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Teaching with a vocal disorder

Thank you to all who replied to my query about teaching with less singing/speaking on the part of the teacher. Below is a compilation of the replies.

ALSO – Rick Bjella sent me additional information that he had collated for presentations at the Illinois Summer ACDA meeting as well. I found it interesting and helpful. If you would like to see those materials, please email Rick Bjella: richard.l.bjella(a)

--- Laura Sandham
Rosemount High School
Rosemount, MN

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Dear Listers:

I’m so grateful for this wonderful resource and for the collective wisdom of its members.

I would appreciate hearing from any of you who have had to make considerable adaptations to your teaching “life” in order to conserve your voice due to a voice disorder or vocal damage.

I have just been diagnosed with the former, and both my ENT and my voice therapist believe it to be a condition that is hereditary, permanent, and possibly progressive. The disorder has not affected the vocal ligaments, which are perfectly healthy; the problem, instead, is that the musculature is gradually weakening and losing its ability to adduct the cords completely. Thus, my voice tires easily, especially from projection and/or prolonged use. Though the outlook is not exactly cheery, I am very relieved now to understand why I’ve been having such problems with my voice.

Both the ENT and the voice therapist recommended use of a microphone while teaching large groups, maintaining a normal, “intimate” level of volume at all times when singing and speaking, and dramatically limiting the amount of singing and speaking I do daily so as to conserve voice. The first two recommendations will be relatively easy to meet. It’s the third one, limiting the use of my voice for teaching, that prompts me to post this query.

My teaching load is two 10th-12th grade choir classes and a music theory class (each ~50 minutes long) along with three periods of curricular voice lessons. I am looking for great ideas that other choral directors use for accomplishing more with less singing and speaking, especially in your choral rehearsals:
* Non-verbal cues and signals for a wide variety of instructions
* Silent, start-of-rehearsal routines that can be effective without becoming stale or mindless
* Favorite vocal exercises that involve lots of kinesthetic motion
* Creative ideas for greater student leadership and participation -- both musically and in other classroom activities – to help fill the “void”
* Other ideas

I must also mention that I am blessed with two wonderful, full-time choral colleagues who have been extremely supportive and will be of great help to me as teammates and “coaches” as I figure out how to re-tool my teaching approach. All in all, I consider myself very, very fortunate.

I would love to hear from anyone who has advice to share on this topic.

Many thanks.

Laura Sandham
Rosemount High School, Rosemount, MN

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When I was teaching elementary school, I used a lot of sign language such as stand, sit, walk, etc. This was good because my kids had to listen and pay attention or they would not understand what I was asking them to do. Try incorporating some simple sign language and I believe that will help out tremendously.

As for student helpers--Let them take attendance and do other minor things for you. You can even have them make your announcements for you, if you type them out.

Sorry to hear of your condition. Best of luck!

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I would recommend you take the VoiceCare Network workshops to help you know what to do. I was faced with a similar problem over 15 years ago, though not as severe as yours seems to be. I took the classes, which are offered in the summer, and they really gave me a ton of great ideas, and truly changed my teaching style. They not only helped me teach voice in a healthy way, but helped me deal with my own teaching so that I was able to maintain a healthy voice myself. Check out: I wish I had taken the classes at the beginning of my career instead of 20 years into it. They were, without a doubt, the best courses for teaching/voice/conducting/rehearsing that I have EVER taken (and with a Master's +50, I have taken a few...).

I know that waiting until next summer for the classes won't help you this fall. But, you can also purchase the text "Bodymind and Voice" - it is expensive but it will contain literally HUNDREDS of things to help just what you are facing. And, it is a good beginning to the course. I will say this - the course requires the book to be read, but does not simply "rehash" the text. They show you how you can apply the text to your individual situation and personality.

