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Speaking of Voice: "Advice on Choosing Repertoire to Support Efficient Use of the Voice" by Mary Lynn Doherty

       Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to collaborate on several different projects with Miriam Van Mersbergen [1] a Speech Language Pathologist who specializes in the singing voice.  Miriam is not only a clinician, she is also a trained singer.  Here are some excerpts from a recent email exchange we had regarding her perspectives on repertoire choices.
What are three things you recommend every choral conductor consider when choosing repertoire?
       I think the most obvious suggestion is to choose repertoire your choir can sing. So many times repertoire is chosen for the market value and not for the choir’s ability.  Look at the strengths of the choral members and capitalize on those assets.  If you only have 4 tenors in a 28 voice choir, then avoid repertoire where tenors need to carry the melody against the rest of the choir or sing at the top of their tessitura for long periods of time. Choose repertoire where those tenors can best blend, where they don’t have to compete.  Choose literature where they frequently sing alone or with only one other voice type.  Likewise, if you work with young singers, then choose repertoire that shows off their range but does not demand the volume that can tax a developing voice.  With this said, I would make a plea to those budding conductors to compose music that meets the demands of various types of choirs, particularly choirs where there are not a lot of men.
       Second, I would choose a varied repertoire, where vocal demands are diverse, so that not all songs are predominantly forte, high in tessitura, or technically demanding (i.e. requiring increased agility in pitch and articulation).  Spreading different types of vocal load across a program provides the necessary rest that allows for recovery, even within a rehearsal or concert.  Although singing an all Bach concert may be appropriate in some situations, any soprano can tell you that their voice would rather have a rest from the pitch and agility requirements that many chorales and motets demand.
       Third, carefully plan the program and the rehearsal sequence so you rehearse the final program choices from the start of the semester/season.  As a choral member of many years, I find it frustrating to begin a season learning 20 pieces for the upcoming concert only to drop 4 pieces right before the concert for time constraints or poor preparation.  The vocal demands required for fitting a piece into one’s voice cannot be quantified in a reasonable way, but the work in learning a piece is inherently harder on the voice.  Learning pieces only to discard them later in the rehearsal schedule does take its toll and robs effort from the other pieces that will be performed.  Careful planning can easily provide the most efficient use of vocal effort in rehearsal time.