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November 16, 2012

The Conductor’s Bag of Tricks
Kansas directors share ideas

vogelCompiled by Brad Vogel, Editor, The Choral Range, newsletter of Kansas ACDA

Try as one might, it is impossible to plan for every contingency. With experience and astute observation, each conductor begins to collect a repertoire of techniques to address the issues of tone, style, learning and attentiveness that afflict every choir. Break open your satchel and add to your collection . . .



brokenickyJanie Brokenicky, Tabor College
R&S Co-chair for Women’s Choirs - Kansas

Kinesthetic imagery and modeling

I have found that many students at the middle school and high school level learn quickly by using kinesthetic imagery. I think we often try to reserve it for younger students, but the older students (even in my college choir) can benefit from "feeling" the rhythms: conducting themselves, tapping shoulders in a circle, or release a cutoff into the air. This can be a great style builder too—it always amazes me how drastically the sound changes by bouncing an imaginary ball lightly or pounding it into the ground.

Also, one of the strongest tools a teacher has is their own voice. When I just can't “get” the sound I want out of them, usually it is because I have been talking too much. If I can demonstrate the sound with the proper vowel shape, syllabic stress, phrase shape and style, they will know exactly what I want and usually give it back. As long as it is not used for rote note-learning, I believe that modeling is one of thestrongest “tricks” at a teacher’s disposal.


comleyClark Comley, Sterling Middle/High School
South Central District Representative - Kansas

Clark Comley’s Top Ten Choral Rehearsal Bag of Tricks

  • Sing unison songs to start the school year—I do this with all choirs at all levels.
  • Teach tone placement and vowels all the time through the music being rehearsed.
  • Model the tone and sound wanted—I do this in every rehearsal. colorado-state Colorado State
  • Sing without the piano as much as possible, especially at the beginning of rehearsal.
  • Listen and/or watch other choirs singing a song we are rehearsing.  I make sure that the recordings or videos I play for them are desirable models.
  • Demand good posture and eye contact.
  • Work with individual singers during the rehearsal. 
  • Stop them when they sing out of tune.
  • Try to be funny.
  • Give lots of handshakes and hugs!

sickelJason Sickel, Pioneer Trails Middle School, Olathe
R&S Chair for Junior High/Middle School Choirs - Kansas

Less talking and more doing

Now that I am teaching middle school full time, I find that less talking and more doing is the recipe for success with adolescent singers. My bag of tricks has grown tremendously thanks to many wonderful veteran choral directors and teachers who have created the following kinesthetic approaches that assist students in mastering the basics of vocal technique.  Here are three that I use almost on a daily basis:

  • TOSS THE FRISBEE – (stolen from Patrick Freer) – Have students throw a pretend Frisbee in the air on the vowel of your choice.  I usually “up the ante” by saying I want a $1,000 Frisbee toss which has much more energy and breath than a $10 Frisbee toss.  I demonstrate both versions and students are always successful.  The tossing gesture seems to help young singers connect to their breath.
  • The CRANK – (stolen from Rodney Eichenberger) – This technique has worked wonders with boys who are consistently struggling with matching pitch and tend to be a third to a fifth lower than the notated pitch.  Stand in front of the singer with a fist near the abdominal region and, with the other hand, make a cranking (circular) gesture while the student is singing.  The faster you “crank” the more energy the young singer uses, and in many cases he will often “rise to the occasion” and match the pitch.  Sometimes this process takes weeks or months and although he may not have immediate success, he will learn and feel how to raise his own pitch.
  • The DART – (stolen from Janeal Krehbiel) – I once observed Janeal with a paper target and loved the idea of students throwing an imaginary dart for pitch accuracy and breath connection.  I made my own target and often have students toss the dart on whatever vowel needs the most work.  I find that when the dominant arm is used to throw the dart, the sound is fuller, richer and more engaged!  This can be applied to any piece of music and can teach students proper vocal onset.

wineDr. Tom Wine, Wichita State University
R&S Chair for Youth and Student Activities - Kansas

Tone quality issues

Tone that sounds airy or breathy tends to be a result of poor breath support and unfocused resonance.   In adults, it may be a sign of a vocal problem such as vocal nodules or extreme vocal fatigue.  Things singers should avoid are smoke, dusty areas, and alcohol which can dry up the vocal chords.  For younger singers, breathiness is sometimes associated with popular recording artists, and as singers emulate that sound, they develop vocal habits that are not conducive to good choral singing.  Some younger singers also use the breathy quality as a way of “hiding” in the choir for fear of being heard and making a mistake.
Like any vocal correction, solving problems of breathiness must start with fundamentals such as posture and low, controlled breath.  Students who expend more breath than necessary will need exercises to develop breath control.  Students who have proper breath support but still sound breathy need to focus more on resonance.  The key to building a more resonant tone is getting the sound forward and focused on the nose and cheekbones of the face.

Bag of Tricks for Breath

  1. The Straw. 
  2. The Sustainer. 
  3. Check the accelerator. 
  4. Target the balloon.
  5. Bend over. 
  6. Beta Technique. 

The Straw.  Give singers an actual drinking straw.  While standing, have singers take in air over the course of eight counts through the straw.  Then, have them exhale on a hiss for eight counts.  As they become more aware of deep breathing, increase the hiss time to 16 counts and 24 counts.  With young singers, it is sometimes fun to make this a competition so that singers sit down when they run out of air and the last one standing is the “winner.”

The Sustainer.  Pick a song that is familiar to the singers such as “My Country ‘tis of Thee.”   Singers should take a deep breath and then sing as much of the song as possible in that one breath.  See how many are still singing at the end of the song.  If that seems too easy, change the tempo or add a verse!

