Vocal Pedagogy Master Class #6: Volunteer Choirs

This post suggests ways to connect the dots among somatic education, functional voice training and vital singing with conducting volunteer and community choirs. Now-a-days, that often means “groups of senior singers.”

These ideas come from 19 years of working with volunteer choirs at Levine Music, a large community music school in Washington, DC, where I founded the original women’s choruses in 1996. They also come from 38 years of working as an Independent vocal clinician and with the former Washington Vocal Consortium. (1987-2012.)

Some church and school choir directors are going to say that they don’t have time to do what I suggest. It is relatively easy to get a beautiful choral sound from a select group of singers compared to obtaining a balanced and energetic choral sound from a group of non-auditioned, or marginally auditioned, volunteer senior singers!

It is possible that a conductor needs to know more about singing, and certainly more about aging voices, not less, when working with volunteer and community choruses.

What follows are many “tips,” all designed to improve your singers sound over time.  A challanging aspect of working with volunteer choirs is the systematic insistence on the exercises to “prime the pump” in order for amateur voices to free up and work mindfully and joyfully.


Every rehearsal starts with physical exercises involving releasing, then strengthening and activating. Remind singers to only do what feels good to them. Dr. Anat Baniel, author of Move Into Life, draws connections in her psychology practice among brain health, emotional stability and movement. Beginning rehearsal with mindful movement is the foundation for music-making.

Combing through a used book store many years ago, I came across a 1974 gem-of-a-book called “Dance of the Self: Movements for Body, Mind and Spirit,” by Blanche Howard.  The illustrations alone are joyful!  Here are three examples from that book that encourage Somatic Education:

Dance of the Self

1.)  For the 7 cervical vertebrae and neck/shoulder muscles:  Explain where these vertebrae are, then model standing with “body bright.”  Count backwards, 7-6-5-4-3-2-1. and with each count slightly turn the neck to the left, imagining gently turning each vertebra to look behind you.   Keep it comfortable.   Finish that side with  slightly twisting the torso to the left, and end with one more slight neck turn.  Repeat on the right, then repeat both sides again.  Great stretch for the spine, and can be done seated if necessary.

2.) Stretch right arm straight up, try to move upper arm to as close to your right ear as you can.  Stretch through finger tips.  While continuing this stretch, stretch left hand down and straight back.  Count to 6 slowly, and continue to breathe. Lovely stretch through torso.  Switch sides.  Repeat.

3.)  Punch the air, like you are punching a punching bag, 25-50 times, depending on fitness level. Good aerobic activity and fun.

Breathing exercises–You are encouraging activation and relaxation at this point,  not “teaching them to inhale a certain way and support.” All the breathing in the world won’t help weak laryngeal function, but these exercises addresses general health and awareness.

1.) Lift arms out to the sides and ask them to feel their ribs.  Have them put their hands on their ‘bra lines,” as if you are cradling the ribs. (The men love this..) Invite them to breathe sideways into their ribs, more as a “release” after blowing their air out, not a “tanking up and lifting shoulders.”  Then ask them to exhale forcefully on BRRRRRRRRR (rasberries), pulling their abdominals in to push their chests up.  Tell them that it is the pectoral wall moving, not the flesh that is the female anatomy.  This is a breath/muscle activation exercise that can be adjusted, added to and adapted.  Many of the senior singers I used to work with in choirs were people who had lost a lot of muscle tone and coordination.

2.)  Inhale fully into ribs to a count of 4, hold the breath for the count of 6, exhale for a count of 7.  Repeat 4 times.  Helps the parasympathetic nervous system, and therefore, mental focus. This is really big, because they come in wanting to work, but chattering and visiting and bringing in all their issues right through the rehearsal room door. This exercise is like magic–after about 4 rounds, stillness descends upon the room.

3) I work constantly and happily to help unfold a more flexible and free body throughout the whole rehearsal, which means I have to embody the work myself.  With seniors, you have to gently insist on it all the time. Remind them with specifics, ALL THE TIME. See how many ways you can say the same thing and sprinkle those things throughout the lesson/rehearsal. CONSTANTLY and ALL THE TIME! DID I MENTION ALL THE TIME?

4.) Teaching seniors to hold music, by developing the relationship among the arms, T-12 and the shoulder blades is a developmental process that is very important because that related directly to the rest of their system.  And it helps them get their eyes up!


