EXERCISING THE VOICE – Key Drills for Better Singing

pitch pipe close-upEffective choral singing requires certain skills, both for the voice and for the ear.  Taking 10 minutes each day to do them can develop these skills faster than we might imagine.  And we owe nothing less to our fellow singers, or our audience!

In this post, we’ll explore some voice-building warm-up exercises, which are designed to help us produce the biggest, warmest, most tension-free sound for the least amount of effort and wear on the voice.  They function both as warm-up and as training for vocal development.

General Guidelines – When practicing alone, use any melodic pattern that’s comfortable in the voice, being sure to cover your range as thoroughly as possible, without ever straining.

If you’re leading the group in these drills, choose melodic patterns that accommodate everyone’s range needs – take the sopranos and tenors as high, and the basses and altos as low as necessary for a proper and thorough warm-up.

In either situation, be careful to produce every sound in a free and well-supported way, with support coming from just above the pelvic region – this allows for freedom from tension everywhere above.

Consistent discipline  over the long haul is the only way to break the old bad habits and develop the new good ones.

You’ve Got to Break a Few – For warm-up purposes, it’s wise to go a step or two higher and lower than you’ll need to sing in performance, or just to stretch your voice.  At these extremes of your range, you might crack.  It’s okay!  A cracked or broken tone, freely and properly produced, is vastly preferable to a “clean” tone achieved by false manipulation or force.  But don’t beat a dead horse – if something doesn’t work, leave it and try again later, or try a different approach.

HUMMING – How to:  Lips together, teeth apart, with the lower jaw hanging loosely down from loose lips.  Purpose:  Warm-up; vocal development.  Helps us to feel where proper resonance happens.  Don’t force the tone anywhere – let the sound find where it wants to go; it will seem to buzz across the face and into the front “brain”; if done properly as explained above, it also sets up and demonstrates the loosely gathered, narrowed mouth shape we want for all our vowels (see below).

HUMMING INTO VOWELS – The next step in our humming approach is to transfer our head resonance into open vowel sounds:  MMMeee, MMMaaaayyy, MMMaaahhh, MMMohhh, MMMooohhh, again with the 5 vowels in any order you choose.  Practice this also with N and NG initial consonants.  (See VOWEL EXERCISES below.)

Got a Cold?  The open vowels you arrive at from out of the hum should be produced with the feeling of having a stuffed nose.  As you make each vowel, imagine you have a “code id-da-doze” (where those M, N and NG consonants are impossible!), while still allowing the resonance just where you felt it with the humming.  You can test whether this is working properly – As you make the tone, use your fingers to stop and unstop the nose.  If your tone doesn’t change, you’re probably doing it right.  These open vowel tones are approaching the kind of warm, resonant tones that are the ideal of proper vocal production.  Just remember to keep a narrow mouth and good support from below!

LONG HISS – How to:  Take a full inward breath, and emit a long, gentle and steady  unvoiced “sss” sound, supported with steady breath energy from the pelvic region.  As usual, keep your tongue, lips, jaw, etc. as loose and free as possible.  See how long you can sustain it without a breath.  With practice, you’ll increase this duration.  Purpose:  Breath control and capacity.  Makes us aware of the need for steady metering of breath energy, to produce well supported sound without tension.

LIP TRILL – Very challenging, but extremely valuable:  Don’t be frustrated if you can’t do this one right away – but do take the time to master it!

How to:  For this one, don’t think of humming, but rather of producing the tone strictly through the mouth.  As you make the pitched sound through loosely closed lips, you allow  the lips to “flap” loosely without any contortion, tightening or other manipulation.  It’s about letting the lips do what they will do, propelled entirely and solely by breath support from below.
Purpose:  Warm-up; vocal development.  This exercise teaches three important concepts:  1) Loose lips, tongue and jaw; 2) proper connection with breath flow; 3) the general principal of singing – letting.  Failure in any one of these three ideas will mean failure of the exercise.  Good!  Once you master it, you’ll have gained a lot.  If you feel tired in your abdominal region and not anywhere above, you’re doing it right!  Practice this one over the long haul.

VOWEL EXERCISES – Keep the vowels from spreading.  In the humming exercise (see above), we begin to have an idea of the properly relaxed but narrow mouth shape necessary for all of our vowels.   Another method for achieving this is to gently place the back of the fingers on either side of the mouth, and gently urge the hands inward towards each other. Don’t push so far as to produce a “fish mouth,” but just enough to narrow the mouth.  Now, as you maintain this shape, sing your vowels.
How to:  Pick a pitch in the middle of your range, and sing “ee eh aah oh ooh,” or the reverse, or use any order you wish.  Keeping the same width for all vowels, practice producing each contrasting vowel sound.   You’re reshaping your lips and tongue only as much as you need (especially on “oh” and “ooh”) to produce a pure vowel.  Also practice other “in between” vowels, such as umlauts and short vowels, in this same way.  Again, try and maintain as consistent and tension-free a mouth shape as possible across these various vowels.

Remember – By properly supporting the breath from below, you’re better able to let go of everything above.    Join Email List



Standing Tall. The singer might imagine being suspended from the top of the head by a string, maintaining a feeling of tallness so that it’s almost as if the feet are just barely touching the floor.  Feet are about shoulder width apart, with one foot slightly in front of the other.  One knee should remain unlocked (for one thing, to avoid the risk of fainting).  Wth arms loosely hanging at the sides, rotate the shoulders forward, then up, then straight back, and finally straight down to a resting state.  This final position will render the chest in a relaxed state of height.  This should be the default singing posture, and is especially important to maintain on exhalation or phonation.


