Technique, Confidence, Identity...

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I had an interesting question from a conductor recently that struck me as one to reflect on in this blog. It is intensely practical - the kind of issue that choirs and conductors the world over are grappling with all the time - but also demands some depth of thought, as it is as much about the human as the musical dimensions of choral singing.

Here goes:

The church choir where I am a part-time conductor is ageing. To address this, my fellow part-time conductor started a children's choir a couple of years back, and in that time quite a number of children – more girls than boys – have been choristers, though depressingly few have stayed for long.

I'm sure this is a common phenomenon, largely born of the wider choice of activities and attractions available to children ("...compared to my day!") Apart from the perceived lack of staying power, though, what strikes me is how little noise they do make when joining the adults to sing in a service. Any thoughts on how that can be addressed?

See what I mean? Anyone involved in choral music will have immediate empathy; we know this scenario.

Now, from a standing start, children are generally quite good at making noise (mild understatement). So if they are not doing so in a particular situation, they are choosing to be quiet, and the commonest reason for this would be lack of confidence. Undersinging is a behaviour of people who don’t want to draw attention to themselves; it is the observable sign of feeling like a choral wallflower. You see the same kind of thing during the hymns at church weddings from adults who don’t usually go to church.

My first train of thought on how to deal with this was to wonder what kind of singing technique the children have been learning in the children-only context. Technique is a powerful buttress for the confidence, you see. Any time people are looking uncomfortable or at sea, being reminded of something they already know how to do gives them something to hang their hats on. Not only do they feel better about themselves, but simply applying the technique will improve the sound (which in turn boosts the confidence more).

Breathing, as always, is the central technique to focus on, and it will bring with it support and resonance. (I don’t think there is any question about choral singing to which ‘work on breathing’ is not a good answer.)

But almost as soon as I started to think about technique, I was also thinking about vocal sound, and sense of identity. There is, you see, a certain sound that is very much ‘children’s choir’ - recognisably young, based on the energy and joie de vivre of the playground voice, but corralled into an ensemble. In less skilled children’s choirs it can be a bit shouty and staccato, with a lot of clavicular breathing, but done well it can get even determinedly child-free people like me feeling all fond and mellow. But it is still a distinctly ‘child’ tone.

And if you have developed your identity as a singer in that kind of sound world, then you will feel that your voice is quite out of place in the sound world of older voices in the church choir tradition. It is a musically perceptive response from the children: what blends happily in one choral context can stick out quite starkly in another. The adult voices are likely to be darker than the children’s, placed further back, possibly with vibrato, and a stronger singer’s formant.

I realise I am stereotyping, but the point about choral traditions is precisely that they store characteristic ways of using the voice in the bodies of their participants. There are lots of different ways of singing, and we learn them as part and parcel of how we are enculturated into a particular musical world. It is about technique, but it is also about patterns of feeling and sense of belonging.

This is why I quoted the part of the question that talked about through-put of singers as well as their vocal behaviours. Whilst not staying for long is certainly in part a symptom of competition from other activities, it is also a sign of not identifying strongly with the choir. If the children felt secure in their identities as contributing singers, they’d give up swimming or chess club instead if they had to choose.

So, the children need help to find a way of being as singers that will fit in better with the adult choir. So, depth of breathing, legato, tall vowels are not just elements of technique, but ways to assume a choir voice. I’d be careful to frame this as ‘how we sing in the church choir tradition’ rather than ‘this is the correct/best way to sing’. You don’t want to make people feel they have to choose between musical identities. They can be a church choir singer with you and still do musical theatre another day of the week.

But if you want the children to feel really legitimate in their role, you need the adults to cooperate in the project of unifying the sound. It won’t do them any harm also to work on breathing - even if they think they know how to do this, we all develop somewhat lazy habits over time - and just as the children will need to learn to make their vowels taller, the adults can usefully learn to make theirs brighter. If the adults just sing as ‘business as usual’ without responding to the way children’s voice affect the sound, then the children will feel - quite justifiably - like outsiders rather than integral. But if the children feel that they are making a valuable difference - not just adding their youthful sound, but helping older people make one too - they’ll be much more confident to sing out and much more likely to stick around.

I have focused here on the musical/vocal end of the project, as it is central to getting the children to a place where they feel they can sing out, knowing what they’re doing, and enjoying their own competence and usefulness. But there may also be opportunities to develop buddy/mentor relationships between adult and child choir members that personalise the process. This post is plenty long enough already, though, so I’ll just drop that thought in there and leave it for now.

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