How to Vocalize a Choir

Yes, I was trained as a choral conductor and taught public school music for several years before moving to New York. Now, I am fortunate indeed to have an international studio of singers who travel from all over the globe to study this technique. One major question that comes up over and over again is, "How do I take these well paying and enjoyable choral jobs and keep my voice healthy?" This is a major question and it has taken me several years to come up with ideas that actually serve the singer in a choral setting. I have friends who are conductors and I am often asked how to vocalize a choir in order to keep vocal health a top priority. This has led to seminars with choirs on vocal technique in a choral musical environment. This is the subject that I wish to address in this article. Hopefully I can offer some good vocal guidelines to both singers who sing in choruses and choral conductors who are looking for new and inventive ways to inspire healthy vocal technique in their choir.

Addressing Problems in the Upper Tessitura:

Vocal health in choral repertoire is not always an easy task to accomplish. Much of the reason for this is the aspect of tessitura: the range where singers must produce the majority of their pitches within a given piece of music. Certainly most singers do not know how to accomplish an open throat in the upper tessitura. Their concept of sound is by 'over listening' to themselves for tonal quality. The excellent choral singer must learn to listen only for pitch and to 'feel the open throat' in his/her voice. My teacher, Alan Lindquest loved choral music. He once said to me that one of the most thrilling musical experiences is to sing in an excellent choral setting. I think he had an excellent point. Again the problem of tessitura must be addressed with intelligence and diligence if choral vocal health is to be accomplished.

Special problems of tenors and sopranos:

Tenors and Sopranos have quite a difficult time because most of the singing is in the upper passaggio area: this is the range from approximately C to F at the upper end of the staff. The difficulty is the position of the larynx. Many choral singers are high-larynxed singers and have no idea of how to accomplish an open throated pharyngeal vowel. This space in the back of the throat that is produced when a singer learns pharyngeal vowels is what I call the 'shock absorber' for the vocal cords. The open acoustical space is affected directly by the singer's concept of vowels. This is where the intelligent choral conductor comes into the picture with a commitment to vocal health for his or her choir. How does one vocalize a group of people in the upper range with a lower larynx position? There are several ideas that can help. Remember to keep your concepts simple. I keep in mind that simplicity creates more positive results in the private studio. In a choral setting, this conscious simplicity is even more important.

Questions and Solutions:

To be realistic, few choral singers know much about singing in the upper register with a lower larynx position. There are several questions to consider while 'warming up' a choir before going to music.

(1) Are the singers using a 'spread mouth position'? Solution: Have the singers inhale with the fingertips over the mouth. This should be done with the mental image of 'vacuuming in the air'. The result will be the proper mouth position for pronouncing within text. This can be accomplished by teaching the singers to pronounce with Italian consonant function, i.e. the tongue working separate from the jaw.

(2) Are the tenors and sopranos opening their mouths 'too early in the scale'? (This causes a gag reflex in the root of the tongue that cuts off the upper range and creates 'shrill tone'.) Tenors and sopranos should have only about a 'forefinger's width between the teeth' until about high D or E-flat on the upper end of the staff. Solution: Have the singers vocalize all 5 vowels while placing the forefinger between the teeth. This will give the singer a sense of pronouncing with the tongue MORE than the jaw. It will also encourage the singers to make the space 'inside the pharyngeal cavity'.

(3) Are the singers producing their sound with the 'jaw slightly down AND back'? The 'back position' of the jaw encourages the larynx to 'float' in a slightly lower position. (This is not to be confused with a 'depressed larynx'.) Solution: Have the singer place the forefinger tip slightly behind the upper teeth in a vertically straight position. The jaw will find a 'relaxed back position' which creates more acoustical space in the throat.

(4) Is the posture of the back open or curved? Solution: Have singers vocalize against a wall with the feet slightly away from the wall. Have them breathe a small amount of air into the 'lower back'. Then as they vocalize, have them press the back into the wall further; this creates the proper 'support of tone'. The back should press further into the wall as the singers go higher and keep the support of the high note on while descending. As a standing posture, singers need to keep a slight 'bend' at the hip sockets as though they are about to snow ski.

(5) Does each singer know the concept of really dropping a low breath at inhalation? Solution: While sitting on a straight chair, have the singers lean slightly forward from the hips. Then have them 'relax the abdominal wall completely' so the new breath will drop low in the body. The sensation will be that the breath comes into the body 'all around the waist' as well creating the feeling of 'filling an inner tube' around the waist. Then have the singers make a 'hissing' sound to learn the proper sense of support of tone. The 'hissing' creates the antagonistic pull in the lower body muscles which creates support of tone. Standing posture needs to have a 'slight bend at the hip sockets'.

