What Are They Teaching Them in Choir

What Are They Teaching Them in Choir

A professor says to a young singer:

1. “You should always sing with your full vocal resonance.”

2. “Please sing a little less.”

3. “Could you sing with less vibrato, please?”

4. “You need to monitor how much singing you do in choir rehearsals.”

Which of these instructions did a voice teacher give and which did a choral conductor give? If you chose numbers 1 and 4 as something a studio voice teacher would say, you would be partially correct. The same would be true if you chose numbers 2 and 3 as being something only a choral conductor might say. The answer, of course, is that either person could request any of these four instructions.

The relationship between studio voice teachers and choral faculty within higher education has the potential to be strained, competitive, or antagonistic. Many causes contribute to this potentially undesirable relationship—differing approaches to pedagogy, overall tonal concept for choral singing vs. solo singing, sharing resources (space, money and, most notably, students), and varied faculty education. In addition, lack of interaction and poor communication between vocal and choral programs can also cause conflict.

This does not have to be the case. Voice and choral faculties can coexist with more harmony than discord. To that end, I offer the following observations and suggestions for solutions discovered together with my choral conductor colleague Heather J. Buchanan, associate professor and director of choral activities at Montclair State University.1

Shared Goals and Responsibilities

Choral conductors and voice teachers at any institution of higher education should have the same responsibilities and ultimate goals: the optimal education of their shared students. This goal is best achieved through excellence in teaching, creating an environment in which students are encouraged to thrive, and presenting a united front concerning students’ vocal education. The vocal and choral faculties’ coordinated approach to vocal training optimizes students’ educational and artistic development. Key areas contributing to our collaborative success at Montclair State University include 1) effective communication between all parties, 2) clear transmission to the students of academic and performance expectations, 3) mutual faculty support for each other’s programs, and 4) strategies for conflict resolution to satisfy all program needs.

1. Communication

The first and absolutely most important element in establishing a good relationship between vocal and choral faculty is communication. Just as in any good relationship, the channels of communication must be open and well utilized in all directions—voice faculty to choral faculty, voice faculty to student, choral faculty to student, and student to student.

Miscommunication often stems from incorrect or missing information. For instance, a student may say to his teacher, “Our choral conductor told us that we should always be singing full-out and we should not mark,” when in fact the choral conductor said, “This time through, I need to listen for balance so please sing fully and do not mark.” Then within the same rehearsal the conductor may have asked the students to be mindful of their voices, especially in the higher ranges and, if a lot of repetition is necessary, to pace themselves accordingly. The student may not have been paying full attention or was practicing “selective listening” and, so, misunderstood even though it was not intentional.

This sort of thing happens more often than we might imagine—students misreporting something they assume to be the choral conductor’s or the voice teacher’s intent. This misinformation can then lead the faculty member who received it to an angry or frustrated conclusion concerning the nature of their colleague’s overall intent with regard to the student’s vocal training and health. Voice and choral faculty can successfully avoid this sort of conflict by communicating directly with one another, teacher to teacher. Faculty members should schedule regular meetings to discuss individual students, programming, and long- and short-term goals of the integrated voice program. An important aspect of these conversations should be to develop and implement strategies that help students maintain their vocal health throughout their entire course of study.

2. Expectations of Student Learning

The long list of skills necessary for a singer to be successful is, with few exceptions, identical for the solo singer and the choral singer. So, again, the studio voice teacher—who may also be the diction teacher, vocal literature or pedagogy teacher, or opera director—shares the same goals for the education of the voice student as does the choral conductor.

Both the choral conductor and the voice teacher, for instance, want their students to be physiologically aware of their bodies as their instruments and to strive for good vocal health. They want their singers to develop good vocal technique, consistency, and vocal maturity through regular practice. This includes good breath management, optimal resonance and tone production, development of range, development of dynamic control, and good pronunciation and articulation. In addition, they both want singers who can sight read well, are musical in their phrasing and style, and strive for clear interpretation and communication of text.

Students also share in this responsibility. They must communicate personal concerns about vocal demands, section placement, and amount of singing or solo assignments. They must also develop time management skills, allowing for sufficient time to practice, study, and rest, while balancing work from other courses. Vocal use management (learning the limits of their voice) and lifestyle choices that affect vocal health (sleep, fluids, alcohol, smoking, drugs, medications, exercise, and use of one’s speaking voice) are also every student’s responsibility.

