The Complexity of Singing

Gabriela Hristova • ChoralCornerOctober 2023 • October 15, 2023

Teaching and making music with a choir is a complex process. I would compare it with the playing of an instrument, except that the instrument in our case is a group of people with various personalities and emotional sensitivities, different life experiences, and individual understanding of music as an art. We then add factors such as musical skill levels, singing experience, vocal health, and commitment to the goals of the ensemble are inevitable and playing a significant role in the overall process. While the two music-making processes might be different on many levels, they are also the same on many levels.

When I reflect on my piano practice sessions and the habits developed over the years, I also think of my teaching methods, various techniques, and approaches that I use to cultivate musicality, expression, and healthy technique in the singers. The teaching of basic musicianship, singing skills, ensemble habits, and understanding of interpretation, which we all repeatedly do in our rehearsals semester after semester, season after season, often makes me compare what we do with what athletes do. The number of years devoted to our craft, the commitment, discipline, and perseverance required by demanding rehearsal schedules and performances, are similar. They are meant to build, develop, and strengthen us and our students, not only as skilled musicians, but also as teachers and performers in tune with their inner selves. Then we can communicate the finest nuances of musical context through singers’ hearts and souls.

As I reflect on my years of training, teaching, and performing, I realize the amount of information that needs to be transmitted, cultivated, and assimilated in the choir room is vast. The gradual steps required for building healthy vocal technique and ensemble awareness, the depth of musical detail explained, the motivation and encouragement involved in the singing process, are infinite. Yet, there is a magical simplicity in all of this, a simplicity that makes the process enjoyable and fulfilling. I ask myself these questions:  What are the most important aspects of this process I want my students to embrace and care about?

What are the seeds I want to plant in their hearts and minds to carry on after they have sung under my direction? Here is what I have found. I try to communicate these ideas to singers daily:

• Music is more about responding to sounds (after we understand the musical story) than making them.

• Listening is the key to sensible ensemble awareness.

• Connecting with those around us makes all the difference.

• There are three aspects to every sound: beginning-duration-ending. Care for the duration of each note as you would for a child and respecting the silence between sounds is crucial.

• Meaningful texts set to music are powerful and have the potential for changing lives. Absorb word meaning. Let the meaning of texts color your singing.

• Think in shapes and colors. Affect is derived from phrasing, not rhythms and notes alone.

• Be your own conductor. Take ownership of the inner pulse of a work.

• The intake of breath is the essence of life. Think about the first breath of a newborn baby.

• Emotion breathes life into notes and rhythms we sing or play. Without emotion, however perfect the notes and rhythms may be, they are just notes and rhythms. The good news is, emotion is an integral part of our being.

• Eagles have incredible vision and can see many things at once from a broad perspective with complete clarity. Chickens have poor vision and can only see what is immediately in front of them. Be an eagle.

• Posture is audible! Share your joy and appreciation by visibly engaging in the now.

• Share your heart. Singing is highly instinctive, a powerful reaction to and reflection of our emotions.

• Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Open your mind’s ear. Our minds have incredible potential for understanding musical content on both intuitive and analytical levels.

• Making music is a privilege. Invest physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

This summary is by no means comprehensive and is perhaps nothing new, but it can be a starting point for communication with our singers in the exciting and complex process of making music. It has been for me, and it has worked beautifully.

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