A basic description of our job as choral conductors or music teachers is to get a bunch of humans to make the specific noise at specific times to the best of their ability. There are standardized ways of getting these specific noises to happen, and also common terms that we use to describe the noises. As a conductor and teacher, I pay specific attention to the words I use when giving direction or feedback. More importantly, I am hyper aware about how the words I choose might make the singers feel emotionally or affect them psychologically. There are certain common terms that choral conductors use that I have deleted from my vocabulary and it has only served the group and individual singers well. To be honest, there are probably more than two, but today I am going to focus on these.
1. Having a “mature sound”
Frequently I hear conductors and voice teachers instructing their students to have a more ‘mature sound’, or praising that ‘mature sound’ when the singers produce a healthy tone with a warm, rich vowel sound that is balanced in terms of phonation and lacks tension. There are several things that concern me when the word ‘mature’ is used with a positive connotation like this - especially when it comes to our young (and, by nature, immature) singers.
This phrase insinuates that older is better - if you can sound ‘older’, then that is considered more beautiful. I don’t think the intention of using this phrase as a musical leader, however, is actually to have a singer sound ‘older’. Rather, we equate a ‘mature sound’ with tone and technique qualities previously mentioned - warm, rich vowels, balanced phonation, and tension-free. If I were to instruct a high school singer to use a more ‘mature sound’, what I am indirectly saying is that their sound currently is ‘immature’. To a youth singer, this direction reads as follows: they sound like a child - and they need to sound more like an adult.
What this inadvertently leads to is something I have coined as a Vocal Contortionist. A vocal contortionist is a singer who is not using their most natural sound, but rather overdoing every direction given to them by a conductor or voice teacher. Vocal contortionists are often some of our very best students or singers - people who truly want to get better, and take every instruction and try to integrate it into their bodies and voices. This can be almost more dangerous than a singer who doesn’t listen to any direction, especially when terms like ‘mature sound’ come into play. Vocal contortionists are far from their natural sound, and often begin to believe that their own natural sound is not warm enough/dark enough/resonant enough, and in order to best serve the chorus they need to overcompensate for - what they have come to believe are - their vocal deficiencies.
We, as choral and voice experts, work with the instruments of the human body and mind. That being said, control over the maturity level of those instruments is not in our (or the singer’s) hands. When we give a human being an instruction to change something they have no control over, it communicates the following to that human: the way you are built and who you are is not enough. Telling a singer to have a more ‘mature sound’ tells them that one day, their sound will be beautiful - but not now. They need to set aside their immaturity, because immaturity is not beautiful.
...but I would disagree. I find the immaturity in the voice (and personality) of a child (and yes, I do define ‘child’ as anyone under 18 years of age) to be truly beautiful. Each child is unique in their own way, and as they grow (and mature) they become beautiful in new and different ways. My goal is to always have each child sing with their most natural voice, regardless of ‘maturity’ of sound. Then, through careful work in technique, encourage them for a clear vowel sound or to sing tension-free. I can easily achieve what is perceived by many as a ‘mature sound’ with singers without using the term at all. This helps to keep singers actively engaged and improving aspects of technique that are in their control, and works to eliminate vocal contortionism (both physically and emotionally/psychologically).
“Wow, your high school group sounds amazing - they might as well be a college choir!”
I hear this phrase often, and it is just as damaging. I taught middle school chorus at a public school for five years, and would receive compliments from director friends that my ensemble sounded like “a young high school choir.” While this may be a well-intentioned comment that made me feel good in the moment, I started to resent it a couple of years in. I don’t want my middle school choir to sound like a young high school choir - I want them to sound like a really good and healthy middle school choir. In the same way, I do not want my current high school group to sound like a collegiate choir - I want them to sound like a really good and healthy high school choir. Why? Because they are in high school, and that is OK and beautiful in its own way. The goal is not to sound older - the goal is to sound healthy and natural. Older is not better. Older is. Younger is. All singers, older and younger, can sound beautiful with technique training that focuses on as natural of a sound as possible. Psychologically, this allows singers to start to become comfortable in their own voice and the uniqueness it holds. Eliminate the term ‘mature’ out of your teaching vocabulary, and I guarantee you’ll have singers who feel good and sound good, and believe it is in their control to do so.
I can’t even remember the last time I used the term ‘blend’ in front of choral singers. While this is a widely used term on festival rubrics and in choral teaching textbooks, I believe it to be one of the more damaging psychological terms for choral singers - especially when it comes to working with developing singers. The choral realm has defined this term as the chorus, or each section of the chorus, sounding as one voice - a listener would not be able to detect any individual singers in the group. I love that sound personally - and aim to achieve that sound with any of the ensembles I am conducting. However, I never use the word ‘blend’ to get there.
Asking singers to ‘blend’, or instructing them to ‘listen more’ in order to achieve ‘blend’ almost always results in undersinging, or lack of support in the tone. This is a natural response to what we as the choral world define as ‘blend’! The mindset of our singers is easy to understand, and we are sending the message loud and clear:
“The chorus will sound more beautiful if my voice is undetectable.”
Naturally, the singers begin to sing softer, or more breathy, or without support in order to make sure their voice is not the one sticking out from the crowd. We have trained them to believe that the sound of the chorus is more important than their individual development vocally. Even if it isn’t their healthiest sound, if it fits in our mold and works with those around us, it is correct.
The sound of a ‘blend’ can mostly be achieved, however, if every singer is singing with a full, natural sound. Spending a significant amount of time on voice technique/pedagogy in the choral rehearsal allows singers to develop at a similar pace with a similar idea regarding vocal production. This, in turn, creates a ‘blend’ among your singers. ‘Listening more’ has very little to do with it - creating a clear vowel in a healthy way with a balanced phonation in each singer will sound ‘blended’ to the listener’s ear.
Celebrate the uniqueness of each singers’ voice in your chorus. You may have a more-developed soprano who has a very different timbre than a less-experienced singer standing next to them. Through time and careful instruction in voice pedagogy, these singers can create a beautiful section. ….but it won’t come on the first rehearsal, and it won’t come by asking one singer to sing louder, another singer to sing softer, or by asking them to ‘listen more.’
Rather than thinking of each voice ‘blending’ together by being broken down and smushed in with other voices, I like to think about each voice as its own unique puzzle piece. My job as the teacher or conductor is to find the ways that the puzzle pieces fit together to create the whole picture. One strategy I find useful is placing students in different locations or having specific seating arrangements to encourage that unified sound. Ultimately, however, the ensemble is not more important than the individual. We are working with bodies. Just as an athletic coach has a responsibility to correctly train and develop bodies for a long life of health, we need to have the long-term health of our singers in mind. That may mean that at some point, you have a singer that will struggle to ‘blend’, but is using their healthiest sound during that one rehearsal or that one performance.
Quite frankly…..so what?