Choral Shorthand

SBO Staff • ChoralOctober 2015The Practical Conductor • October 23, 2015

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shorthand-condBy Brody McDonald

For this installment of the Practical Conductor, we’ll discuss choral shorthand. What’s that? Much like shorthand is a system of symbols that can be written quickly, then translated back to full “longhand” language later, choral shorthand is a way of communicating quickly with your choir about concepts that enhance their singing. It’s like working in sound bites – the conductors version of “totes obvs” (totally obvious). I’m going to group these shorthand phrases by their application, and explain each one. Some of them I created, but most of them I have “preserved” from exposure to other great teachers. That’s another great part of shorthand: the ability to trade ideas with colleagues quickly, finding new ways to approach the same problems.

Placement and support

Big up, little down – Exert more energy and shoot higher on ascending intervals, as they tend to flat. When descending, also “lift” the pitch, as descending intervals tend to flat. This is analogous to walking on a hill. It takes extra energy to walk uphill. When walking downhill, energy must be exerted to prevent moving downhill too quickly or falling forward. The steeper the grade of the hill (size of interval), the more energy must be expended.

Up for down, down for up – This is similar to “big up, little down,” but has a more technique-based vibe. “Up for down” means to raise placement as pitch descends. “Down for up” refers to the deepening of breath support as pitch rises.

Hey! Joe!  – Shouting “Hey! Joe!” in a huge, supported, open, resonant sound will activate the breath mechanism. It’s impossible not to feel those two pulses in the body; it’s almost like getting kicked in the gut! If the choir isn’t supporting their tone, a quick “Hey! Joe!” will remind them.


Clunk  – My college choir director, R.D. Mathey, coined the term “clunk.” It refers to a very fast, low breath. When choir singers only have a flash in which to breathe, they often take a small, shallow breath. The “clunk” is the answer. Follow these steps:  (1) Raise your arms over your head (like “stick ‘em up!”)  (2) Exhale COMPLETELY and leave your mouth hanging open   (3) push your gut out quickly, which will suck tons of air into your lungs as a result. That’s a “clunk.”

Fat inhale / skinny inhale – Pretty much what it sounds like. Reminds students that well-done breathing is LOW and will cause them to temporarily get “fat” as the diaphragm compresses downward. Then the body becomes “skinny” again as the air is pushed out from the bottom up (like rolling upward squeezing toothpaste out of a tube).

Open like a stovepipe / tight like a drum – Must be said as an onomatopoeia. Say “open like a stovepipe” with a huge yawn-type sound, then “tight like a drum” with a pinched, squeezed tone. This provides comedic relief to the choir and a reminder about singing with an open instrument.

Vowel shape

Instabang – This was “preserved” from some great barbershoppers I know. It refers to the process of getting quickly from the formation of a consonant back to a large, open, pure, vowel formant.

Vowel Blossom­ – ­The opposite of instabang. This is my code for when singers take an especially long time to open their mouths from a closed consonant to a target vowel, thus creating a sound like an old record player getting up to speed. Say the word “swatch” in slow motion and you’ll feel a vowel blossom.

Aw-Roo – Another gift from barbershop (choir directors, take note: there are some killer lessons to be learned through barbershop singing). Just slowly say “AW-ROO.” You should feel as if you are making the shape of a cheerleader’s megaphone, only facing backwards. The larger end (AW) is in the back of your throat. The smaller end (ROO) is in the front with your lips. The theory behind AW-ROO is that all vowels are inside that megaphone/cone. Larger vowels (EH, AW, AH, OH) are in the AW space and smaller vowels (EE, IH, OO) are in the ROO space. Just saying AW-ROO can remind your choir to guard against “spreading” their vowels. Anything outside that cone is forbidden!

Phrase shaping

Long Notes Grow – A long note is anything longer than the smallest rhythmical unit of the song we are singing. Whole notes and half notes are no-brainers, but at some tempi even a quarter note could be a long note. All notes must grow. Grow how? Louder. Softer. Bigger. Fuller. Rounder. Brighter. Doesn’t matter – the word GROW is key. Growth means activity, not atrophy.

Indy 500 – Another barbershop find. Imagine the sound makes when an Indy Car races past you, around a curve… mmmmeeeeeeeeeeeoooooooooooooooooooooow (no, that’s not a cat sound). That organic “crescendo” of energy can be applied within a long note (long notes grow, right?) to create interest.