Inhalation is received not in the chest, but in the area just above the pelvis and all around the back just above the buttocks.  Think of an inner tube which inflates with inhalation.  Ideally after weeks, months and years of practice, such an inhalation will seem to inflate the lowest part of the rib cage and the area below it, and during exhalation/phonation, this inflation will be at least partially maintained.

Exhalation/Phonation – The Tube of Toothpaste.  Here’s a mental image often proffered by voice teachers, and one I have found invaluable:  When you squeeze a tube of toothpaste from the middle, the middle section deflates, much the way the chest will deflate if we try to expel the breath from our chest or upper abdomen – this is not conducive to good singing technique!

On the other hand, if you squeeze the tube from the very bottom, the entire portion above this inflates and maintains inflation.  Think of expelling your breath during singing in this same way:  All of the outgoing breath energy should originate from your pelvis, with a constant sense of sure and steady motion.  (Singing is always about motion, never about locking anything).  I especially find it helpful as I produce sound to think of this contracting motion from each side (above each hip) rather than from the center front or center back.

Freedom from Tension.  When you support your breath in the way I’ve described here, it will be easier to think of everything from above the pelvis to the top of the head to be as loose and tension-free as it can possibly be and still function as it needs to.  This includes all the muscles of the chest, shoulders, neck, throat, tongue, face and head!

The tongue and the lower jaw are two especially common sources of undue tension for singers.  Remember that the tongue musculature extends all the way back into the throat.  Think of muscular freedom all the way back, letting the tongue lie flat in the mouth, with the tip resting against the back of the lower front teeth.

As for the lower jaw, it should be loose and capable of mobility at all times when singing.  You can test this periodically.  Try gently moving the jaw inward or sideways while phonating.  If it moves freely and easily during phonation, it is tension-free, ideally with proper breath support allowing for this freedom everywhere.  But this will take some consistent practice and patience – keep at it!

With a little practice in mental pictorialization, you’ll soon be able to sense that freedom of tension as you allow the sound to resonate in its own way through your upper body.


Resonance alone, without roundness, will result in a nasal sounding tone – all in all, not the most damaging kind of singing, but not a pleasant sound either.  Conversely, roundness alone without resonance will be apt to sound woolly, swallowed, muffled and rather lifeless.  When we achieve just the right balance between the two, the resulting synergy can be spine-tingling for the listener.

Resonance of Tone – Resonance is what gives our singing tone its carrying power.  Any great opera or classical singer must be able to carry their sound, acoustically and unmiked, over a full orchestra, to be audible throughout the theater or auditorium.

If we imagine singing tone as a knife blade, we may think of two components of tone: resonance and roundness.  Roundness is analogous to the size of the blade, and resonance to its edge.  Resonance is the sharp “cutting edge” of the sound, the element that allows the voice to cut through an orchestra, for example, and soar over it to the ears of the audience.

Think of singing as speaking.  The consonants especially should be delivered from the forward part of your mouth, from the lips, the front teeth and the tip of the tongue.  This is a prerequisite to resonance.  Another is freedom from tension in the muscles, bones and sinews of the skull, neck and upper body.  Tension inhibits resonance, which must emanate from everywhere, but especially from the face and head.  Just as the consonants are delivered from the forward areas of the mouth, the vowel sounds should resonate from the “mask” area of the face – nose, eyes, forehead, and even the top of the head.

Humming, the Great Resonance Enabler.  Humming should be an essential part of our warm-up, as it connects us sensorially with forward placement and resonance.  Always hum gently, with lips together and teeth apart – in other words, with an open throat and a loose tongue and lower jaw.  (And of course, remember proper breath support!)  Feel the resonance not just over the nasal area, but more broadly everywhere from forehead to chin.

Roundness of Tone.  Roundness is what gives size, color and warmth to the tone.  It defines the character of the sound, its richness and identity.

The Yawn Effect.  Roundness is essentially about openness at the back of the mouth and the throat.  Think of yawning, and especially about the feeling just leading up to an actual yawn.  It’s a feeling of expansion in progress back there.  (Even the tongue lies down in submission, as we have probably noticed when we see a dog or cat yawn.)  Such expansion must never be held or locked, but induced and encouraged.  Think of it as a process rather than a finished state.  One useful method for this is to think of inhaling the first vowel you will sing.  Inhale with an open mouth and nose, and let the vowel shape the mouth.

Gathered Vowels.  Endemic to many amateur-level choral groups (including in our Jewish choral community) is a horizontal, mouthy, “uncultured” approach to sung vowels, where the mouth opening is spread too wide.  Such vowel spreading mirrors natural speech, and most singers are quite unaware that their vowels are spread, or of how much their sound could be improved by gathering/narrowing.  Vowel spreading robs the singing tone of its potential warmth, richness, vibrancy and carrying power, and it can be unduly taxing on the voice.  Why is this so?  It is simply a reality relating to the acoustics of the human vocal structure and apparatus.  Spreading the mouth for vowels inhibits the optimum acoustical setup for efficient vocal production.

Keeping our vowels gathered means simply maintaining the mouth opening within a width roughly not exceeding that of its relaxed state.  If you have your lips closed and relaxed, with a loosely hanging lower jaw keeping the teeth apart, you can feel the width to which you’ll want to restrict all of your vowels.  But remember not to force or lock your mouth.  Practice shaping all your vowels within this width, but in a liberated, tension-free way.

