Surviving Technically as a Choral Singer

As Longfellow wrote, “Into each life some rain must fall,” and into each singer’s life some choral singing must also fall.  No matter how talented, all singers have to do choral singing at one point or another, be it in college as a required ensemble, a church gig for extra money, a community choral performance or with an opera company.  Having the experience of singing in a chorus is actually extremely important for singers.  We spend so much time alone in the practice room, struggling with minuscule technical changes that it is important to get out of our own heads by having the experience of singing together with others.  Choruses are perfect examples of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  With a very good choral director, even a group of young, undeveloped singers can be transformed magically into a wonderful chorus that moves an audience.

However, there is a huge downside to choral singing for any aspiring solo singer.  The requirements of choral singing are often completely opposite those for solo singing.  Choral singing requires a blend, a homogeneous sound and great dynamic control.  Solo singing in the classical music world is all about developing the sound and maximum volume of each singer’s unique instrument , so that each voice is distinct, identifiable and capable of projecting over an orchestra.  Now, there are choral directors who do understand that the singers do not need to alter their techniques in order to create an excellent choral sound.  Unfortunately, they are often in the minority and singers are often put in the uncomfortable situation of either having to change their techniques  or sticking out and incurring the displeasure of a less enlightened director.

For any singer, changing your technique for the requirements of choral singing and singing differently than you would for solo singing is a very bad idea.  Learning a technique is all about consistency!   You want that technique to become the default muscular coordination that occurs without any conscious mental thought.  Changing techniques throws your vocal mechanism into a state of confusion and you can lose the precious technical progress you have made with your solo singing.  Use the tips below when singing in a chorus to help you survive the experience and even learn more helpful information about your technique in the process!

Sing with your voice

You always have to sing with your instrument.  Do not alter your technique to suit the requirements of a choral director.  This is a huge challenge, especially when the director is glaring at you and there is peer pressure to conform to a certain sound, but it is definitely doable.  Use concepts like the thin edge function and the cuperto to help you manage rehearsals.  If you have been able to build those functions into your technique, you have wonderful tools to use for choral singing.  Do very small staccati quietly under your breath before a phrase to help incorporate the thin edge function.  Use the approach of the soft “u” (“oo”) from the cuperto to sing passages softer and with ease.  The cuperto is fabulous for high phrases for every voice type, raising the soft palate and offering more dynamic control.  Always think about the technical resources you already have and try to incorporate them in into singing choral music.

Don’t sing straight tone

Never sing straight tone!  Singing straight tone changes how the vocal chords approximate and vibrate and will definitely have a negative impact on your solo singing.  If you are in a chorus in which you are required to sing straight tone and you want to try for some sort of solo career, it is probably not the right chorus for you.  If you absolutely have to sing in it as a curriculum requirement, the better your technique, the less obtrusive and more integrated into your voice your vibrato will be.  Use the thin edge function and cuperto to help you sing healthily with more dynamic control.  Also use the following tips to help you make it through.  Remember, this too will pass……

Sing the right choral part for you

It is crucial that you are singing the right choral part for your voice.  Just because you are a soprano does not mean that you should necessarily be singing 1st Soprano in a chorus.  Those parts can have a mercilessly high tessitura and are often very difficult for young singers to take on successfully.  Singing a slightly lower part is easier technically and better for your vocal health in the long-run.  Heavier, bigger voices in particular should try to sing a lower part, so as not to be forced into too high a tessitura and not have to hold back too much dynamically.  If your ego is telling you to sing a higher part and your voice is telling you (through fatigue, hoarseness, etc.) that it is too challenging, go with what it best for your voice… always.

Often times, singers are pushed into singing higher or lower parts, even when they are not appropriate for them.  This happens frequently with men.  Heavier tenors and high lyric baritones are assigned the 1st Tenor part, because there are not enough real high tenors around.  These voices then have to manage a tessitura that is much too high for them, which jacks up the larynx and can cause very serious technical issues.  Using the thin edge function and cuperto can help in this situation.  Baritones are often assigned the 2nd Bass part and forced to grind out low notes they don’t really possess, which is also vocally unhealthy.  In situations in which you feel your choral part does not fit your vocal instrument, discuss it first with your voice teacher and then you have to….

Communicate with the director

Even though it can feel intimidating to go to the choral director and ask to change parts, sometimes it is vital to your vocal well-being.  Do this as far in advance of the next performance as possible.  Smile, be very respectful during the conversation and say that your voice teacher has requested that you change parts for technical reasons.  If asked by the director for details, say that your current part is uncomfortable for you and your voice teacher believes it to be too high/too low.  If there are not enough people available to sing that part, you might be asked to keep singing it anyway.  Smile and say that your voice teacher believes it is not in your best vocal interest to do so.  At that point, the director really does have to compromise.  After all, it is not you the singer who is requesting the change, but an experienced colleague whose opinion has to be respected.  Hopefully, the director will acquiesce to the change.  If asked, agree to sing that part on some of the pieces, while being allowed to sing a lower/higher part for the rest.  The latter is not ideal, but at least you will have some respite and can still manage to survive technically as a choral singer.

