by JoAnn Struck
The first few choir rehearsals are important in so many ways. One of the first skills I teach is tuning. If a choir doesn’t know what “in tune” sounds like they will never be able to understand it or recreate it.
For my middle school choirs, this is the procedure I follow for teaching basic in-tune singing in the first few rehearsals:
I first have to explain the mechanics of vocal production:
1. dropping the jaw-this can be done by putting two fingers (one on top of the other) and slipping it between their top and bottom teeth or when their jaw is dropped they can place their finger in the ‘hole’ next to their ear. The hole only appears when the jaw is dropped.
2. lifting the soft palate- I have the students use their tongue to feel the roof of their mouth just behind their front teeth. I explain that this is called the hard palate. Next I ask them to use their tongue to feel the back part of the roof of their mouth. They notice how soft and squishy it is and we talk about it being connected to the uvula. Then I ask them to pretend to yawn (which always turns into a real yawn for them and me!) and ask them to describe to me what direction the soft palate moves. Surprise! It moves up! Some teachers tell their young singers to “create space” in the back of their throat or “open the throat.” Most students don’t know how to do this without some instruction. I have found this little exercise makes much more sense to them and is quickly successful.
3. Mouth shape - keeping the corners of their mouth from spreading. I teach in Oklahoma and our school is very ethnically diverse. So the singer “spread” is a daily battle. I have my students start with singing while dropping the jaw, then experience what lifting the soft palate feels like (yawning), then paying attention to the shape of the mouth.
After some practice with the basic mechanics, then I choose a pitch I know most of my girls AND boys can sing…usually B or A below middle C. It’s not necessary to have them sing with a lot of gusto at the beginning. My goal for them is to experience singing in tune.
We start by singing the vowel ooooo because it’s the easiest to tune. The first time the students sing in unison, it’s pretty much all over the place. The boys are still trying to find their voice, the girls are checking out the boys and there’s at least one student trying to read their book without me noticing. You’ve got to love middle school!
As we they are singing I use motions to remind them about the three things they are focusing on in order to sing in tune. I drop my jaw and run my hand down the jawline, for the soft palate I raise my hand up in the “la” position and for the mouth shape I ask them to sing as if they have a cheerio or life saver in their mouth and they are singing through the hole. I stop them and explain to them that if EVERYONE is singing with the correct technique then they will be able to hear the pitch “straighten out.” So we try again. They sing the pitch until it becomes “in tune”, all the while I am using my motions to remind them of they things they need to do to make it “in tune.” It usually takes a few seconds but it will finally get there. We celebrate! I say things like: “Did you hear that? Did you hear how the pitch was all jumbled and ragged and then it straightened out and became smooth?” They actually get excited!
I explain to them that the goal is to have that ‘jumbled’ time decrease each time they sing. So we do it again…..and again….and again. Unbelievably, after a few times, they can sing in tune, they can recognize what in-tune singing sound AND feels like.
We have to do this process with each vowel sound because each vowel has it’s own shape and challenges. Once the students have experienced the in-tune sound, then adapting it to the other vowel sounds goes very quickly. Eventually we sing through all the vowels (on a single pitch, then changing pitches) without stopping to teach them to keep the mechanics in place as the vowels change.
I have found this process to be simple, quick and very successful for my middle school students. Proper singing has many, many layers…..singing in tune is just one of them.
Very few, if any, of my students have the luxury of taking private voice lessons. So my choral warm ups at the beginning of each rehearsal is a mini voice lesson. What an opportunity for students to get this kind of instruction every single day! So it’s important to make that time count!
Here are a few of my favorite warm-up books. They all include exercises in tuning as well as many other important vocal techniques.
JoAnn Struck has begun her 33rd year of teaching music in the public schools. She has taught music for K-12th grade and has spent the last 25ish years teaching middle school choir at Capps Middle School in the Putnam City School District in Oklahoma City, OK. She earned her B.M.E from Southern Nazarene University and her M.A in Choral Conducting from the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She continues to question her sanity but truly loves teaching middle school. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org