Singing in Choir F.A.Q.

Should your vocal technique be the same for choral (ensemble) singing as it is for solo singing?

Yes, you should always use the same vocal technique, whether you sing solo or in a group. However, choral directors sometimes want you to modify your tone (change the way you sing) in order to blend with the other singers in the group. This may be okay for those singers who have developed a solid vocal technique, but dangerous for those – the majority – who haven't. You blend, all right – but at what cost? A singer should never compromise correct speech-level technique.

Then how is a person able to blend with other singers and still use correct technique?

In order to blend with other singers, you must give your interpretive powers to the director, but only in matters of dynamics (within reason), diction, and phrasing. That is, everyone must sing with the same volume, pronounce words the same way, and begin and end together. However, no attempt should ever be made to „brighten“ or „darken“ the tone. Singers should always maintain a clear tone with a normal speech-like depth.

It's not the vocal technique itself that should be modified or restrained, but the degree of individual vocal expression put forth. If you're going to have good ensemble, nobody can be sticking out. A singer shouldn't want to stick out – that would desh-oy the concept of „ensemble“.

What about vibrato management?

Now that's an interesting combination of words! Management implies that you're going to have to „manage“ or „manipulate“ your voice – to do something to it. Well, that's very dangerous. It's impossible to get a large group of singers to have the same number of undulations in their voices at the same time. Yet, it's also very dangerous to try to take the vibrato out – to sing straight, „flat“ sounds. To do so, your cords must be pulled so tightly that there's no undulation in them at all. Choral directors really shouldn't be messing around in this area. A relaxed vibrato should exist whenever you dwell on a note long enough for vibrato to take place. It is a natural function of a free voice.

Are you saying that choral singing can be dangerous for the solo voice?

It can be, if the director isn'l careful. Most choral singers tend to belt out notes in their chest voice, without ever going into head voice as they sing higher. This is death for the solo singer.

Is there a reason for the limited range development of choral singers?

Yes. Choral musk is usually written so that each vocal part has a limited range. The basses never have to go any higher than maybe a D or an E natural at the most, right at the top of their chest register. The same goes for tenors, whose part rarely goes above an A or B-flat. Consequently, there's no effort to develop the upper part of their range. They never have to sing through their main passage area, which in a man's voice begins around D or E natural.

How about women's voices?

The same thing is true for women. It's a big deal if a soprano sings past an A or B-flat in most choral music. But, you see, right at that high B-flat is a critical passage area, where she goes into a sort of overdrive. You could call the area above that passage area a „super-head“ voice. You have your chest register, and you have your middle register, which is in the head, but is definitely what you call a middle sound. You have your head voice, and then a „super-head“, which comes in around B-flat. But you have to prepare for it early, by keeping your voice balanced up to that point, just as with the other passage areas in your voice. If you are singing in an ensemble and go „pounding away“ up to A or B-flat, I can guarantee that you're going to ruin your high С and your D and E-flat in solo voice.

So this problem applies to all voices?

Yes. A singer has to be able to hear his own voice well enough to be able to progress through his passage areas in a balanced manner. A solo singer can hear himself during solos, but a singer in a group finds it almost impossible to do so. He keeps singing louder and louder to be able to hear himself. This encourages him to „grip“ with his outer muscles, which prevents him from ever exploring the head voice area of his range. Singers with wide ranges shouldn't be as rare as they are. Careless singing simply discourages the upper range development of those voices.

Is choral or ensemble singing any good for the solo singer?

It's good for general musicianship. That includes following a conductor's di­rection, sight singing, and ear training. However, you could learn the same things as an instrumentalist, then transfer what you learn to singing. Aside from the development of musicianship, there is very little you can transfer from what you get out of choral singing into solo singing, unless the director knows what he is doing in terms of vocal technique.

Choir Directors as Voice Teachers

Why aren't more choir directors good voice teachers?

It has to do with the system that trains them. When you go to school to study to be a choir director – either undergraduate, or graduate – you are generally given the poorest voice teachers on the staff. Even if you have a good voice, the music department will figure that you don't need to have a solo voice. Yet, most choir directors will meet hundreds of singers every week, when they conduct. They will also give voice lessons on the side. Inevitably, they will pass along the same poor vocal technique they were taught, using terms like „support the tone“, „place the tone further forward“, or „sing from your diaphragm“, without any real knowledge of what those things actually mean.