As explained in a previous article, the technical demands of choral and solo singing are very different from each other. Here are some important tips to ensure a heavy choral rehearsal schedule will not unduly affect your hard-won solo technique.
Beware of your vocal part
Because of composing requirements, choral parts are often written for more the extreme voices, e.g. very high sopranos and tenors and very low mezzos and basses. If your natural vocal fach does not fall into one of those categories, then the tessitura of your choral music part will be less than ideal for you. Knowledge here is power. Once you know your part can affect your solo technique, you can work to mitigate the effects.
For 1st Sopranos and Tenors, your part is likely to have a number of high passages that are not balanced out by enough lower and middle voice singing. This can lead to the common “high, white, bright” approach, due to a raised larynx and shut-down pharynx. While some teachers approve of this approach and even train their singers this way, it goes directly against the fundaments of classical vocal technique, which systematically trains a relaxed, lowered laryngeal position and open, expanded pharynx. This maximizes the size and unique colors of an instrument, while training in the healthy mechanics of the vocal protection and laryngeal tilt.
For high voices, singing the 2nd Soprano or Tenor part is often the better choice, if possible. It isn’t as showy, I know, but the lower tessitura takes strain off of the larynx and vocal cords that an artificially high tessitura can lead to.
For Altos and Basses, the opposite problem is usually the case. Your part is likely to be very low with little upper voice singing. In this situation, it is very easy to get away from the thin edge function, overweight the voice and pull the tongue back in a misguided effort to create more oro-pharyngeal space. That type of sound is bigger and more colorful in your own ear, but actually sounds muffled or held to the listener.
If a 1st Alto or 1st Bass part is available, that is a better option for baritones and many mezzos. With the expanded range of notes sung, that can aid in balancing out the temptation to add too much unnecessary vocal weight in your lower range, making your high notes difficult.
When it is not possible to change to a different part or the part is quite difficult, pay close attention to the music and identify places to take a short break from singing. Note passages that are only high or only low for several phrases. Do you feel any strain or changes to your solo technique when singing those back to back in rehearsal? Are there other passages in which you feel strain or unusual adjustments? These are the places you need to be aware of. Observe at the musical requirements there – dynamics, words, phrasing, etc. – and then listen to your section. Figure out the best place to drop out for a moment to give your voice a break without changing the sound of the section as a whole and where you can sneak back in again. Experiment during rehearsals to see if it works and if your voice feels better. Continue to find other similar places in the music to take a short break until you feel that you can sing with your normal solo technique during rehearsals.
Don’t forget your breath resistance
Let me reiterate that it is extraordinarily easy to sing without support in choral rehearsals. When sitting for extended periods and singing with others, maintaining your normal breath resistance for solo singing can seem unnecessary. But it is crucial to overcome this sense of apathy. When the breath resistance changes, vocal coordination changes and the voice itself does not function in the same way. In order to use your choral rehearsal time to help versus hinder you, it is crucial to ensure that you are using your normal coordination for breath resistance.
Practice before and after rehearsals
Since choral rehearsals are often long, this may seem like a strange suggestion. However, reinforcing your solo technique prior to a choral rehearsal is a great way both to warm up and remind your vocal mechanism exactly how you want it to work during the rehearsal. You don’t have to sing for an extended period of time – 10 to 15 minutes will usually do. Choose exercises that will help combat the tendency of your choral part as mentioned previously. Make sure to pay attention to your breathing and breath resistance for singing.
After the rehearsal, if your voice is not tired, go back into the practice room and do several of the same exercises to balance out your vocal functioning. Sing a little bit of repertoire, including the parts of your voice that will be less utilized in the choral rehearsal. Just a few minutes will reinforce the right vocal coordination. If your voice is tired after your rehearsal, wait until it feels rested and then go into the practice room and work carefully through your technical exercises then.
There is no quick, guaranteed way to maintain your solo technique during choral singing. But getting help from a knowledgeable teacher, knowing your own instrument, making intelligent choices based on personal experience and reinforcing the best vocal habits consistently can help keep your choral obligations from interfering with your crucially important technique for solo singing.
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