What’s in a Tone? Creating Foundational Choral Tone for Worship

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Aaron M. Rice, DMA (SWBTS)
Director of Choral Activities
Tenured Associate Professor of Music
Shorter University

Have you ever had these thoughts –

  • We get through our anthem each week, but we just don’t sound as good as we could.
  • You know, we sound the exact same way that we have for 10 years or even when I first arrived.
  • We need a tone that is pleasant and points others to Christ rather than distracting.

Philosophy

What are the elements of ideal choral tone?

  • Resonant
  • Free
  • Dark/Bright
  • Supported
  • Energetic
  • Focused
  • True intonation
  • Balance
  • Blend

Remember that people are your instrument.

No matter the size, a choir is made up of individual voices which come from individual people. Each person is coming from his or her everyday routine. Choir is not their life; in reality, it is only a very small part of their life, even though much of our profession and life is wrapped up in choral music ministry. How does life effect choral tone?

  • Stress: it’s the body’s reaction to any change that requires an action or response (often this is a perceived danger). This can bring undue tension (worst enemy of the singer), poor intonation, and lethargy.
  • Physically or vocally taxing occupation: this can produce poor intonation, under supported singing, wondering thoughts, and lethargic tone.
  • Emotional instability: isolation (poor blend and balance), lack of focus, and lifeless tone.

If the conductor is aware of what is going on in the life of the singer, he can find ways to stem the tide of many issues or find ways to energize the ensemble.

Practice

Building the ideal choral tone for the Pastoral Artist is about the long haul. If done correctly, it is honed and nuanced month by month and year after year. In order for this group to be efficient in achieving all of the goals both weekly and over an extended period, the ensemble must have a focused culture. The ensemble must be completely open to learning (often times through nonsense exercises) your philosophy of choral tone. Teachability is founded on trust. The conductor must know where the choir is going and how they will get there. Sometimes the “how they get there” will mean doing things that are very foreign to everyday life, so the choir must be teachable and ready to do what it takes to attain the end product.

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Prepare for the process.

  • After choosing varied anthems, know what elements of your tonal philosophy are central in each piece.
  • Know how you plan to approach each of these elements and think through several pedagogical aids for each concept. (Keep in mind minimal talking and maximum modeling.)

Creating Choral Tone for Undistracting Worship.

  • Start at the beginning. WARM-UPS!
    • This is an essential time to prepare the mind, voice, and ears of your choir.
      • Mind – Remember that our singers are coming from all walks of life and are giving you that precious 60-90 minutes. Their minds have to move from where they were when they walked in to one of the highest musical moments of their week. Prepare the mind for emotional engagement, critical thinking, and physical energy.
      • Voice – No matter what they’ve been doing all day, we must ready their voice for unified healthy singing. Prepare the range, prepare the tone, prepare dynamic contrast. This should all be a healthy process.
      • Ears – The goal of choral singing is to sound as one, and our ears are the best tool to help us do this. Prepare the ears to help the voice sing in tune. Prepare the ears to listen around, assess, and adjust for balance and blend.
      • This is when we establish the sound and the tonal benchmark for the ensemble and the rehearsal.
    • Warm-ups are the prime time to build vowel uniformity and thereby choral tone.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask them to adjust several times if it is not where it needs to be.
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Vowel Resonance

  • Choral tone is built on the spacious vowel.
    • Use the warm up to teach the difference between shallow and spread vowels and those that are elongated and desired, come back to these differences often in rehearsal.
    • Work to open the mouth (open vowels particularly “ah” and “oh”), round the lips (closed vowels particularly “ee” and “oo”), and relax the tongue to unify the vowels across the choir.
    • No matter the choral style, the ensemble needs uniformed vowels for a focused tone. Uniformed vowels come from an aligned vocal tract among all singers in the ensemble.
    • Most commonly, the opening of the mouth is the incongruent aspect. It is key to think of the vocal tract as a continuous tunnel. The same space creates the same sound.
    • Not only is the height of the opening important, the horizontal opening is key to unified choral tone. Frequently directors overlook the focus that is achieved by bringing the corners of the mouth in, forming a slight pucker.
  • Vowel color really matters.
    • Bright vibrant singing is key (not talking about strident or excessive nasality).
    • Avoid the extremes of light breathy and dark heavy singing. Neither are healthy or pleasant. Sopranos and tenors above the staff tend to be strident and altos and basses below B flat tend to be too dark and woofy.

Supported tone that is clear and free.

  • Proper vowel weight is key.
    • Use body movement to help singers remember to spin the tone with more efficient air.
    • To correct under-supported singing, the general rule is to start by singing louder (not more pressed). Singing louder requires greater subglottic pressure.
    • Further, you may want to try to have them pretend to pick up the piano or heavy object or even do wall sits.
    • If the tone has become too pressed, walking around the room while singing or lip trilling can be helpful.
    • Solidifying the support can significantly helping true intonation.
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The Killer Bs (Balance and Blend)

  • Blend is the amalgamation of one voice with others to create a unified sound.
    • Creating the right blend can be a “shushing game.” Ideally it will not be.
    • A healthy blend should empower large or distinctive voices to feel free and encouraged. (Remember all voice types are welcome and represent the full Body of Christ).
    • Seating arrangements help empower the singer.
    • Sometimes side conversations with offenders are necessary. Make sure you’ve built a strong relationship.
  • Balance is the equality of sectional sounds to create a sonic texture.
    • Balance is an easier game to play.
    • Philosophy – pyramid (Basses are louder than trebles) or inverted pyramid (trebles are louder than bases), or square (all voices truly equal).
    • Your philosophy on the bright/dark scale will affect how you balance each section.
  • Though there are many considerations when dealing with the Killer Bs, we understand that a volunteer ensemble may create some challenges that should be met with creativity and poise.

Repertoire considerations for building tone

  • Choral tone is taught by legato singing on the vowel.
  • Things to look for-
    • Extended phrases
    • Often times moderate to moderately slow tempi.
  • Warning! Things that slow choral tone growth.
    • Choppy phrases
      • Often times I will drop the rests and carry through some lines in modern arrangements to make them more appropriate for building tone.
    • Extensive rhythmic/metric variety
    • Music that lacks forward motion (sometimes this can be overcome during rehearsal)

Outside Factors

  • Weather
  • Facilities/Location
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