If You’re Focused and You Know it Clap Your Hands

SBO Staff • ChoralCurrent IssueOctober 2018The Practical Conductor • November 16, 2018

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By Brody McDonald

One of the main goals of a choir is SSS – Start together, Stay together, Stop together. I often explain to my choirs that we can do anything we want, as long as we are all doing it. We have to be unified in purpose. One activity, one purpose, one goal, one choir.

The toughest time to pull the choir together is at the start of class. I developed a couple quick activities to help me grab everyone’s eyes and ears in a hurry. They are two minor variations on clapping, and I tell the class we can’t begin until we have three stunning, unison claps minus talking noise.

My preferred option involves a ball — something not too hard — a tennis ball or nerf ball works best. I toss the ball in the air and say, “clap when I catch the ball.” Eyes are on the ball, claps must be together. In the early stages, the clapping is almost always ragged, but another opportunity to learn the value of unified technique! I EXPLAIN HOW TO CLAP. Many students stand with their hands together or at their sides, and then are late to clap. I show them to have hands apart, ready to go. Sometimes I pass the ball to someone in the class (clap), they pass it back (clap). It’s fun.

The other option is less fun but always available: clap when I clap. Same principle.

Even a simple trick like this can help quiet a noisy room (just start tossing the ball and hear the claps supplant the talking) and pull your choir together. Rehearsal getting wobbly? Out comes the ball – back on track!

Layer Them In

I didn’t invent this activity, but I used it with my men’s chorus and I love it! My singers were struggling with internal chord tuning. I’m pretty good about handling such things, and I’m not averse to “operating” on notes. I can improve technique with the best of them. However, it was clear that we had issues with listening and awareness. We were focused on a 4-bar phrase in “Brothers Sing On,” voiced TTBB, the last phrase of each verse.

I called upon three singers from each section to come down to the front of the class. I picked upperclassmen who are, admittedly, “ringers.” Then I added one more person per section. I had those singers get back on the risers and had them stand while the rest were seated.

I started picking members at random. Each time I added a new singer to each section, the chorus grew in volume and vibrancy, but the quality maintained. Soon I purposefully choose singers who I knew had been struggling. The quality held. I kept this process up until about 2/3rds of the men were standing, and they sounded amazing.

I wanted to avoid singers feeling like they were “picked last,” so I then had everyone stand to sing together. The quality held. It was like a new chorus, like we fast-forwarded a month in the rehearsal process.

I took time to discuss what happened. I pointed out that I wasn’t going in order of ability as I drafted new singers. I explained that everyone had done a great job molding themselves into the core sound, and that they were all contributors to the astounding new product we produced. I encourage you to try this exercise. Start with a small core and then layer your singers in.

Sing in Different Fonts

I once heard someone say, “tone is carried on vowels; emotion is expressed through consonants.” I like that as a broad generalization. I often ask my choirs to enhance their emotional impact through tone painting, and this is one concept I impart to help them.

In order to get more specific about particularly important words, I point out the onomatopoeic nature of language. An onomatopoeia is a word that mimics a sound it references. Some examples are: boom, murmur, buzz, hiss, bang.

I believe that even more words sound like what they are. Say the following words out loud to see if you agree with me.


And so, it happened recently that I was working with my chamber choir on the Rene Clausen song “Set Me As a Seal.” As I was asking the singers to consider what were the most important words to stress, we were working the phrase, “…for love is strong as death.” I asked them to linger on the liquid/singable consonants in “love” to make the word more loving, to exploit the sharp consonants and open vowel of “strong” to make the word stronger, and to make the tone airier/hollower on the word “death” to help complete the phrase with a taper.

As we were practicing, one of my sopranos said, “You know, as I sing, I think of those words like they are in different fonts. You know, like those inspirational quote signs?” My head exploded. I could not stop thinking about this idea. It’s so true. Singing in different fonts! My first mental response was to internally scroll through the roughly 47,243 “Live. Laugh. Love.” posters I’ve seen in my life. But as the day went on, I found myself noticing the use of different fonts for emphasis on various posters around the school and all over the internet. “Singing in different fonts” is simply a chance to express a timeless idea (tone painting) from a new angle that might resonate with our singers.

If you enjoyed any of these tips, you can find many more at my website, ChoirBites.com.

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