Check the accelerator.  Have your singers imagine their breath is like the accelerator pedal on a car.  If they give too much air, it will “flood the tone” and cause a breathy quality.  By placing their hands on their diaphragm, singers can get a sense of how much air they are expending to sing a long note.  To get better “mileage” singers need to have a cruise control that adjusts to different speeds of air.  One setting is for loud singing and one is for soft singing.  Control of the airflow at both settings is the key to tone production.  A singer’s air in their lungs is like gas in a gas tank.  “If you don’t use your air wisely, your car will run out of gas.”

Target the balloon.  Visuals are a great way to help singers focus on the importance of good breath.  Draw a target in front of the choir.  Have singers “focus their sound on the bull’s-eye.”  Bring a balloon to rehearsal.  Blow it up and let the balloon go. The air that “whooshes” out is a breathy tone.  Blow up the balloon and pull the opening tight.  The scream coming out of the balloon is adjustable just like the control of air when singing.

Bend over.  Bending at the waist, singers can get a better feel for how they are expelling air as they sing.  By “hissing” to the floor at different dynamic levels, singers will be able to regulate the flow of air.  Now try singing the music only on the vowels, controlling the release of air.  Singers may have better success with forward vowels such as “ee” and “ay” than with the “ah” vowel.

Beta Technique.  Work for extreme breathiness so that students can hear and feel the difference between that and a focused tone.  Have them sustain a breathy note in the lower part of their range and observe how quickly the breath runs out.  Then have the students perform a non-breathy tone holding back air so as to conserve air and make the sound last as long as possible.  Now strive for a balance of air flow at different dynamic levels.

Bag of Tricks for Resonance:

  1. The siren.
  2. Nya, Nya, Nya. 
  3. Buzz.
  4. Work top down. 
  5. Find a model.

The Siren. Using a bright and forward “Whee,” have the students make a vocal siren up to the top of their range and then back down.  Let them focus the sound forward and be sure to energize the sound as they go through their break.  Support it with a kinesthetic movement of the arms to follow the direction of the pitch. 

Nya, Nya, Nya.  Singing a nasty “nya” will help singers to focus resonance in the nose.  Singers should practice alternating a sustained tone with staccato singing to check both placement and breath.  Use an “ee” vowel to focus the sound and center it in the front of the mouth.  Change to an “ah” vowel to check the soft palate and be sure the tone is high and forward.  A variation is to start with the “ng” sound and open to a vowel.  This is a great way to get the “oo” vowel to have a sense of space inside the mouth.

Buzz. Singers should change from text to a buzzing sound.  This projects the air forward out of the mouth.  Change to a hum, with the goal to tickle the lips.  Have singers place their hands on their face to feel the resonance.  Try alternating humming and singing on text to check the forward placement.

Work top down.  Using a five-note descending scale, have singers sing from the top of the range.  Young singers frequently have difficulty maintaining the brightness of the upper register as they move into their low voice.

Find a model.  The best examples of vocal technique are peers.  Find singers in their peer group that can model a clear tone.  Singers need to be aware that a clear and focused tone is the one that is desirable for choral singing.  It has a strong sound, is more confident, offers greater dynamic range and blends better than a breathy tone.


nelsonSusan Nelson, Oberlin Middle/High School
R&S Chair for Jazz and Show Choirs - Kansas

Singing in Circles

Rehearsals can become very repetitive for students when they always go to the same chair or place within the group. I have developed the habit of changing their seating at least once a week to give them a different perspective of the choral sound as a whole, their voice within the section, and also to work on vocal independence. It may be as simple as moving the front row to the back and having everyone move up a row. When I feel they have confidence on their assigned part I will have them stand in a “shot-gun” (mixed voice) arrangement. This can be very scary for students who are not confident, but can also make them aware of the other parts and how they fit together. This is also a good “mixer” for kids.

I have also found that having students stand in a circle to be a useful tool in learning parts and working on blend and intonation. The first circle I use is as a section. It helps them hear all the voices in their section and check the accuracy of parts, rhythms, diction, blend and intonation. I will then mix parts together; alto and tenor to check balance of inner parts and soprano/bass to tune the outer parts. Then a “shot gun” circle. My most mature ensembles will rehearse in a circle while holding hands and with eyes closed, in order to concentrate on the musical presentation and the beauty of the music itself. I believe these ideas were borrowed from Rick Weymuth, formerly of Northwest Missouri State.

I’d encourage everyone to “mix it up” a little with their choirs!


vanderhoffJane Vanderhoff, Garden City High School
South West District Representative - Kansas

Mix it up

Mix it up! With block scheduling, a longer, more infrequent rehearsal makes it very important to use every minute, making rehearsal planning a must.  An added hitch in the plan this year is what GCHS calls “B Lunch.”:  after 30 minutes of rehearsal, out they go to the cafeteria, and then back for another hour.  The first session has to be quickly paced and clearly planned—it might be only announcements, warm-ups and sight singing, or a short segment of a song.  Before they are dismissed for lunch, I tell them what to expect when they return; more than likely, they will meet with their voice part for a short sectional rehearsal.

The other trick for making a long class period work is take the boredom pulse. If you see that familiar glazed-over look, try mixing it up:  tell a joke (bad puns in my case), stretch, change formations, face each section in a different direction, sing the song in chicken . . . anything!  Today during a transition we made a group sentence: the end of the back row started with “The” and each person added a word. By the end, the choir suggested repeating it faster; it was their idea, so it worked!

Sometimes all it takes is just asking someone a question about anything: their favorite ice cream flavor, movie, superhero—anything to get the brain activated.  Then it’s back to business!

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