Focus on yourself

Taking care of yourself during long choral rehearsals and performances is crucial for highly-trained classical singers and even more crucial for less experienced singers.  Fatigue can become a huge issue, so try incorporating the ideas below to help mitigate any negative impact on your voice and technique.

Don’t sing all of the time

One of the amazing advantages of choral singing is that you can drop out and nobody knows!  If you keep mouthing the words, only the people right around you will have any idea and they won’t be paying much attention.  So, if you start feeling any level of fatigue, just drop out for a few phrases and come back in.  With time and experience, you will learn exactly when you need to take a break before fatigue sets in and which phrases are best not to sing.  I am certainly not advocating dropping out half of the time, but your long-term vocal health is more important than any chorus rehearsal or performance.  You need to give yourself enough time to rest during long rehearsals.

If you are sick or impaired vocally in any way, you need to drop out a lot.  Explain to the director before the rehearsal that you are not healthy and will participate as you can.  Don’t let any peer pressure force you into singing when you physically can’t do it in a healthy way.  You can still learn from listening and watching, which will make your future singing in the group all the richer and more well-informed.

Make sure to mark

Marking, singing half-voice during rehearsals, is an extremely important skill for singers to learn for vocal good health.  Professional opera singers do not sing full-voice all of the time, but often mark during rehearsals, coachings, etc., to save their voices for performances.  Marking during choral rehearsals is a great way to still participate.  Marking also includes taking high parts down an octave.  That is a little harder to do in choral rehearsals, but is feasible during the learning stages of new music.  It is much better to try out a high passage easily down an octave.  Once you know the music, you can sing it in the original octave and have some brain-power left over to think about your technique!

Leaning to mark can take time, but using the cuperto exercise is a great start.  The soft “u” [oo] vowel on the thin edges encourages a healthy marking technique.  Try singing some of your choral music on this soft “u” to bring in the right habits and then try the same approach during rehearsals.  With time and persistence, you will be able to transfer this skill into your choral singing very effectively.

Important – any choral director worth his or her salt will not ask any chorus to sing full-voice all of the time.  You should be told to sing easily when learning a piece, working in sections, and off and on throughout the rehearsal.  Full-voiced singing should only be done for part of any chorus rehearsal!  Even dress rehearsals should include a little easy singing or at least a break.  Singers’ instruments are far too fragile to do otherwise.  If your choral director is insisting on full-voiced singing all of the time, that is a danger sign.  You need to ignore the director in that case and mark part of the time to take care of your vocal instrument.

Cheat on the high notes

As alluded to above, singing every high note in choral rehearsals, while tempting, is not the best idea for your vocal health.  The only high notes that really and truly count are the ones done in performance.  Let your neighbors scream the high notes consistently in rehearsals, while you pick and choose the ones you sing.  Use the extra time to think about your technique.

Keep supporting

It is so very, very easy for singers not to support their voices in choral rehearsals, particularly on soft passages.  There are two problems with that.  First, not supporting is changing your technique and you always want to keep your technique as consistent as possible between choral and solo singing.  Second, what happens once the soft passages are over?  Breath resistance can’t just be turned on and off like a light switch.  It is much harder to suddenly start supporting your voice after not supporting than it is to keep supporting consistently.  So, challenge yourself to make sure you are still supporting even on soft passages.  All of your singing will be the beneficiary.

Breathe, breathe, breathe

Singers used to doing mostly solo singing will be tempted to sing every amazingly long phrases in every choral piece they encounter.  Let me give you a one word piece of advice – don’t!  Another beauty of choral singing is that you can take breaths in multiple places whenever you really need one.  There is no point in exhausting yourself by making it through every long phrase.  You won’t get a prize!  Feel free to take a breath in the middle of a phrase and not just any breath, but a lovely, low, relaxed breath.  Then come back in.  With time, you will learn how to do this skillfully and no one but your nearest neighbors will be the wiser.  Believe me, if they know anything about choral singing, they will be doing it, too……

Don’t compete

Putting singers together in a choral situation can bring out their competitive streak, resulting in screaming contests within and between sections… and no one wins in the end.  Instead of listening to other individual singers around you, try to stay focused on your own voice and the chorus as a whole.  Singing your best technically is by far the most important thing, while also learning and absorbing as much as you can about phrasing, musicality and the gorgeous music that has been lovingly composed for choruses by the great composers.


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