Line.  Here’s where vocal technique and musicianship converge.  Musically, line is the shaping and seamlessness of the vocal phrase through both vowels and consonants, an imparted sense of constant forward movement and arrival.  Technically, it is breath energy that is the engine propelling the vocal machine.  Steady breath energy is essential to the seamlessness and shaping of a line.

If we remember the simple principle that singing is the art of inducing, never forcing, we can never go too far wrong.    Join Email List

CLASSICAL SINGING TECHNIQUE – The Best Starting Point for Choirs

vocalesePart I – Making the Case.  

In learning to sing, whether in a very serious and comprehensive way for grand career ambitions, or in simply learning some of the very basic fundamentals in order to be a more effective choral singer, or perhaps to sing folk or light pop in the local coffee house on Saturday nights, one undoubtedly encounters many different technical approaches and philosophies proffered by many different singing instructors.  Some might be tailored to a specific style of pop, religious or other genre.  But if one is seeking the most universally practical singing technique, the classical approach is ultimately the most useful for any and all styles of singing, and especially for choral singing.  Why is this so?

Before proceeding to explore the case for classical vocal technique, let’s be sure to distinguish the difference between technique and style.  Style has to do with a subjective, artistic approach to delivering a song or piece.  We are conveying an attitude by following a kind of recipe whose ingredients all contribute to the finished stylistic dish.  Some of these ingredients contribute to the general mood and attitude, others might address a broader set of cultural trappings.  Style is nearly always the embodiment of an evolved musical tradition.

Country music vocals, to take one example, are often sung in a twangy, nasal style, and the mood is often anguished and mournful, generally in keeping with the lyrics.  And of course these are routinely done in a mostly southern style accent.  There are a whole array of other carefully cultivated vocal mannerisms that contribute to this “country” feel.

Technique is the set of skills we employ to convey the style – the developed physical abilities that allow us to skillfully and effectively sing in this or any given style.  It is the machinery that produces the display, the lamp that shines the light. 

At the risk of confusing technique with style, let’s employ the term “classical” (small C) to name this technique.  Classical is also a broad style or group of sub-styles – Baroque, Classical (with a capital C, denoting an actual historic period of roughly 1750-1820, and including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven), Renaissance, Romantic and 20th Century modern.  But we’ll use the small-C term classical to refer to the singing technique that began to grow and develop in Europe during the great flourishing of opera in the 17th and 18th centuries, and continues more or less unchanged to the present.  Here technique and style evolved together, the one to serve the other.


Efficiency.  By developing a technique that maximizes the balance of resonance and roundness of tone, we are able to produce the maximum sound for the least effort.  The voice attains more carrying power, richness, beauty, versatility and longevity.

Vocal Health.  When we produce sound with correct breath support and freedom from tension, we minimize the possibility of irritating or even damaging the vocal chords, and of developing the wrong muscles in the neck, throat and tongue.  With good classical technique, our vocal endurance is enhanced, even when we’re fatigued.  Over the long haul, we might well be enabled to sing beautifully for decades rather than just years.

Beauty of Tone.  Correct technique will help us render the voice in its optimum beauty and richness, no matter the style you’re singing in.  One of the endemic issues in amateur choirs is that of the spread tone, in which vowels are approached in a shallow, horizontal way.  The resulting “mouth resonance” tone is dull, uncultivated, uninteresting, lacking in warmth, vitality and, as it happens, carrying power.  Happily, this issue is not difficult to remedy with a little of our classical technique.

Versatility.  Proper singing technique in our classical fashion is beneficial pursuant to any style of singing.  Once you have it, you can all the more easily make technical adjustments to fit the style.

Choral Technique.  In the case of choral singing, regardless of musical genre, stylistic differences must be approached with more care and restraint than with solo singing.  Remember the concept of ensemble?  Whatever style elements are applied, they must be applied together as a group, otherwise the group will not sound together, and the whole idea of choral singing goes out the window.  This means that each voice must use the same essential tone quality, the same approach to diction, attitude, mood, etc. as all the others.

This is where it becomes essential to promote at a group level the basic fundamentals (at least) of good classical vocal technique.  Even just a few of the basics, addressed to the group consistently over time, can make a noticeable difference in the basic sound of a choir.  Then every singer will be more empowered to understand how to achieve these elements of style together, and the possibilities for good ensemble are all the more enhanced.

Remember:  Just because we’re learning classical vocal technique doesn’t mean we’ll have to sound like opera singers (though we could do a lot worse!).  Classical technique empowers us with a solid foundation on which to build whatever singing style we like.

In our next post, we’ll explore some of the elements of classical singing technique.     Join Email List



CrystalCourt Tree-1

Christmas Tree – IDS Crystal Court, Minneapolis

Earlier this month, I had the privilege and honor to participate in a five-performance run of “Welcome Christmas” with VocalEssence, just as I have for over a decade.  And each year, these concerts are broadcast nationally (on a one-year delay) on Public Radio.

These experiences through the years with VocalEssence have by no means been the first instances in my life of singing Christmas or, for that matter, other church music and classical sacred works.  All through high school and college, I became intimately acquainted with this repertoire.  This is as it should be for any serious student of great music – and I’m deeply gratified by what it has taught me, as a singer, composer and human being.

The first half of the “Welcome Christmas” program consisted of a single work, La Fiesta de la Posada, a joyous holiday cantata by Dave Brubeck, featuring the sort of authentic mariachi music Brubeck grew up with in the small California town of Ione.  This marvelous work alternated some passages of classical grandeur with others of festive Mexican colors, and still other moments of the warm, urbane gentle jazz improv not unreminiscent of that featured in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  And I mean this in a good way.

