Tips for Singers and Choir Members

By Martin Jansen, Owner of Jansen-PCINFO

Good Day!  I am a choir member in several singing groups in Appleton, WI.  I sing in two choirs at St. Bernadette Parish and with the Appleton MacDowell Male Chorus.  I am also involved with Christmas Stars and the All Rise! Northeast Wisconsin Passion Play that just finished its run of shows ending on Palm Sunday.

I’ve been singing since the 9th grade when my voice changed to its current Tenor range.  Think of my voice as a mediocre Josh Groban – who, by the way, is amazing.

Over the years I’ve had many choir directors, all of which have certain ideas of how their choir should sound.  There are, however, certain commonalities for all choirs that I can share.

Be Prepared

Don’t go to choir practice unprepared.  Warm-up your voice prior to leaving the house for practice.  Good choir directors will send out a list of songs they wish to practice.  Use that list to organize your music and look at the words and notes prior to practice.

Use Technology

Even if you are unfamiliar with a song, we have resources like YouTube where many singing groups have videos for listening.  When searching for songs, type in the name of the song and the composer.  Some choir directors or their helpers will provide sample audio files – use them to prepare for the next rehearsal.

I use an app called Sheet Music Scanner & Reader to import songs that I have scanned into PDF files using VueScan.  The camera on a smartphone has to be very high resolution to import jpeg images. The app uses a technology called Optical Music Recognition to playback the notes accurately.

Don’t Cram

Repetition is the key to learning your words and notes.  Not many of us have photographic memories.  Trying to cram the information in the brain only results in confusion.  The Appleton MacDowell Male Chorus has an upcoming Spring concert season where members are expected to memorize and sing 25 songs or more.  Our “Folk And Roll” concerts will be a lot of fun, but there is no way all that music can be memorized easily or quickly.

Diction, Emotion and Dynamics

All choir directors want the words of a song to be enunciated with special emphasis on word endings like Ts, Ds and Ks and Ps.  The words of songs are poetry conveying meaning to the audience.  Emotion is the key to tell the song’s story. It can be as simple as smiling when singing a happy song or putting sadness in voice during sorrowful songs.  Dynamics (singing softly or loudly) bring special emphasis to parts of a song furthering the meaning to audiences.

Choir Blend

Unless performing a solo, it is always preferable to blend the voices of a choir.  If one section is too strong, especially when singing multiple parts, it can throw off the balance of a song.  The melody line should be the most prominent to the audience with other parts supporting the melody with their parts.  A simple rule of thumb is being able to hear the other parts around you.  If you can only hear yourself, you are being too loud.

When I directed a choir, once the song was learned, I encouraged the choir singing different parts to mingle. A soprano, for instance, would be surrounded not by other sopranos, but by altos, tenors or basses.  This practice encouraged strong learning of parts and choir blend.

Breathing and Phrasing

Choir singing is great aerobic exercise.  Deep breaths through the diaphragm control and direct the air through the vocal cords to make beautiful sounds.  

Long phrases in a song require great breath control, not expelling too much air at once.

Pitch, Tempo and Note Duration

Finally, you don’t need to read music to sing.  Following the notes up and down the scale (notes ascending the scale, pitch goes higher while descending notes, pitch goes lower) does help along with matching pitches with other choir members.  Tempo determines how quickly a song moves along.  Accompanists will help a choir by not varying greatly in tempo unless specified by the director or music.

It also helps to be aware of note duration, that is, how long a note is held while singing as in this illustration:

Calling All Singers

I know that every choir group needs more members.  The commitment of singing with a great group of people is very rewarding.  If you can sing, please consider joining a choir.