CHORAL PEDAGOGY, 3RD edition
Brenda Smith, DMA and Robert T. Sataloff, MD, DMA
Singing is known to every culture around the world. For most of us, singing skill is learned collaboratively in choirs. To participate in a choir throughout a lifetime, we must adjust our vocal expectations and maintain a dynamic sense of readiness for the changes that occur from year to year. The choral conductor must work nimbly to accommodate the vocal needs of each age group, including all singers at all times in assignments appropriate to the contributions they are able to make. There are many challenges, but choral pedagogy, voice science and medical resources are equipped to assist the choral conductor in the creation of a dynamic rehearsal and performance plan.
For the training of vocal skill, trained and amateur singers of any age benefit from the personal attention of a voice builder or choral conductor. Each voice presents with a specific complement of unique set of vocal, aural, rhythmic and interpretative gifts. Because singers perceive their voices differently the way they are perceived by their listeners, singers at any age rely on constructive feedback generated by the trusted ears and eyes of a qualified person.
Changes in range are a natural part of the aging process and are due to the loss of muscle bulk and alterations in connective tissue in the vocal fold, as well as to respiratory changes, blood flow and alterations in body muscle nerve condition, and other alterations. Another factor is the ossification of laryngeal cartilages. The degree of aging changes varies from singer to singer. People who love to sing wish to be included in choral activities as long as possible. Choral singing can be particularly beneficial for the preservation of vocal skill and for delaying the inevitable losses of range, control and agility.
While choral conductors are not expected to have the medical knowledge of physicians, they should have sufficient familiarity with vocal health problems to recognize at least obvious voice dysfunction and suggest that afflicted singers seek medical attention. Medical voice care has advanced markedly over the last few decades. Voice is now an established subspecialty of otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat), and expert care for singers is available much more widely than it used to be.
Good medical diagnosis in all fields often depends on asking the right questions and then listening carefully to the answers. This process is known as “taking a history.” Recently, medical care for voice problems has utilized a markedly expanded, comprehensive history, recognizing that there is more to the voice than simply the vocal folds. Virtually any body system may be responsible for voice complaints. In fact, problems outside the larynx often cause voice dysfunction in people whose vocal folds appear fairly normal and who would have received no effective medical care a few years ago.
Physical examination of a patient with voice complaints involves a complete ear, nose, and throat assessment and examination of other body systems as appropriate. In the last few years, subjective examination has been supplemented by technological aids that improve the ability to “see” the vocal mechanism and allow quantification of aspects of its function. With phonation at middle C, the vocal folds come together and separate approximately 250 times per second. Strobovideolaryngoscopy uses a laryngeal microphone to trigger a stroboscope that illuminates the vocal folds, allowing the examiner to assess them in “slow motion”. This technology allows visualization of small masses, and other abnormalities that are simply missed in vocal folds that looked “normal” under continuous light. The instruments contained in a well-equipped clinical voice laboratory assess six categories of vocal function: vibratory, aerodynamic, phonatory, acoustic, electromyographic, and psychoacoustic. State-of-the-art analysis of vocal function is extremely helpful in the diagnosis, therapy, and evaluation of progress during the treatment of voice disorders.
Following a thorough history, physical examination, and clinical voice laboratory analysis, it is usually possible to arrive at an accurate explanation for voice dysfunction. Of course, treatment depends on the etiology (cause). Fortunately, as technology has improved voice medicine, the need for laryngeal surgery has diminished. When the underlying problem is corrected properly, the voice usually improves, but collaborative treatment by a team of specialists is most desirable to ensure general and vocal health and optimize voice function. The choir director should be part of that team. Details of medical problems associated with voice disorders may be found in other literature. 1-4
The Basics of Singing
Warm ups and cools downs are necessary for any singer. Warm up and cool down exercises adjust the vocal instrument from speech to singing and from singing back to speech. Warm ups and cool downs involve four elements: relaxation, posture, breathing and resonance. Relaxation before and after singing contributes to vocal health. The vocal mechanism and the extremities need to be stretched and warmed. Good posture, both standing and seated, must be established in order to achieve a full breath. Conductors should be mindful that singing in a seated position is not an easy task. All singers should maintain an erect posture that allows maximum muscular freedom, flexibility and safety. A buoyant, flexible approach to breath support during exhalation follows. The final step to vocal readiness involves uniting the breath with the vocal sound. Exercises that evoke resonant sounds, such as humming, trilling with the lips or sighing set the stage for a focused vocal tone. In the process of cool down, singers return the voice to the speaking range by sighing, chanting or humming through the mid and lower registers.
The role singing plays in the daily life of each singer is diverse and unique. The rhythm and discipline of music learning sharpens mental acumen and memory. For choir members who maintain interests in acting and public speaking, singing can be a means of maintaining vocal strength and stamina. For many, singing in a choir makes life worth living. The overall musical results of a choir rehearsal may be of less importance than the good experience of being together for the task of singing. Singers want to continue singing as long as they can and as well as they can. Choral pedagogy is advancing to accommodate the special needs of singers of all ages. By establishing good singing habits, remaining physically fit, setting reasonable goals, and attending to vocal health, choral singers can “stay in the game” for many decades.
- Sataloff, R.T. Professional Voice: The Science and Art of Clinical Care, Third Edition. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing, Inc.; 2005.
- Rubin, J., Sataloff, R.T. and Korovin, G. Diagnosis and Treatment of Voice Disorders, Fourth Edition. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing, Inc.; 2013, in press
- Heman-Ackah, Y.D., Sataloff, R.T. and Hawkshaw, M.J. Protecting the Vocal Instrument. Narberth, PA: Science and Medicine; 2013.
- Smith, B. and Sataloff, R.T. Choral Pedagogy and the Older Singer. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing, Inc.; 2012.