The second half of the program featured Christmas songs old and new, including – for the 16th consecutive season – 2 new works written especially for the occasion.  We opened with a stunning Leland Sateren adaptation of a German song fitted to a holiday text, and also sang Norman Luboff’s charming “Still Still Still,”  But perhaps the highlight of this second half was Steve Barnett’s very cool arrangement of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”  Years ago, Philip Brunelle, founder and director of VocalEssence, specifically asked Barnett to come up with a new arrangement of this classic spiritual.  To hear Philip tell it, he felt that someone who grew up in the synagogue (as Barnett had) might have a fresh musical take on a song that had seen many rather routine renditions.  The notion is fully validated in this rendition.

CrystalCourt Menorah-1

Chanukkah Menorah – IDS Crystal Court, Minneapolis

Steve Barnett was, in his youth, the long-time choral conductor (and arranger) at B’nai Emet Synagogue in Minneapolis, and has since built a reputation as composer, arranger and producer.  His musical affinities seem to lie in the realm of jazz and blues, and he has done some very interesting arrangements of Jewish texts, including a couple of disarmingly jazzy settings of the Chanukkah songs S’vivon and Mi Yimalel, which I had a chance to sing years ago on a holiday program with the Dale Warland Singers.

So why is a nice Jewish boy waxing enthusiastic about Christmas music?  Because not only is it beautiful and fun (and even inspiring) to sing even for someone like me who doesn’t subscribe to the theology of Christmas, but it’s also instructive on so many levels.

And I’ll go further out on a limb and say that the Jewish musical community can stand to learn a few things from the best Christmas music (and other sacred music), about how to sell our own message both to our own people and in an educational sense to the wider world.  I would even say there’s a desperate need for this.  Great music has the power to draw people into any cause, even if it’s just to inform.

Music as a Means.  But what does this mean, exactly?  Does it mean we have to make everything sound like church music?  Of course not.  But we could take a few cues from the much higher choral standards found the churches (at least traditionally), standards of vocal ability, sight-reading and choral art in general.  Let’s begin by developing and fostering our own choral culture to the highest standards possible.  At least two reasons for doing this come to mind.

The Choir as a Musical Instrument.  First, if our Jewish tradition dictates that we use no instruments in shul, then it stands to reason that we can ill afford to ignore the choral medium or fail to develop it to the highest calibre possible.  This is because the choir is the one means available to us of adding musical dimension, color, texture and variety to our shul music, to provide a more worthy and equal complement to the cantor.  And this will certainly help to attract more people to services on a more regular basis.

It’s worth noting that much of the Christian Orthodox tradition, like ours, has also restricted the use of instruments, and those churches have developed their choral art to a very high degree.  Let’s learn something from them.

Cultural Exchange and Mutual Understanding.  Which brings us to the second point:  As we begin to find greater parity in our Jewish choral culture with that of the churches, we might open the door to their greater understanding of and familiarity with our traditions.

While we aren’t out to convert anyone, the fact is that appallingly little about Judaism is known in wider society.  This lack of knowledge and understanding is one of the contributing factors toward prejudice, even the subconscious kind that is harbored in the most open and progressive minds.  It’s incumbent upon us to foster a greater degree of such understanding to our gentile friends, especially if we want to mitigate their fear and prejudice.

Familiarity, in this case, breeds not contempt but greater comfort and less fear of the unknown.  And of course for our part, this is a two-way street.
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blue&white3-1Have you ever noticed how relaxing it can be to do a routine task, like folding laundry or washing the car?  Your mind wanders as you go about a simple task.  Maybe you have the TV or radio on while you’re doing this “mindless” activity, and without even trying, your focus goes to the program.

Do you find golf to be a tranquilizing activity?  Do you enjoy relaxing with a good book?  Maybe you like to decompress by knitting or needlepoint, or by surfing the web.  How often have you fallen asleep to your favorite music?  (And yes, if you’ve ever suffered from insomnia, you’ll know that successfully falling asleep can be a matter of focusing the mind on counting those sheep.)

Just what is it that all of these activities have in common?  They are all potentially relaxing.  But why?  They all lure us into a state of trance, a kind of hypnosis – in simplest terms, a place of deep concentration.

“Concentratus Interruptus.”  Now imagine that your concentration is repeatedly broken.  Sometimes this break is induced by outside sources.  Often it comes from within ourselves – we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to inhibiting our concentration.  In either case, I’m sure you’ll agree these interruptions are anything but relaxing, and can be deeply irritating.

Concentration is relaxation.  This is common knowledge, stated by many experts on effective performance of any kind, whether it be music, theatre, public speaking, sports, or what-have-you.  And yet, it’s all too easy to overlook.

We might sometimes think of intense concentration as some sort of tense, stressful condition.  We are confusing intense concentration with the kind of intense frustration we may feel when we’re unable to focus, but really need to.

It’s Only Natural.  True concentration is the opposite of tension.  It’s so natural, we usually don’t notice we’re actually doing it.  As a personal example, I really enjoy typing, especially when I can establish a flow over a long period of several minutes.  It is very hypnotic, relaxing, soothing.  And I’m actually producing something, so there’s an extra note of gratification.

The same goes with music.  For those of us involved in choral singing, performing music is not only gratifying, it can be a remarkably effective way of unwinding.  This is in part a result of the deep breathing required for singing – taking deep breaths is relaxing and cleanses our mind and body by reconnecting us with a steady oxygen flow.  But it also has to do with the mental concentration required.