Something of a more immediate nature that can help you is a tutorial site for teachers that is set by the University of Iowa in conjunction with the VoiceCare Network. It is called the "Voice Academy" and can be accessed at:

Here, you create a log in with a user name and password. It is a safe site, and the user name/password is only necessary so when you return to the site you won't start all over. There is an assessment test that you take to find out what you know about your voice and teaching. Then the site takes you on a tour through various "classrooms" that deal with various topics, tailored by your assessment. There is also then, an assessment after each room. The information here is deep and thorough. You can start is one day, log off, then come back to it later and work some more, as often as you need, until you finish it.
There is even a certificate to print out when you have completed it!

The best experience though, is the VoiceCare Network Impact Course, and then the Continuing Courses.

This being said, I'd recommend a microphone in the classroom (see if you can get the doctor to sign a statement that you need this, and then your school will have to install it...)

I also explored many ways of teaching without talking. In music, especially in choir and voice teaching, the talking can be cut to a minimum. How effective your conducting is can cut down on unnecessary talking. Do you talk over the students to get their attention and teach? Or do you get their attention, and then teach? A question that I learned to ask myself (that really helped me change) is: What behavior from the students am I willing to accept? Another is: How quietly can I talk and still teach? I found that I was accepting a LOT more noise from the students than I really knew, and that I could talk a LOT quieter than I thought I could, and still hold their attention.
Another thing to explore is the "ambient noise" in the room - what sounds are there when everybody is "silent?" Noisy chairs? A blower or ventilator? Echo? The hum of lighting? Things like this all contribute to talking to a class with more intensity that you need.

However, these are just things to fix the symptoms. VoiceCare Network will help you explore the source of your problems and help to find things that will remedy the root cause. Even if heredity has come into play, you can still learn how to work with it.

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Nonverbal is definitely the way to go. Most of us talk way too much in rehearsal anyway, and explain too much. I know I did before I made a conscious change. Here are some nonverbal suggestions, most of whihc you may already use:

Chanting, clapping rhythm, sol-fa, conducting for expression, dynamics, phrasing, style(a big one), attending (walking up to a particular section or student so as to listen, but also to make them pay more attention), having students model, giving two examples of a way of singing something, and having the students sing their answer, facial expression, etc.

Also, I find that if the students are accustomed to the fact that you won't raise your voice, but stand quietly in front of them to get their attention, they start to talk less and pay attention more. I found that most of my vocal issues came form raising my voice, speaking with tension or over other noise or explaining too much, not from singing too much.

So sorry you're dealing with this. Good luck. Hope things go better than expected.

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I just purchased the book "Singing High Pitches With Ease" by Nancy Telfer for $9.95. It discusses how to teach without demonstrating with one's voice. I think the amount of discussion on this subject would be worth the purchase for you.

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I am a music teacher, composer, performer and educator so I use my voice a lot. I teach K-6 students, however, I do have some non-vocal beginning choir routines that might be of use to you.

Although you will have to use your voice to initially set things up, as the students become familiar with the routines they require no further prompting from the teacher.

As soon as students have found their seats, I play a pitch on the keyboard and have the students sing an ooh (or whatever vowel you choose). They match the pitch and watch for dynamic changes indicated by the conductor. If your students can sing using solfege syllables by hand signs, you can change the pitch using the hand signs, both in unison and two-part (this is most difficult for the teacher who must be able to sign two different pitches simultaneously).

Have students assist by taking attendance as well as giving one student verbal instructions to pass on to each choir member as they enter the rehearsal and/or class. This means that you can speak softly to one student and that student will do the repetitive giving of instructions.

My students know to listen for a signal on the piano when I am ready to begin or when I need them to be quiet after transitions. (I often use "shave and a haircut -two bits" as the signal, but any agreed upon signal will do.)

For my younger students if I hold up one hand and add fingers, they know I am waiting for their attention. They have only until I reach five to resume quiet. This actually works very well as there is a finite period of time to quiet down (as opposed to the "hold one hand up to signal that you want quiet and waiting until it happens"
approach). This may not translate well to older students.