Rainbow of sound – Just as a rainbow has an arc, so does virtually every phrase. While not necessarily symmetrical, a rainbow of sound has an arc AND a connotation of singing with vibrant color.

Go somewhere – Phrases have motion, have destination. “Go somewhere” quickly reminds us that we must always attempt phrase shape. Even a poorly-shaped phrase will sound more meaningful than one with no direction at all. Don’t wait to be perfect to make a musical choice. Go somewhere.


Baby on my head – A good friend of mine said that she was so tired of her choir “zoning out” and not looking at her, that she finally just yelled out, “BABY ON MY HEAD!” Everyone looked at her. The phrase has stuck, and now every time the choir “checks out” she blurts “BABY ON MY HEAD!”

 Time on Target – This is a military term that means making adjustments to when weapons are fired so that their payload arrives at the same time. For instance, a bomb dropped from a plane, a tank on the ground, and infantrymen throwing grenades would all have to launch at different times so that the explosions all happened at the same time. In choir rehearsal, I first describe this phenomenon, but then go on to discuss the results. Imagine an enemy stronghold that is in one second untouched, and in the next second destroyed. When every singer in a choir brings their “A” game and focuses all their energy on a phenomenal product, ALL AT THE SAME TIME, the results are unbelievable! One challenge with young singers is fighting the issue that their interest levels (and thus their effort levels) all peak and valley at different times. Time on Target reminds them to come together with unified strength for the task at hand.

Transfer Task – Also called a “T.T.” Transfer Task refers to a musical concept that, while being taught to one section of the choir, can be learned by other sections to speed growth. If the altos are working on how to make a legato sound while maintaining good diction, that concept can be observed and thus “learned” by the other singers before they sing a note. Just a quick shout of “T.T.!” will keep singers observant rather than spaced out when it isn’t “their turn” to sing. It might not be their turn to SING, but it’s always their turn to LEARN.

Facial engagement

Turn your face on – Light ‘em up, singers! Get those facial muscles in gear.

Party upstairs – One of my colleagues likes to take a piece of paper, hold it in landscape orientation and cover her mouth. Then, while singing, the students can see all the activity going on in her cheeks, eyes, eyebrows, etc. She says “There’s a party upstairs!” Then she reverses the process and blocks the top of her face so they can isolate watching her mouth. Singers sometimes ask if they should “smile” all the time. Of course the answer to that question is “no.” However, there should be activity in the face. There’s a party upstairs.

The look of the sound – A four-time barbershop champion, Joe Connelly, often refers to “the look of the sound.” The director can model “the look of the sound” silently to create emphasis. The choir can create “the look of the sound” silently for specified practice. They can also create “the look of the sound” while singing. This has technical ramifications (round sounds come from round mouth shapes, etc.) as well as emotional importance (this section is melancholy/happy/sad/excited/fearful).

Zombie face – Reminds students that even when deep in musical thought, they must not let their faces “die.”

Sight reading

Sing anyway! – Don’t know what to do? Don’t know how those notes go? Don’t know this key center? Sing anyway. If there are notes, there should be sound. Don’t know what that sound should be? Sing anyway. If you are singing, the director can hear you and give you feedback (too high, too low, too fast, too slow) instead of simply saying “again, please.”

Three rules – I use this like call and response. I say, “The three rules for sight-reading are?” and the singers respond: Try hard! Sing loud! Don’t stop!

Miss a note, get a rhythm – A quick reminder that pitches come and pitches go, but time does not bend. If you miss a note (or two or three), that’s fine, but get a rhythm. Time and tide wait for no man.

I hope you find some of these tips useful. Shorthand can be a fun way to ingrain concepts into the culture of your choir. At your next rehearsal, describe the concept of shorthand to your singers and ask them to tell you what your most frequently used phrases are. You might be pleasantly surprised how much they pay attention!

Brody-McDonald-SMALLBrody McDonald is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured at numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice president of the A Cappella Education Association. His a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Brody is also the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Brody has recently joined the faculty at Wright State University as director of A Cappella Studies. He has partnered with Deke Sharon to launch Camp A Cappella, a summer camp designed to immerse singers in the contemporary a cappella style. For more information, please visit



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