For effective choral singing, indeed for any sort of accomplished ensemble performance, concentration is key.  That’s what it takes to really tune in to one another:  to enter and cut off together, to blend our vowel color and our consonants, to feel each and every nuance of articulation, dynamics and tempo, to be at one with the music, and with one another.  And when that chain of group concentration is broken or torn by even one person not fully participating in it, it can be frustrating for all concerned.  But don’t let it get to you!

Concentration is Focused Attention.  This means attention to what’s being requested of us during rehearsals, listening carefully to the conductor’s (hopefully clear and succinct) instructions, and then an equally sharp focus on carrying out those instructions in the music.  But each and every individual has to do his/her part in this communal concentration – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  And it takes practice.

There’s really no mystery about concentration – just focus your mind on the thing at hand.  (And try not to be lured into that pitfall of stopping to notice how well you’re focusing, because that’s not focusing!)

In the context of singing, there are a whole set of specific things to concentrate on.  It’s impossible of course to focus on too many elements all at once – that’s why we must learn and rehearse the music over time and build it into our minds and our bodies.  Then the notes and rhythms and our coherent sense of form become second-nature, and we can focus in on energizing and selling the music to our audience.

Practice Makes Perfect.  Once you get to know first-hand the synergistic magic that can happen when everyone is concentrating, the communal experience of effective music-making can be unforgettable, just as it can be in an effective team effort in sports.  And the more we practice both individual and communal concentration, successfully tuning in to each aspect of the music, the easier and more second-nature it becomes.  And the better our choir will sound.
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English road into fog

Speeding into a fog.

The Cop-Out.  It’s one of the easy solutions to a dragging, sluggish tempo.  Move it along! Problem solved.

Or is it just a cop-out?  And doesn’t the easy solution merely create another problem?  What if the composer calls for a slower tempo?  “Speed kills” as the saying goes, and it’s true in music too — Nothing can kill the desired effect of a slow, deliberate tempo like the addiction to speed.  The composer likely had a good reason to specify this tempo – and it’s important to try and respect the composer’s intent.

And even when there is no specified tempo, if we always resort to this easy “move it along” solution, pretty soon all of our repertoire will begin to sound the same, no matter what the mood of the music should be.

Avoiding the Need for Speed.  Often as not, this compulsion to speed up is pushed on the conductor by singers who, feeling burdened by a slow tempo, believe that to “move it along” will make things more comfortable.  As a singer, I have been guilty of this myself.  As a composer and a singer, I will say that it’s better to respect the specified tempo and take one or two extra breaths, than to try and do the phrase in one breath by speeding up.  Respect the effect!  It’s far more important than being able to brag that you did it in one breath.  This principal holds in both choral and solo singing.

flowing river-1

A leisurely flow.

It’s Psychological.  But much of the time, the problem is really in our minds anyway.  It’s the product of a faulty or neglectful attitude toward the music.  The most reasonable and best artistic solution is to detract our attention from the unease of a “dragging” tempo by reducing the drag in our attitude, and concentrating our efforts on musicality.

Musical Energy.  This means feeling that constant sense of energy – to shape the line, to let it flow and stretch, like a lovely winding road stretching and curving through the countryside.  Give the line you sing – even through the rests – a continual feeling of forward travel.  Many other metaphorical images might apply here – a flowing stream, ocean waves, the blowing breeze, drifting clouds, even pulling taffy.

The main goal here is to avoid the feeling of stagnation, and find the climactic points of emphasis and aim for those destinations, to discover in each phrase the constantly renewing cycle of tension and release that is the essence of music, and of life.  It’s a sure bet that if you are thinking like this when you sing in a slow tempo, you won’t be thinking of the drag.  And more importantly, the audience won’t perceive the drag.

Moving the Breath.  Proper and continuous breath energy, emanating from the pelvic region through the contraction of muscles just above the waistline, is necessary to achieve this continual melodic flow.  Remember, this energy must never feel locked or stationary.  Never allow yourself to go into “cruise control.”

Crescendo, Diminuendo, Accelerando, Ritardando.  When we are shaping the phrase with this sort of energy of motion, we might feel that these dynamic and tempo changes are at work, and to a very subtle extent, they are.  But it would be painstaking and not a little tedious to try and plan out every small nuance of volume and speed in every phrase.  It’s much simpler to think of those “destination” points, those tension climax and release spots in the phrase.

Words Speak Louder.  Here’s where the text provide the answer.  We ask which words in the phrase are most important, which are of secondary importance, and so on down the line.  Find these words and use them as the points of climax in the phrase.

Expression.  Get in touch with the mood of the piece you are singing, and more specifically, the immediate melodic line.  Turn your energy to really expressing that mood or emotion.

Slow Down and Save the Music.  Whenever you find yourself thinking about how draggy the tempo is, re-focus your mind on making music.  And don’t cop out with speed!  The aesthetic police might pull you over.    Join Email List


Close-up photo - string tremulosMusic consists of various elements – rhythm, pitches, dynamics, changing tempo, text – any one of which can prove tricky, challenging or downright daunting.  And once you’re combining two or more challenging elements, the challenge seems to increase exponentially.

One of the most common errors we make in learning our new music, particularly singers learning vocal music with text, is the all-too-often vain attempt to grasp all these elements at once.

Learn It Right the First Time!  For most of us at least, this all-at-once approach is bound to divide our concentration in this highly crucial first exposure to the music, and we end up learning something the wrong way.  Remember:  once something is learned incorrectly, it is much harder to unlearn the mistake than to learn the thing right in the first place!

Start With the Most Challenging Element.  Maybe there are tricky rhythms. Learn just the rhythms completely and thoroughly without the pitches or text, and in a slow, steady manageable tempo to begin with.