The microphone is a good idea. There are also field systems that involve a necklace mic and speakers in the four corners of the room.
This is used in many regular classrooms to assist with ADHD and high needs children who find it easier to hear the teacher with the quadra sound. I don't know what the system is actually called, but if you don't know about it and/or if you cannot find out, when I return to school in September I can find out the actual product name.

Good luck with adapting your teaching. I understand the passion to do what you love most. You are brave to carry on.

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Just in case you find yourself feeling limited by being under a "vocal curfew"...

The now world-famous magician Teller (of "Penn and Teller") became a "silent act" when he was doing shows for college fraternity houses. He is a small man, and didn't have the vocal power to shout down his rowdy he learned how to command attention without saying a word.

And now, here he is, one of the most famous magicians in history, who owes a great deal of his success to...not saying anything.

If he can do it, so can you.


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I just read your post and I'm sorry to say that I don't have much to share, but I listed what I could think of:

1. Have practice CDs that the students could take home; either created by computer (Sibelius, Finale, etc.) or pay some singers to help record some part CDs for you (hopefully out of choir budget money). I usually create part CDs and sometimes sing parts so that the students can practice at home and we can get more done in class. Maybe if the students can practice and memorize outside of class, it will leave you a little more free to give visual cues once music or passages are memorized.

2. If your room setup is weird like mine and the chalkboard is ridiculously difficult to see, have your choir invest in a dry erase board. I have a moveable one, and it is great for putting up announcements or other little things that don't need to be said with your voice. However, I recently read something that I am going to try, which is to type any announcements that need to be made and give them to the students at the start or end of class. This way, they have a visual reminder and you don't use your voice or board space on them.

3. One other thing that tends to work with my children is anytime I'm sick or have to sing in a performance that evening, I tell them at the beginning of class that I can't speak loud b/c I'm trying to save my voice, or that it's weak (from being sick). That gets their sympathy every time :)

I don't know if any of this helps. But actually, the main reason I wanted to write was to ask if you would post a compilation of the results you receive. I think it's important for all choral directors to keep their voice in good health, and I'm always looking for ways to use my voice less. I do some singing around town for fun, but there are some days that I overuse my voice and just don't think about it until it gets sore :(

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I think we all benefit from non-verbal communication in rehearsal and classroom teaching. In my undergraduate program we actually led some rehearsals without speaking at all, to become better at using non-verbal skills. I know Jo-Michael Scheibe at Miami would tell give his graduate students the instruction to say it in five words or less, holding up five fingers to remind them when they were at the podium.

First of all, I think having an understood attention-getter is necessary. Like a specific rhythm that you clap and the class claps back, or raising your hand while until everyone else has their hand raised -- there's all sort of different ones. To begin rehearsal, I always like to start with music, not talk. So warm-ups would start right away. The music signals their attention, and they rise and sing.
I go directly from warm-ups into the first piece. Having the rehearsal order on the board would be essential, and in your case you may want to include specific measure numbers (list the piece, the page, the measure #s to be rehearsed, and you could even list the approximate time you'll spend on that section). Any announcements should be up on the board in advance. You might have a student leader read the announcements when you normally would do so. A colleague of mine uses the system "page, system, measure" to quickly give starting point instructions. For example, 5-2-1 would indicate page 5, second system, first measure. I suppose you could even use your fingers to signal this, directing the instruction to your accompanist (assuming you have one).

The use of handouts and overheads, using a laser pointer, or the use of powerpoint presentations, would be some ideas for use in classroom teaching. These are just a few thoughts. Good luck with it. I'd be interested in seeing a compilation of responses if you are able.

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I appreciate you asking this question. I am 63 and my voice is aging. I do need to go see a voice therapist/ENT.

My own way of dealing with my voice is to make sure that I sing "in the mask" and with no tension or tight muscles. I try to remember not to push my chest voice up too high.

I would be very interested in what advice other professional teachers and singers give to you.