For aging singers, strengthening the muscles of the larynx (that darn wobble or severe registration issues,) can’t happen without simultaneously relaxing any muscles that don’t belong in the vocal process. The relaxation part can be aided by encouraging lots of silly noises, call and response style, along with silly faces. Embody the work yourself, or it can not translate to your group! If you are a keyboard player or composer, you will have to learn to do these things if you want your group to do them.

I adapted the ‘coup de glotte’ and chest voice exercises to a single ‘UH-OH!’ done on pitches 5-1, encouraging a very slight glottal on the onset. This helps bring the vocal folds together. I divided the group into groups of 4 to do the exercise so I could hear if someone was overdoing it or not engaging enough.

Traditional vocalize and choral warm-ups were added, but only after the initial 10 minute somatics and “activation” period.  Two of their favorites “activators” were

YOU HOO HOO! (1-5-3) Head Voice

HEE-HAW (5—slide to 1)  Head to Mix (or whatever they can manage. Encourage not crashing into chest voice but get softer right before they move into chest.  This takes some awareness, developed over time.  Encourage them to try it at home.  (called “practice.”)

Arpeggios can go up staccato, and come down legato, with arm movements to simulate direction and connection.  Men didn’t like to do this much, so I asked them to move their hips in a gentle circle. They REALLY didn’t like that, so they eventually started moving their arms….I also asked men to sing in head (some call this falsetto.)  This increases over all flexibility and range over time.

I am constantly surprised and delighted by what seniors are able to accomplish but the manner of working with them is as important as what you do. Many of them are caring for adult children, grandchildren and/or their own aging spouses. Many are recovering from surgeries, still working and/or suffering from chronic conditions. Each moment needs to allow them to unfold their own possibilities.

Young conductors or singers with no health issues or responsibilities except themselves can not begin to understand how these things can take a toll on the physical body.


The choirs that I worked with weekly followed a model of a one-half hour voices class followed by a one-hour rehearsal. The voice class was designed to also include choral warm ups and pitch patterns they would meet in the music we were to rehearse that day. I know many of you do this already–but it does take planning. The results are more than worth it in tonal quality, perception and understanding of how their part fits into the whole.

I go over words and texts very slowly and more times than you can imagine. Articulation exercises are really important. Pull out any pattern that makes the tongue move. Tongue twisters are great fun to speak as a group. Singing in unfamiliar foreign languages means that I chose a fairly repetitive text and gave LOTS of lead time to learn it before a performance.

Church choirs have special needs because they have to have music ready every week. Most directors can’t take the time for a complete warm up, so singers have to be encouraged to do so BEFORE rehearsal begins.  I teach workshops all over the DC area, showing church choirs what they can do before a rehearsal. One choir I worked with has a music teacher who sings with the group lead the specific exercises for anyone who shows up 20 minutes early.

Seniors often can not hear, and may speak loudly during rehearsals. If it is disruptive, I talk to them privately, and they can ask whoever sits on either side of them to gently put a hand on their shoulder if they start to speak or hum and are not aware of it.

Since hearing is an issue, I have to repeat myself many, many times, and SLOW MY SPEECH WAY DOWN. Sometimes I will ask, privately, if their hearing aids are in and request they carry an extra set of batteries to rehearsal.

If they claim I did not tell them something, I resist the urge to scream. I make light of it and repeat it AGAIN. I ask the person who made the claim to repeat back what he/she heard several times, smile with a twinkle in my eye, and move on. Then have a glass of wine that night.

I hope some of these ideas help and inspire you to find your own ways of working with seniors. We are at a very important time in our culture’s history, where is it time to embrace the wisdom of the aging and recognize the love, intelligence and perseverance that they all hold.  We are all made richer for these things!

Check out “Vehicular Vocalises” by The Washington Vocal Consortium.  (Dr. Kathy Price, Elizabeth Daniels, Catherine Huntress-Reeve and myself.) Medium High and Medium Low.

“A godsend for the choral singer moving from work to dinner to rehearsal.. .–The National Association of Teachers of Singing Journal of Singing review.

If you found value in this post, please like, subscribe, forward or comment! Thank you for reading.

Well, the photos are blurry as heck but they make the point: The Levine  Women’s Chorus in Rehearsal– founded and conducted by Cate Frazier-Neely.




In Performance at The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, Washington, DC-


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