Working with vocal ensembles in the context of vocal technique. Part II

Weekly Teaching Tip – Feb. 22, 2016
by Piotr Markowski

In recommendations published in November 2015, I have presented a general introduction to the topic: Working with vocal ensembles in the context of MIX vocal technique. I have then addressed the very basic aspects of working with vocal ensembles, the most significant of which were the advantages of MIX technique in group singing, or a homogeneous, coherent sound.

This time I would like to share with you some more specific guidelines for the teachers of
beginner groups. Let us assume our group consists of 8 people, all of which are amateurs.
Some of them have done some solo singing, others have no experience at all. Seems like a
tough task, but it can be done. Still, it requires a lot of work and patience.

For beginners, I think that the circumstances call for individual tutoring of each member of the group. The better the individual skills of each person, the sooner we can create a pleasant sounding ensemble. Making each singer aware of or his or her individual vocal tendencies will make the future team rehearsals easier for them and us. It is during one-on-one lessons that the singers need to familiarize themselves with their voices, if they are to make the best of it during team practice. Thus it is recommended to combine individual coaching of each singer with group practices.

Obviously, each rehearsal has to start with a vocal warm-up. This particular element is crucial and needs special attention. Shall the circumstances demand so, do not hesitate to devote the whole rehearsal to warm-ups. Apart from obvious benefits for the voice, the warm-up should make
• the singers feel like they belong together, that their voices are coherent,
• and that the overall effect of group performance is just as intended.

Now, how to perform the vocal warm-up? One-on-one or with the whole group? If the group sound is what we want to improve, then teamwork is the way to go. Since everybody will be performing the same exercise, we need to remind them to mind their own “good place and feeling”, which they work on during one-on-one lessons. Of course, we need to control the entire group, and should react immediately when a mistake occurs, by performing some individual exercise with the culprit. It often happens that the more self-aware singers hold a grudge against their teachers for “harassing” the whole group rather than correcting individuals. They are right in feeling this way. Sometimes correcting one person’s error is enough to improve the overall effect created by the entire ensemble.

Alternatively, we may engage our team in a warm-up similar to the one described above, only that each person is assigned a different syllable. This method may be beneficial for
individuals (the ones with some experience), but it won’t contribute to improving the overall group performance.

To begin with, the singers need to practice unisono, as much as possible. That way they will get to experience the unity and a coherent sound, while simultaneously perfecting individual technique.

If the singers are forced to focus on too many elements at once, they might face difficulties
and lose their drive. We don’t need to hurry with introducing the harmony (regarding our
beginner group). The more confidence the singers gain during their unisono practice, the more at ease they will be when learning harmonic structures, even the complicated ones.
Piotr Markowski

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