You asked… so here are our staff’s responses to your questions about music, liturgy, and publishing!
Q: What are some ways I can engage my choir from home to keep them learning new music and increasing their skill as a chorister?
As we await our return to meeting with our choirs and ensembles, WLP Managing Editor, Mary Beth Kunde-Anderson, GIA Editor-at-large, David Anderson, and GIA Senior Project Editor Michael Silhavy all offer their suggestions for encouraging continuing fellowship and musicianship!
From Mary Beth:
• Encourage them to take remote voice lessons, perhaps set something up with a voice teacher you trust, and even have the parish help with the cost if that’s feasible.
• Send them recording/video links of really good choral singing of a variety of kinds of music. (Resource Suggestions: Recordings featuring The Cathedral Singers)
- Consider a Zoom session weekly or twice each month with your choirs. Do a simple check-in. Pose a question for them to consider and share such as, “How can we stay strong as a choir next year?”
- Consider doing a Zoom sectional with only one section of the choir! Zoom with the Altos, Zoom with the Tenors, etc.
Regarding Musicianship and Ministry…
- Realizing that group singing doesn’t work on Zoom, you can still have them all mute and lead them in several vocal exercises. Teach newer warm-up exercises. Two of my favorite resources are Evoking Sound: The Choral Warm-Up by Sabine Horstman and Innovative Warm-Ups for the Volunteer Choir (Buy the singer edition and find a way for choir members to pick them up as we return to church.) Some colleagues aren’t big into warm-ups, (see Michael Silhavy’s previous posts!), but we all agree on having singers ready to sing!
- Consider having the choirs and cantors read parts of Sing to the Lord (especially the opening chapters and the chapter on choirs and music ministry)
- Send them a piece of music and a recording. During these weeks away, I sent my choirs Youtube videos of many of the pieces we were not able to do as we ceased gathering in church. (This kept them connected to the song!)
- Get The Structures and Movement Breathing by Barbara Conable and spend several zoom weeks on teaching about posture and breathing. Now is the time to focus on some foundational aspects of our singing and choral practice.
I’d like to offer a suggestion that can be utilized at any time, even when we resume singing – encouraging self-study of music.
This may be one for the back porch on a lovely evening with a favorite beverage in hand. I encourage my singers to interact with their music more than just at rehearsal and Sunday. A very few singers in my choir are able to learn notes at home with or without the help of a piano. But I do encourage them to learn “the music” at home.
- Do our singers even know what’s in their folder at any time? Encourage them to identify the title with the cover; it saves rehearsal time looking for the piece.
- Have them read the text. Can they complete the phrase or hyphenated word before they turn the page?
- Do they know where the dynamic marks are? Some may even need clarification about what line they sing. Can they find their part on the page? Even if they are not a note reader, can they tell when the sopranos and altos sing something together? Are breath marks provided?
- Do singers even understand what they are singing? Invite singers to study the text as poetry or narrative, not just words accompanying notes. Can they delight in the rhymes or other poetic devices employed by the composer which may be hidden when notes are added? Can they focus on, or surprised by, words in the text: I’m embarrassed to say it probably wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s while singing “Morning Has Broken” that I realized the word recreation was really re-creation!
In short, forget about the notes at home. Concentrate on the layout of the piece, the text, and any singing instructions.
Michael Silhavy takes this question for us! Michael is GIA’s Senior Project editor and has worked in diocesan, cathedral, university, and parish settings.
What’s the best series for music for small choirs?
Currently, the GIA/WLP catalog has well over 20 different series; nearly all those series have music for small choirs. It’s a big task to identify repertoire for a small choir!
Let’s start by identifying what a small choir is. I’d define it as 10 or less. Within that 10, you might be lucky enough to have the traditional SATB forces represented. Within all of our series, you are likely to find some (at times confusing) voice designations.
Mixed voices almost always means a part for the treble voices and a part for the bass clef voices. Or, sopranos and altos on the first part with tenors and basses on the second part. The composer or arranger is striving for a sound with high voices and low voices more than an octave apart. Many of these pieces are identified as SB or even SAB.