3. Shared Expertise/Mutual Support among Faculty Members

Because all of these aspects of singing, performing, and life management skills are desired outcomes for the voice students, faculty members must develop a unified approach within a single voice program or department. They should work together to develop a shared teaching methodology or philosophy. They should foster active, overt support of colleagues’ work by attending concerts and recitals, assisting with auditions, coaching student solos, and recruiting students for the mutual benefit of the choral and solo vocal programs. A voice faculty member could participate in a choral festival by adjudicating or offering a workshop. A choral conductor could feature a voice faculty member as a soloist on a choral concert. Finally, both can create opportunities for cross-program interaction—choir as opera chorus, choral director coaching the opera chorus, or voice faculty coaching diction for the choirs. Underlying all of this is the caveat that choral and vocal faculty always present a united front when dealing with the students.

4. Strategies for Conflict Resolution

As stated earlier, there are several areas of potential conflict within a college or university vocal program—issues concerning the use of the voice (request for straight tone, demanding range, and/or tessitura of repertoire), vocal fatigue from too many hours of rehearsal a week, competition over program visibility and recognition or funding within the institution or wider community, insecurity resulting from a variety of factors (part-time versus full-time status, degree of influence with students, program success or lack thereof) and, finally, a lack of respect due to a person’s level of expertise or lack of interest in their colleague’s work.

Perhaps the most common potential cause for conflict in a voice program stems from differing views of desired tone for solo versus choral singing. There are choral conductors who believe that students should sing with their “choir voice” as opposed to their “solo voice.” This affects how the students learn to use their instruments in a time when they are developing and building their voices. It also naturally affects the sound of the choir. Therefore, this issue has the potential to cause division among studio voice faculty and choral directors. It is important to remember that when aesthetic differences arise, it is ultimately the student singer who should always come first when final decisions are made.

Another area of possible conflict involves selection of repertoire. If a repertoire assignment and its accompanying vocal style is controversial, the assignment should be discussed with all faculty involved. This is the same protocol that should be followed when casting for an opera or choosing soloists for a choral piece. The individual teachers should be consulted about the appropriateness of the repertoire for their students before the casting list is made public.

Buchanan has developed strategies for finding the best choral sound possible with the voices she has in any given semester, while at the same time allowing her singers to really sing. She does not believe in a “choral voice” and conducts placement auditions in which she matches voice timbre, size, vibrato, and musicianship skills of her students. She regularly consults with voice teachers about particular students and where they will be best served and where they will best serve the needs of the ensembles. Often a singer will sing in two different sections when singing in both large and small ensembles. Buchanan always consults with individual voice teachers when she is casting solos from the members of her choirs. The voice faculty at MSU is fortunate to have such a wonderfully collaborative colleague.

For voice faculty members who are not as fortunate to have an open, communicative environment in their programs, they can implement strategies to develop one. Working for full disclosure of rehearsal and performance dates for all vocal performance events (choral, opera, opera workshop, chamber music, and even recitals) well in advance of the dates involved assures that all affected students and faculty will have ample time to plan for events that share several or many students. In addition to this common-sense initiative, they should strive to identify clearly defined program goals as set forth by all members of the vocal and choral faculties and provide full transparency in all aspects of the program.

Engaging in honest and transparent communication will cultivate a dynamic working relationship and develop mutual respect and trust. Communication between faculty and students will help find common ground in the shared endeavor to ensure optimal student education and experiences. When this happens, all programs benefit. It is then possible to advocate honestly for each other’s programs and to present a united front to the students—who learn by what they see faculty do more than what they hear them say.

Actively building bridges with colleagues takes time and effort just as building any relationship does. When a commitment is made to create this type of working environment, the benefits to programs, students’ overall learning opportunities, and quality of life in the workplace are many, mutual, and well worth the effort.


So in answer to the query “What are they teaching them in choir?” voice teachers should be able to reply, “Our mutually agreed-upon goals of healthy production, exemplary musicianship, effective practice habits, excellence in ensemble as well as solo singing, attention to language (pronunciation, articulation, communication), and a shared understanding of and respect for all aspects of the singing profession.” One type of singing is not “better” than another. All are equally valid and should be supported by all members of a voice faculty to convey this message to the students who are, after all, the reason we do what we do.

1 Adapted from Lori McCann and Heather J. Buchanan’s presentation, “The Dynamic Relationship between the University Choral Director and the Voice Faculty: Strategies for Limiting Conflict between Choral and Vocal Faculty: A Unified Approach,” presented at the third biennial conference of the National Collegiate Choral Organization (NCCO) at Yale University in November 2009.

Lori McCann

Lori McCann, assistant professor of voice in the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University, holds a DMA in voice and opera directing and an artist diploma in opera from the University of Cincinnati College–Conservatory of Music. She has performed opera, oratorio, and recitals both here and abroad and has taught voice for 25 years. She teaches at the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria, and is current president of the NYC chapter of NATS.