According to Howard Swan in the book Choral Conducting: A Symposium, there are six unique schools of choral singing in America. Between these six schools, and the personal preferences of choral directors, there are countless differing opinions about choral tone. Ask any two conductors and you will likely notice differences in their approaches to vibrato, breath, placement, color, balance, diction, among other tonal aspects.
While experienced conductors likely have a clear aural image of their preferred choral sound, educators just starting out may lack this level of clarity, or do not know how to achieve the sound they hear in their head. In this four-part series (Episodes 6–9), ChoralEd asked directors about their approach to choral tone in order to help these developing educators achieve clarity, as well as learn vocal strategies for achieving this sound. In Part 1 of this post, Giselle Wyers and Jo-Michael Scheibe talk about their approaches to choral tone.
Episode 6: Choral Tone, Part 1 – Dr. Giselle Wyers
According to Dr. Wyers, choral tone is flexible based on the singers in the room and their unique capabilities and potential. Using a few words to describe her sound, Dr. Wyers seeks a vibrant, expressive, and clean sound (referring to pitch and intonation). In addition, singers should feel empowered through risk-taking and the human interaction that occurs between ensemble members. When asked about adjusting tone based on style of music, Dr. Wyers emphasized the importance of incorporating the inherent tone colors of a foreign language as an authentic representation of the musical style and culture.
To develop this tone, Dr. Wyers frequently utilizes straw phonation to establish balance in the voice. She begins rehearsal with light humming to connect with the resonance in “the mask,” and regularly checks for vocal tension in the jaw and throat. To bring the sound forward, Dr. Wyers begins the sound with the consonant “v,” but removes the consonant to achieve a warmer sound. To mix and balance the voices throughout the choir, she incorporates a Weston Noble approach for the placement of singers.
Episode 7: Choral Tone, Part 2 – Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe
In describing his preferred choral tone, Dr. Scheibe emphasizes the importance of breath which encourages free and non-restricted vocal production. Through this breath flow the onset is balanced and the vibrato is released (not too fast, slow, or wide), but is still flexible, changing with the style of music.
To achieve this choral tone, Dr. Scheibe emphasizes top-down vocalization. In this approach, the tone quality should descend from the top as opposed to carrying weight from the lower registers into the higher registers. To achieve consistent breath flow and line, Dr. Scheibe asks students to sing into the palm of their hand checking for continuous air flow. Lip bubbles are also helpful for maintaining consistent air flow and relaxation. To encourage continuous motion throughout a musical phrase, Dr. Scheibe utilizes kinesthetic hand movements (i.e., finger point). In addition, he asks singers to focus on consonants (such as “m” and “n”) that promote the continuation of air flow and pitch. One vocal strategy that Dr. Scheibe regularly incorporates in the development of tone is the syllable [se] (“say”). Through the combination of this vowel and consonant the [e] brings the tongue and vocal resonance forward, while the [s] starts the sound without a glottal and promotes air flow.
At the beginning of each school year as the selection of the ensemble begins, Dr. Scheibe is surprised by the different sounds he has from year to year following auditions. The overall sound of the ensemble adjusts as new members join and former members graduate. As each member of the ensemble has a unique timbre to their voice, emphasis is placed on a standing arrangement that considers the mixing of voices and ear dominance.