Pieces scored for equal voices are intended for any combination of sopranos and altos or tenors and basses. Here, the intent is to feature close harmonies of similar voices. The intended effect is to hear only the treble (or bass) voices. Using traditional identification, this music is for SA, or SS, or AA, or TT, or TB, or BB voices. The most flexible voicing is found in those pieces suitable for equal or mixed voices. Sopranos and tenors may sing the top part while altos and basses may sing the bottom part. The music is composed in such a way that the harmonies are effective no matter which voice is on a part. Any combination is possible.
We should also be careful that music for small choir does not necessarily mean easy music. Many small choirs, even an ensemble from the larger choir, sing more challenging repertoire. Little by little, all of our pieces are beginning to appear on the website for viewing. Easy, medium and difficult tend to be subjective terms; more than trusting these designations in our catalogs, take a look at the piece online to determine its suitability for your use.
But the series that best represents music for the small choir is our Simple Gifts series. The voicing never exceeds SAB and a generous amount of music is scored for 2 or 3 part equal or mixed voices. The “simple” music in this series is never simplistic. A choir that requires more time to learn music will find the Simple Gifts series suitable to their skill level. A fine choir will be able to learn pieces in this series with minimal preparation. My choir has 6 sopranos, 7 altos, 4 men (and a couple of French hens and turtledoves thrown in); it’s the series I turn toward the most.
**WLP’sAll God’s Children series offers pieces with a similar style and voicing to those in the GIA Simple Gifts series. **
From Michael Silhavy…
CHORAL WARM-UPS – AN OPPOSING VIEW?
I was initially hesitant to take a contrarian opinion on the typically held view concerning the importance of vocal warm-ups in the choral setting. But I was heartened to see my colleague Alan Hommerding express many of my same concerns. Let me share my thoughts and practices.
To be clear, I have used vocal warm-ups with certain choirs. When I was conducting a diocesan choir, I found myself standing before a large group of singers from multiple parishes, many of whom would travel half an hour or more to come to rehearsal. Members found themselves in a different acoustic from their parish’s rehearsal space and were standing among singers they would see and hear only two nights a month. Some hardly had time to come home from work, greet the family, have a bite to eat, and head off to rehearsal. For this group, the warm-up served as a moment of individual focus and collective gathering. It was more of a mental warm-up than physical. Additionally, singers were asked to vocalize on their way to rehearsal.
While singers were put through a pace of gentle humming, oohing, and stretching, I would invite them to relax, or leave behind the problems of the day, or delight in how good it feels to be together. I would ask them to listen to the singers around them and to be aware of the space they are in. I’d also ask them to vocalize on an ah vowel sound, typically a five-note descending scalar pattern (major or minor), and then five notes up and four notes down. I might then take a five-note phrase comfortable for all voice types – Bb down to Eb – and repeat it while asking singers to sing louder, softer, warmer, darker, fuller, brighter, richer, thinner, and so on. My hope was that singers would become increasingly aware of the flexibility of their voices and the need to become vocal chameleons, adapting their voice to the type of music being sung. (Echoing Alan, I shy away from words or phrases like more beautiful, or in the style of a 17thcentury North German Baroque choir, phrases which are either subjective or arrogant!) During the warm-ups – maybe no more than 5-7 minutes, singers were invited to “assess” themselves: were the higher notes a challenge, could they feel resonance, did they feel “stuffed up” or have a sore throat? The warm up-part of the evening ended with the singing of a gentle hymn. All of these vocalizations were intended to build an awareness of each singer’s preparedness to sing that night.
I generally forego warm-ups with my parish choir at weeknight rehearsals. The issues of travel and familiarity mentioned above are not factors. Connecting with one another happens in a much easier way with this group. While my choir members most likely not have been singing earlier in the day, they have been speaking and to some degree, they are partially (not completely) warmed up. I know that the physiology of singing is not the same as speaking. With limited rehearsal time, I have to choose what to do with them.
Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of choral warm-ups centers around vowel sounds. Some directors will faithfully put their choirs through a warm-up of mah-meh-mee-moh-moo, while paying no attention to whether or not the vowel sound is correct! Rarely does the director discern questions like Is the mah“tall” enough? Is the meh tending toward may? Is the mee to clenched? Other directors may carefully shape these vowel sounds in the warm-up, and indeed achieve a level of choral blend, only to have these well-formed vowel sounds disappear once words, ranges, consonants, and diphthongs are encountered in the repertoire. I use the piece itself to work on vowel sounds.
Mornings pose a different challenge. Here, the first sound that day made by a singer may very well be in the context of a warm-up before the liturgy. More than appropriate, warm-ups may be necessary. But if one only has 20-30 minutes with a choir before the liturgy, there simply may not be enough time for vocalization. If the most “exposed” choir moment isn’t until the choral selection at the preparation of the altar, the choir will have had a hymn, Gloria, psalm refrain, and alleluia, if not more, to warm-up. After all, the congregation – the principal choir of the parish –doesn’t warm-up for the opening hymn.
In those very rare places, choirs may begin Sunday morning with extended sung prayer, e.g. Morning Prayer at 9:00 and Mass at 10:00. What a remarkable way to fully prepare body, mind, and soul for singing.
Circling back to Alan’s comments, I agree that stretching needs to be done very carefully if it is being done at all. The group massage – gently rub your neighbor’s back…. now turn the other way – should not be done. It is a violation of space; some people do not like to be touched by strangers, and some should not be touching.
Are warm-ups justified and should choirs spend time doing them? Yes. My concern has to do with warm-ups that seem to do little – if not contradict – solid vocal pedagogy and the reality of the liturgical choir.
We asked Alan Hommerding to answer this question and he pointed us toward a chapter he wrote for the book
Choral Conducting That Works for Worship
Below is an excerpt from that book.
The Four S’s – Stretch, Space, Support, Sound
Some conductors like to begin rehearsal with group massage. I am not one of them, and here are my reasons: Few, if any, of our choir members are licensed masseurs (if you have one, lucky you!). It is possible, through improper massage, to actually injure or introduce tension into the body of another person. This is particularly true when you have a baritone who runs heavy machinery all day massaging a retired check-out clerk in the alto section who has a bit of arthritis. I find that stretching, arms overhead or out from the side, alternating left and right, tipping the head slightly back and forth (NOT in 360-degree circles-our necks aren’t made to do that!), bending forward at the waist with knees relaxed then slowly rolling up, and other stretching exercises are beneficial. As a matter of fact, I usually schedule at least one, if not two, more stretch break(s) throughout the rehearsal, especially when there’s a “break” in rehearsal for refreshments and chat.
When choirs are ready to sing, many members breathe at the last second, starting the sound before they have fully formed a word in their mouths. Sound is the last item in the process, not the first.
- Space: Forming the first vowel of the first word in the mouth, and drawing the breath through it (have the choir draw breath through an “ah” vowel, then an “oh” vowel and you’ll hear the difference)
- Support: Take in a breath deeply, down low from the bottom of the lungs and immediately release it
- Sound: Initialize the sound with the release of the breath
Some directors will have singers draw in a deep breath and then hold it, or release it on a prolonged hiss. [I am not aware of any time in the liturgy when a choir would actually do this vocal behavior, so it’s pretty much wasted time.] It also introduces tension into the muscles surrounding the larynx and is a contributor to the fact that few choirs can begin a piece with the word “Oh” successfully. Vocal cords work by having a stream of air make them vibrate; holding the breath and then releasing it makes the chords slap, then begin vibrating. I prefer to have the choir draw in a deep breath across a vowel (I most often choose “oh”), to the very bottom of their lungs—shoulders relaxed, with chests held regally high—and release it on the syllable “Ho.” Doing this several times, without sung pitch, is useful in helping them learn how to begin a musical phase. It is also applicable to actual music. If, for example, you are singing a piece beginning with “Noel,” have them draw the deep breath across “o” and release it on the syllable “No.” This builds in a base behavior they will be able to use later on in the rehearsal.
Breathing is so little focused on in our choirs, yet it is the very fuel that powers singing. When I see choirs singing without drawing a good breath ahead of the first sound, I think that it is like trying to boil water without turning on a flame.