Subdivide.  For intricate rhythmic passages, find the smallest note duration value and sub-divide the entire passage into this value.  If, for example, it’s the 16th note, sub-divide all the rhythmic values into a continual 16th-note pulse, and practice the rhythm under the feeling of this pulse.

Tempo, Tempo.  Once you’ve learned the rhythms, this is a great time to start practicing in the indicated tempo of the piece, especially if such tempo is fast enough to present a challenge.  No matter what tempo you are practicing in, slow, fast or in between, make sure it is a steady tempo, true to the context of the rhythm.  A rhythm out of tempo is never really correct.

Here’s the Pitch.  Now go to the next most challenging thing – most likely, it’s the pitches.  Learn these at first without the rhythms.  Master those tricky intervals perfectly before combining them with any other element.

There are a variety of approaches for getting a handle on difficult intervals:

Wide Leaps – Try shifting the second pitch down or up an octave so that, for example, a 7th or 9th becomes a 2nd, or a 6th becomes a 3rd, etc.  Learn it this easy way before re-introducing the original octave context.

TritoneTritone (Augmented 4th or Diminished 5th) – try inserting one or more helper tones in between to make this devilish interval easier to grasp.  I like to think of this interval in one of two ways:  1) as two consecutive minor thirds; or 2) as three consecutive whole steps).

Trust Your Eyes.  For less difficult intervals, let the visual movement of the printed notes on the staff be your guide – that’s what they’re there for!  If you allow yourself to go by these movements from space to line, space to space, etc. you probably can’t go far wrong.  But make sure it’s right!  Use a keyboard to play the pitches, and listen to the correct pitches and intervals three or four times before singing the pitches.  Listen, then sing.  Make sure to learn them correctly the first time.

hayom-t-2-1Know Whereof You Speak.  Things get all the more tricky with a foreign language text.  We in VocalEssence have just finished our 2014 run of holiday concerts, where fully half the program was Scandinavian music in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish.  For most of us, these languages were entirely unfamiliar, and it was especially necessary to learn the language text on its own before applying it to music.

Learn the text as a separate element first.  Get the diction down.  (Speaking the text aloud is very important because it ensures that you will train the muscles needed to pronounce it.  Mental knowledge is only half the story when it comes to pronouncing tricky words.  Once you’ve achieved perfect working pronunciation, practice the text in rhythm, without pitches.

Put It Together and What Have You Got?  Finally, add those pitches to the rhythms.  And once you’ve practiced this once or twice, begin paying attention to dynamics, phrasing and articulations.  If possible, begin incorporating these as soon as you have combined pitch with rhythm, so that they are hard-wired into your performance.

Breaking down the elements of new music in this way, whether individually or as a group, will not only ensure accuracy to what’s written, it will save a lot of rehearsal time in the long run.  It will also promote a sense of security – and more freedom for creative musicality – in performance.  Join Email List

DON’T BE TIMID! Commitment in Performance

piper 2-1At this past July’s North American Jewish Choral Festival in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York, we had the chance to hear many choirs of varying skill level.  Two of the tell-tale signs of a group’s degree of accomplishment were its degree of confidence and its energy level.

Among the very best of these choral ensembles was the select group of young singers from the International Jewish High School Choir, who performed with a degree of commitment and certainty not often encountered outside the professional realm.  These young people possessed a thorough knowledge of the music they were singing, and they gave a passionate, energized performance throughout.  This was true of all the best ensembles we heard.

The tragedy was how easily one or two hesitant or missed entrances, or lackadaisically executed soft passages, seriously marred some otherwise respectable performances at the festival.

Timid Doesn’t Cut It.  There is simply no place for hesitation or timidity in choral singing, or indeed in any sort of performance.  That awkward entrance by the basses, that lack of energy in quiet passages, and worst of all, the unnecessary sagging pitch which happens out of carelessness – these things simply don’t sell with the listener.  Effective performance, whether in concert or in worship, means being fully committed, and fully engaged in the music.

What are the causes of timidity in performance, and how can they be avoided or mitigated?

Quiet doesn’t mean weak or feeble.  It’s a natural subconscious assumption we all tend to make, that when we get soft, we can somehow relax, go on “auto-pilot,” use less energy or, in the most common phenomenon of all, slow down.  On the contrary, it is in these quiet, piano places where heightened energy is especially important.  Without it, the passage simply won’t read well from the audience.

Low Energy Leads to Flat Singing.  If we are singing without full engagement, we are less likely to be fully “tuned in” to the rest of the group, and that’s where sagging or otherwise faulty pitch can more likely happen.  Good ensemble means everyone must be singing in the same key!

Nerves Undermine Confidence.  For any performance, you must assume that you’ll be nervous – that is, unless you are such a veteran or you’ve performed the music so many times that you could do it in your sleep.  (And in that case, the danger might be low energy – see above).

While nervous energy can actually work in our favor, often with performance nerves, we become less certain of everything, such as entrances, proper pitches, correct rhythms, etc.  Our vocal abilities are also compromised – we suffer from dry throat, less solid breath support, and tension.

The best way to combat nervousness, and even use it to our advantage, is to concentrate intently on the music, on performing all the tempo and dynamic subtleties you should have learned in rehearsal, and of course, on staying scrupulously in tune.  When you’re focusing carefully on these things, you won’t have time to think about being nervous.  And this means that you must….