Special Problems of Altos and Basses

I have often found that choral directors find their choir 'out of balance' in regard to upper and lower voice parts. Since upper overtones produce a larger sound by the laws of acoustics, it is easier for higher parts to be heard. However, in many choral settings the altos and basses find it difficult to create 'enough sound' to balance the choir. Here we must fly in the face of convention to a point. Many choral directors are afraid of resonance in the voice. They attempt to accomplish 'choral blend' by using a somewhat 'hooty' or 'boy choir' production. This really makes adult singers throaty in their vocal production. Every voice is made to resonate naturally. 'Choking' this resonance out of the voice is not only unhealthy, but also counterproductive. If voices are allowed to resonate properly, then a choral blend will occur from the natural 'ring' that is common in adult voices. The 'ng' sound, such as in the word 'singing', is an extremely effective tool to use while vocalizing a choir. The more that a voice is produced on 'ring' the more the choral blend will result. When resonance is taken out of the voice, i.e. in the 'hooty' or 'boy choir' approach, throatiness is the result. Any throatiness cuts through the blend much more than a healthy resonant sound. The most difficult problem of the 'hooty' production is that the lower voices suffer terribly in attempting to balance with the tenors and sopranos. Keeping the 'ng' ring in the lower voices is the only way to achieve a good choral balance. Every choral conductor is challenged to address the major problem of the lower voices offering enough sound.

Questions and Solutions:

Many choral singers wish to know more about resonance in the voice, especially if their background is mainly instrumental. In the lower voices, the problem of 'hootyness' comes into play much more because of the lower tessitura. Also lower voices tend to try to 'color their voices artificially' with the back of the tongue. They try to listen for vocal quality TOO MUCH. This results in incorrect throaty sound.

(1) Are the lower voices over-dark and hooty? Solutions: Vocalize the lower voices on the 'ng' sound as in the word 'singing'. As with the tenors and sopranos, make sure the jaw is slightly back. Have them image that the vowels are produced behind the tongue with the tongue achieving a 'forward' position in the mouth. Also, make sure the singers are not 'over-opening' their mouths in the middle register; this also creates an overly-dark and hooty sound. The tongue goes into a 'gag reflex' when the mouth is too open too early in the scale.

(2) Do the lower voices 'cut out' in volume as they sing low? Solutions: Lower tones MUST be sung on resonance in order to have presence and 'sound' in the concert hall or theatre. Again vocalize the singers in the lower extremities on the 'ng' sound along with the small Italian 'u' vowel. Be sure their heads are not 'depressing the larynx' as they sing low. The 'depressed larynx' (chin buried into the neck) makes more sound inside the singer's ear, but 'cuts out the volume' to the audience.

(3) Are the singers 'blowing too much air pressure'. This will 'cut out' the overtones in the voice and create a smaller sound, even though the singers get a bigger sound in their inner hearing. Teach them to 'feel the sensations of the ng' rather than 'listening for a big sound'. The result will be a larger choral sound. Use the idea of having them vocalize against a wall while breathing into the lower back and then supporting into the wall further.

(4) Again, are their mouth openings too spread?

Solutions: Have the singers pronounce through the shape of an 'o' vowel. This will encourage the tongue to do most of the pronouncing as in the Italian language. Pronouncing this way also creates much more legato line. Also use the previous idea of having the singers pronounce the 5 vowels with the forefinger tip between the teeth. Also use the Italian 'u' as a reference point in alignment of vowels. Use a sequence of vowels starting on the Italian 'u'. Have the singers keep the 'feel of the u' as they go to the other vowels. This will also help choral blend.

Exercises that Create a Healthy Vocal Sound:

(1) 1, 3, 5, 3, 1. 
    a, o, u, o, a. 

(This simple exercise will begin to allow the singer to assimilate the idea of 'narrowing' the vowels as they go up instead of spreading. This is good for volunteer choirs because it involves less range.)

(2) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

(Creates similar results as the number 1. Be sure the singers keep the jaw somewhat down and 'flip' the l's. The tongue should function separate from the jaw.)

(3) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 

(4) 5......5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 
    u..... i..e..a..o..u............ 

(This exercise shapes the pharynx in a healthy acoustical space for all vowels. Use the idea the all the vowels keep some of the 'u' feel in the throat.)

(5) 1.......(oct. up), 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 

(Exercise is intended to help singers discover more head voice in their quality and to blend the registers more smoothly.)

(6) 1..3..1 

(Have the singer feel as though the larynx drops slightly as they sing the 'u' vowel. This will begin to help them discover a 'lower larynx' position. Vennard calls this the laryngeal pivot or 'rocking' of the larynx. Use this exercise only in the middle range.)

(7) 1..3..5..oct..3rd above...oct..5..3..1 

(This exercise is designed to allow a lower larynx while going into the upper range. The 'o' and 'u' vowels are lower larynxed vowels and performing this exercise will help the singers not to create a 'spread and shrill sound in the higher register. The jaw should be somewhat stable encouraging the singer to pronounce with the tongue separate from the jaw.)

(8) 5....5..4..3..2..1 

(Exercise allows for the 'ng' ring to thread into the form of the vowel. Use the vowel modification of 'aw' for the 'a' if it is too spread.)

All of the above exercises I have used with both semi-professional choirs and volunteer choirs in master class settings. I hope you find them helpful to you and your organization.


(c) David L. Jones/2000

Please direct questions to