The importance of vocal production in choral music

At the 2010 Summer ACDA conference in Atlanta, clinician Kevin Fenton mentioned in one of his sessions that choral tone was at the root of many problems he hears when listening to choral groups. I believe he was referencing his experience judging choral festivals, and many adjudicators have had similar encounters through the years. As choral music educators, we assume the role of voice teacher for the majority of our students. Happily, the development of vocal technique in young singers and the creation of an inspiring choral performance rely on many of the same factors. In fact, the majority of the categories on the GMEA Large Group Performance Evaluation judging sheet are directly connected to vocal production.

“As choral music educators, we assume the role of voice teacher for the majority of our students.”

Proper vocal technique allows singers to produce a warm, rich sound that is conducive to achieving a good choral blend. A well-trained singer has a greater dynamic range, can sing pitches more accurately, energize the sound with proper breath support, modify vowels in a uniform manner, and sing more expressively in terms of tone color and musical line.
Good vocal technique is, first and foremost, relaxed and tension free. As choral conductors we must differentiate between the proper use of the vocal mechanism which allows beautiful singing with full tone in the upper register, and the types of tension that inhibit vocal production throughout the range, increasing exponentially as the pitch level rises. This type of tension causes flatting, improper vowel formation, poor choral blend, and generally poor tone quality.
Warm-ups are an excellent time to address vocal technique. Dr. Fenton made an extremely important point regarding vocal pedagogy in a group environment at the summer session. We need to be specific in our direction. In dealing with singers in their applied voice lessons at the college level, it is not uncommon to hear muddy, over-modified vowel sounds rather than a brighter, more natural, Bel Canto technique. This may be the result of singers with strong aptitude taking to heart comments that were meant for their neighbors in choir. Telling the whole choir that the [a] vowel is too bright when in reality it is two of the sopranos, probably does more harm than good. It solves the immediate problem, but leaves you dealing with a slightly muddy choral sound somewhere down the line. When necessary, we can be specific without getting too personal by using language such as “front row ladies”, or “freshman sopranos”.
It is important to remember that the majority of choral students have voice as their primary instrument in college. They take the same type of applied voice lessons as vocal performance majors, and at many institutions they are required to sing recitals. We owe these students a strong foundation of vocal technique which will serve them in the future as pursue their vocal studies.

Jeffrey Bauman
Director of Choral and Vocal Activities
Young Harris College