Know Your Music!  Perhaps the main cause of hesitation or timidity in performance is not knowing what you’re doing.  Be confident and comfortable with every note, every rhythm, every nuance of loud or soft, slow or fast, both as an individual singer and as a group.  If you can know the music well enough to look at the conductor at least occasionally, the performance will be all the more solid, and knowing the music thoroughly will make the experience far more gratifying for you, for the ensemble, and for the listener.

commitment2-1Sing Like a Leader.  Make it your business to be a strong link in the chain of your choir.  When you “own” the material you are performing, you have less need to rely on others around you, and you can make entrances and cues with authority.  Of course, this works far more effectively if everyone can sing like a leader, and there are no weak links!

He who hesitates is lost.  Chazzak, chazzak (“Be strong, be strong!”).     Join Email List



Monday Morning Community Sing - Big Tent-1

Monday Morning Community Sing

Annual Magic.  Many have aptly compared it to Brigadoon:  A beautiful place in the lower Catskills that comes alive once a year in mid-July with musical alchemy.

It is the North American Jewish Choral Festival, a program of the Zamir Choral Foundation, and this year’s 25th annual event marked an especially auspicious, and at times poignant occasion, a time to look back on the entire history of this conclave of Jewish choral music, back to its rather makeshift, extemporaneous beginnings.  In the context of the current strife in the Middle-East (no matter what one’s political position on that situation), it was all the more powerful to see Jews coming together in musical and spiritual solidarity —  to engage in, to use founder and director Matthew (Mati) Lazar’s words, “an artistic, spiritual and unifying musical catharsis.”

In the Catskills-1

In the Catskills

A Nice Cup of Borscht.  This year as every year since 2004, the venue for NAJCF has been the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa (formerly the Granite), near Kerhonkson, NY.  For the first eight years, the festival was held at the Concord Resort Hotel, another one of the several fabled Borscht Belt resort facilities in the general area, most of which are no more.  Such resorts have catered to city dwellers seeking a bucolic respite in these majestic surroundings.

In an average year, the North American Jewish Choral Festival draws about 500 participants, many of whom are cantors, choir directors, composers and performers.  In this 25th year, the ranks swelled to over 600.

Old Familiar Faces.  While each annual gathering features many new faces, there are many repeat performers.  This was my fourth time at NAJCF, and the long-time choir director at my congregation has managed to attend every single year since its inception.  Our cantor and cantor emeritus also were present as they have been in other years, and two friends of mine from my years in Highland Park, NJ have also been long-time regular participants.  Then there are the new friends I have made at the Festival over the years, talented souls most of whom have returned every year of my attendance.

There are performing opportunities for singers of all skill levels, and even if one isn’t a singer, it is possible to participate in the festival as a listener.  There are a variety of workshops and seminars on many Jewish musical topics.

The Big Tent-1

The Big Tent

A Busy Schedule.  Each day of the festival begins a choice of three different minyanim  – Egalitarian Conservative, Reform and Orthodox) for morning prayers, followed by a large breakfast (all meals strictly kosher).  Promptly at 9:00 am, singers gather in an enormous tent on the grounds for the daily community sing, which begins with a short warm-up.  New pieces are presented and taught in a matter of 10 minutes, followed by a recorded reading of each.

Then follows the morning rehearsal for each of the five Instant Ensembles, which represent five levels of ability ranging from no sight-reading skill and perhaps limited singing ability, all the way to trained singers of advanced musicianship and fluent sight-reading.  With my extensive musical background, I have always found myself in the top level group, conducted by Mati.

After a similarly large lunch comes whatever seminar or workshop one has signed up for.  These include workshops in sight-singing, works of a featured historic composer or compositional school, special musical skills such as barbershop or small ensemble singing, early Jewish music, solo singing master class, songs of the Yom Kippur War, Holocaust Hymns, and many other subjects, more or less related to music.

Then comes the afternoon Ensemble rehearsals (all leading to a final festival performance on the final morning),

Hearing What’s Out There.  Each night of the festival (and this year, each afternoon as well) affords the opportunity to hear guest choirs and ensembles singing a variety of Jewish choral and sacred repertoire.  For this 25th Annual festival, no less than 19 guest choirs performed, ranging from intrepid amateur level groups plagued by faulty intonation and inconfident entrances to highly accomplished ensembles such as the Zamir Chorale of Boston, Kol Rinah (of Westchester) and Nashir (of Manhattan) which two choirs performed as a combined ensemble, and The Second Avenue Jewish Chorale of Miami, FL.  Specializing in Yiddish song is The Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, which presented a marvelous musical history of Jews in America.

For me, perhaps the highlight of all these fine performances was the Chamber Choir of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir.  These young people demonstrated exceptional vocal and musical abilities.  Their performance set, which included what was undoubtedly the most representative reading of Max Helfman’s Hashkiveinu I have ever encountered, had to be a source of great encouragement for the future to anyone (like me) hoping for raised musical and vocal standards in the Jewish choral community.

After dinner comes the evening presentation and concert, followed by an informal piano sing of old pop standards and showtunes.  At the piano for this in-the-lobby gathering is often found one Mr. Peter Sokolow, a veteran player with a vast encyclopedic knowledge of popular and show tunes harking back to the Tin Pan Alley era.

The Final Chord.  On the night of the last full day (Wednesday), we all gather in the lobby, standing before the stairway on which Mati stands to conduct us with an impromptu mass reading of Louis Lewandowski’s Halleluyah (Psalm 150), a war horse most of us know from memory.

Finally comes the big day, the culmination of our efforts – the final Thursday morning performances by each of the Instant Ensembles.  Everyone marvels at the accomplishments of his/her colleagues in just 3½ days.

