alignment

Being out of alignment makes one feel compressed and saggy. Your body is working against itself. When you get into a more healthy alignment, you will feel a release from such compression into length, width, and depth. In many cases, your head will feel further back than it was, although it is now simply in more of an aligned state. Being in alignment is not meant to be a static placement but rather a positioning of the total body that allows maximum flexibility and balance, and that allows the body to function at optimal efficiency and with minimal strain. When properly balanced, the head can move freely in all directions, as if you had eyes in the back of your head, which were looking all around. In all head positions, whether looking up, down, or to either side, the top of the spine should continue to strive for lengthening, remaining tall but flexible. Rather than collapse that alignment when you look down, begin that movement with a lengthened, "tall" spine and nod your head down from that tall position.

How Alignment Affects the Eyes

Proper spinal alignment permits a straight forward gaze, which carries with it the appearance of strength and authority. Collapsed spinal alignment necessitates an upward gaze, suggesting an unsure or servile manner.

Alignment for Conductors

Regarding alignment for conducting, hold your elbows slightly away from the body with the palms down. The shoulder ball-and-socket joints work better and stay healthier when the hands follow the lead of the little fingers, almost as if you were pointing at the choir with your "pinkies" while conducting. The Alexander Technique concept of feeling a better connection with the floor (aiming the feet into the floor) and letting your conducting gestures follow the little fingers makes conducting clearer, stronger, and less tiring.


Excerpted from The Choral Challenge by Michael Kemp. Copyright © 2008 GIA Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of GIA Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Kemp is an internationally respected choral clinician and a member of the legendary Kemp family of choral musicians. He was a master teacher for 14 years at Germantown Academy, where he conducted the choruses and string orchestras, and he has conducted and lectured in more than 350 workshops and festivals over 35 years. He lives in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania.

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