The most accessible, most open doored, most everyone’s welcome community choirs can end up with folks who haven’t sung a lot before. These choirs do great work for people. People who may have had a non musical life, a life busily filled for decades with work and family responsibility where finally at some stage, work becomes steady, even pleasant, children grow, and a long held dream to sing in a choir becomes feasible. Magnificent. And how bloody marvelous that there are welcoming choirs with friendships, connections, low requirements and accessible repertoire for people to find.
Musical directors who specialise in working with these choirs have to develop a raft of particular skills that are quite different to those who lead more musically ambitious choirs filled with trained choristers.
One of these skills is in group vocal training. And one of the biggest vocal issues facing choirs of older beginners is a dearth of sopranos. This isn’t because there aren’t any sopranos. It is because most women new to singing technique don’t feel comfortable in their lighter mechanism/head voice/upper mode/tilted larynx. For directors, shouting at untrained singers to ‘lighten’ or ‘lift’ is not only mean, but musically pointless. Untrained singers don’t know what this physiologically entails so they are likely to just increase tension, choke back their sound, gain less enjoyment from singing and never find those upper notes. I believe it’s essential that directors address this in a step by step way, in a way that fits the culture of a welcoming beginners’ choir - playful, manageable, respectful of people’s comfort level with learning, and handing out technique in small chunks so choir time doesn’t feel like endless, dull vocal drilling.
The upper, lighter mechanism is physiologically a tilt forward of the larynx - stretching and thinning the vocal cords. As you know the voice is a wind instrument - powered by air. The upper mechanism needs LESS air than untrained women normally use as they ascend in pitch. Now, for community choristers, addresing this by focusing on engaging trunk muscles to exhale more slowly is fraught. Because you aren’t teaching one on one, but to a group, it will be hard to stop and correct tension that will very likely creep in to shoulders, throat, jaw, ribs. Consequently, when I work with new singers in groups I don’t focus on holding the air. I use the humble “V” - a consonant that requires very little air. Below are videos going through a sequence I would recommend for how to - pleasant step by pleasant step - use V and then progress to a real song. This sequence could cover several months of time in your choir. Each step needs to be not only intellectually understood and doable, but through repetition, become habitual. When I conduct open adult choirs, I try not to expect homework. People’s time away from choir is filled with other things. But I certainly do welcome habit establishment. “if you have the time and energy, singing at home on V when you can will really help.” I’m sure we all have our own ways of saying this!
Please feel welcome to ask me any questions about any of the steps. I have sung quite quietly, which is not necessary, but certainly makes less air more likely. I prefer to model quiet singing rather than ask for it because folks can easily tense up in an effort to quieten. I have also stayed in the middle range and not gone stratospheric. (I sing alto myself, so I physically can’t!) This is important. For the women who actually have lower voices, they won’t need to sing higher than this in choral repertoire. For women who on the other hand discover they comfortably sit in a higher range, the technique for their very top notes relies on technique in the middle of the voice - the way to the top is through the middle. So this work in the middle of their voices needs to be done before they can access their top.