All of which makes the point that this marvelous Brigadoon of Jewish music and culture, in this or any year, makes for a comprehensive experience  – of listening, of singing, of scholarship and fellowship.

Raising the Standards.  While in past years I have been a little disappointed by the lack of musical and vocal refinement in many of the choirs, and rather unhappy with the lightweight pop style of much of the repertoire, this year’s Festival seemed to signal a much higher standard in all these respects.  Yes, even this year there were occasional unfortunate experiences from my perspective.  And my abiding hope is for fully acoustic performances (presently, they are heavily miked).  But I nonetheless have come away feeling encouraged and hopeful for the future of Jewish choral and musical culture in North America.

We should all be deeply grateful for the hard work and passion of Mati Lazar and his colleagues, Rabbi Daniel Freelander and Dr. Marsha Bryan Edelman, along with the many other perennial devotees who have grown the Festival, and the burgeoning Jewish choral movement.       Join Email List


Ear training-1Ensemble singing is about listening as much as singing. The rule of thumb is: If you can’t hear the other singers, you’re singing to loud. But what this really means is that even as you’re singing (loudly or softly), you must be acutely tuned in to what’s going on around you. Once you have attained the habit of tuning in, it becomes easier to correct mistakes almost before they happen, to avoid the misplaced consonant, the false entrance or the faulty pitch.

We have entered into the realm of musicianship – always essential, but never more so than in ensemble singing.

INTERVALS are the space difference in pitch between two notes. Practice playing, singing and recognizing intervals both alone and in a group.  It’s essential to know the names of the intervals as well as how to hear/sing them. This connection is basic to the fundamental skill of reading music.

Multi-Pronged Approach – Learn and practice each interval in different ways. Listen to and sing each one:

  1. As an ascending  line;
  2. As a descending  line;
  3. In its vertical  (chord or harmonic) form.  The ability to recognize each interval by hearing it both as melodic line and as a harmony is a useful and important skill. This third method can be practiced on your own at the keyboard if you know how to play each interval. But it is also an excellent group exercise to have one section sing a pitch while another section sings another pitch higher or lower at a given interval.
  4. Built on different notes of the scale – for example, try to hear a perfect 5th not just on E to A, but on C to F, F to B-flat, etc.  It’s good to be able to hear the interval in different various keys.

Purpose:  To build a fundamental skill in sight-singing.

Some intervals are easier than others. The trickiest one for nearly everyone is the tritone, which may be thought of in three different ways:

a.  As an augmented 4th (think of stretching a perfect 4th by adding a semitone);
b.  As a diminished 5th (think of shrinking a perfect 5th by subtracting a semitone);
c.  As 2 notes with three consecutive whole steps between them.


Tritone – Melodic to Harmonic

HARMONIC SHIFT EXERCISES – The group interval exercise mentioned above is one of many harmonic group singing exercises. Others should involve full harmonic chords of 3 or more parts. The leader chooses a chord (one note for each part), and has the group hold the chord. From here, all sorts of exercises can happen.

For example:

– Practice shifting the entire chord up or down by semi-tones, whole tones, other intervals.
– Change from major to minor, minor to diminished, major to augmented.
– Begin in unison/octaves, then split to a semi-tone dissonance. Move to whole tone dissonance. Evolve into 3- or 4-part dissonant chords.

Purpose: To build confidence in singing harmony; to develop a sense of tonal awareness, of skill in hearing and singing subtle harmonies and dissonances; to foster an appreciation for harmonic colors; in general, to encourage and build a sense of ensemble.

As the skill level advances, progress from standard major and minor chords to more complex chords such as:

Seventh chord built on MAJOR triad –
Minor seventh – from the fifth of the chord, add another tone a minor third above.
Major seventh – from the fifth of the chord, add another tone a major third above.

Seventh chord built on a MINOR triad –
Same as above, but the sound will be quite different!

Augmented chord – start with a major triad and raise the 5th by a semitone. The augmented chord is really two stacked major 3rds.

Diminished seventh chord
Fully diminished – three consecutive minor thirds stacked vertically
Half-diminished – two consecutive minor thirds topped with a major third, stacked vertically

Ninth, eleventh, thirteenth chords in similar variation.


Believe it or not, dynamics (loud, soft, etc.) are not easy for most ensembles to achieve effectively.  For one thing, there’s the phenomenon of thinking you’re doing too much when in fact it’s not nearly enough to “read” from the listener’s perspective. Another common (and seemingly universal) syndrome among singers is the subconscious associations of louder = faster, and softer = slower.

Gradual changes in volume are more challenging than one might think to execute in an even and consistent way. Too often we peak too early or die down prematurely. And vocally, it is a challenge to pull these off with consistent support in order not to produce strident tone in crescendo (growing louder), or lose energy and vitality of tone on diminuendo (growing softer).

Crescendo – practice at varying rates and durations.

Diminuendo– practice at varying rates and durations.

Combined cresc/dim – The most common challenge here is to avoid fading too fast in the second half.

Instant or sudden changes in volume approach the realm of accent, but without the full force of an accent. They vary in degree of either the loud or the soft. In a printed score or part they are often accompanied by the word subito (sudden). Practice overdoing these – you just might discover you’re not really overdoing it, and you might not be doing enough!

Forte-piano (fp) is perhaps the most common subito change. Listen to many Mozart’s works and you’ll likely encounter this one.

Sforzando (sfz) is similar to the the forte-piano, but is rather like an accent.

Swell (<>) done with varying degrees of speed.  Try it fast, and study how this is different from an accent or forte-piano (answer: it is smoother).

Forte-piano followed by a crescendo, as well as other combinations.       Join Email List