VOCAL TRAINING IN CHORUS by Robert Russell,University of Maine,USA

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First we must prepare the body to sing.
Several exercises can contribute to this readiness:

  • Stand quietly. Take a "sun breath." As you inhale through the nose (to the count of 4) raise your arms, keeping shoulders comfortably relaxed. If you are able to do so, touch your hands over your head. Exhale through your mouth to the count of 4 while gradually lowering your arms. Over time increase the count to 6 and then 8. As you become comfortable with the exercise, add a 4-count hold at the top of the inhalation. (This is a wonderful "centering" exercise, which I was at first hesitant to try with rowdy college students, and I was amazed at how quiet the room got during the exercise. Try it.)
  • Gently shake your wrists. Flop your wrists in front of you. Shake your hands more vigorously as if trying to get water off them.
  • Move your elbows and hands in a circular manner. Wake up the arms.
  • Roll your shoulders in a circular manner up and back.
  • Extend one arm in front of your body fingers pointed up. Pull gently to free the wrist. Point the fingers down. Pull gently to free the wrist. Repeat with the other arm. (Also good for conducting.)
  • Clasp your hands together behind your head. Gently pull down on your head while exhaling. (CAUTION: Those with neck injuries, take care with this exercise or avoid it completely.) Lift your elbows and head while inhaling through the nose. Repeat slowly 3-4 times.
  • Turn 90 degrees to the right, facing the back of your neighbor singer. Rub the shoulders of the person in front of you. Turn around and repeat the process.
  • Finally, stand quietly with arms relaxed at your side. Take a full breath while bringing your arms overhead. Keep shoulders comfortably down and relaxed. As you exhale, lower your arms, keeping sternum elevated and shoulders down. Your posture is somewhere between the typical "teen slump" and the stereotypical "military rigid." The body is now awake and in a position for effective singing.
These exercises are several from the many effective exercises that singers can do to ready the body for singing. They generally work well in close quarters and are designed to bring a state of readiness to the body with special attention to relaxing muscles in the neck which attach to the laryngeal cartilages. Freedom and readiness are the issues: free the voice and ready the body.

OBSERVATIONS: I have used all of these exercises with varying degrees of success. The first time many years ago that I used back rubs, the students looked at me with disbelief and genial mocking, "What is this, a phys ed class?" Now if I forget to do back rubs, they ask for them.


The Process of Breathing: A singer's breath involves the coordination of muscles of the ribs together with muscles of the abdomen, a process called muscular antagonism. The muscles of inspiration–the external intercostals and diaphragm–work to create a partial vacuum in the lungs. Natural air pressure moves air into the lungs. The muscles of expiration–the internal intercostals and several muscular layers of the abdomen–pull the ribs down and in and the belly inward, which moves air out of the lungs across the vocal folds. (See also below: appoggio)

The Process of Phonation: The vocal folds are brought into vibration through a principle of physics called the Bernoulli Principle. (It is the same principle that gives lift to an airplane or forward motion to a sailboat.) The vocal folds are "sucked" into vibration through the partial vacuum created by the air rushing out of the lungs through the trachea. In an ideally phonated pitch, the movement of breath is met precisely by the approximation (adduction) of the vocal folds, which are brought together with the right amount of muscular energy that is neither too tense (producing a glottal plosive) nor too relaxed (producing a breathy vocal quality). Voice and breath are precisely coordinated resulting in "singing on the breath."

Exercises: Once the body is alert and energized through a physical warm-up,
it is time to wake up the breath. These exercises are effective:

  • Place your palms on the bottom of the rib cage, fingers crossing the abdomen and touching in front. Breathe low and deep, observing that the fingers separate as the result of an effective inhalation. Hiss, long and sustained, keeping the rib cage and sternum elevated.
  • Inhale and hiss, five times staccato.
  • Inhale and hiss, twice staccato and then sustained.
  • Inhale and sing on a comfortable pitch in mid-voice, "Sah-sah-saaaaaaaaaaaah." (Sing twice short and then sustained.)
  • Inhale and sing on a comfortable pitch in mid-voice two staccato pitches, "Sah-sah" followed by a sustained five-pitch scalar passage (5-4-3-2-1) on "Saaaaaaaaaaaaah." Repeat several times, each time a half step lower, remaining generally in mid-voice range.
Other exercises
  • Hold your hand up in front of your face fingers spread. Imagine that each finger has a candle lit at the end. Blow out the candles one by one with five staccato breaths
  • Toss an imaginary ball to someone across the room. As you throw, exhale with a hiss.
  • Toll an imaginary bell. As you inhale through the nose, reach up. As you exhale audibly through the mouth, pull down on the imaginary bell rope.
(These exercises are from the Ehmann/Haasemann book listed below.)

The intent of these vocalises is "vocal-ease." Breath flow needs to be uninhibited and immediately connected to the sound. "To sing is to breathe." The flow of breath may be imagined as water pouring forth freely from a garden hose. The sound on the breath is as a leaf on the stream of water, carried effortlessly and completely connected to the stream of water.

Observations about breathing

  • Never plan to use all of your breath. The singer who sings to the last milliliter of breath may well have done so at the expense of introducing tension into the voice or body, not to mention a likely sacrifice of expressive singing. The "last gasp" of breath is rarely connected to easily produced sound, and it is generally unmusical.
  • The issue with breathing is not who can sing the longest phrase, although it certainly is a goal of vocal pedagogy to increase the length of phrase that can be sung. The primary issue with breathing is to keep a smooth, consistent stream of sound always connected to breath.
  • Young voices may be naturally breathy. Don't be overly concerned about breathiness in young singers. Listen to the sound that is produced "under" the breathiness. Vocal maturity may solve the problem.
  • Avoid holding back the breath. Give the breath into the phrase. Holding back the breath to "save it" for the end of the phrase may lead to vocal tension and erratic voice-breath connection. Ironically, the more breath you give to the phrase, the more breath you have to give.
  • Coordinate the breath with vocal onset, so that the sound is neither breathy nor tight.
  • If the sound is too breathy, try "narrowing" the vowel concept, singing a very rounded [u] for example. (Remember–point #3 above–that young voices may be naturally breathy
  • If the vocal onset is tight, use an aspirated consonant [h] to assist vocal production. Rather than [a] sing [ha]. Gradually reduce the intensity of [h] in the sound until the [h] is only imagined, not audible.
  • Maintain the body in its upright and ready posture. (See below: appoggio)
  • Oversupport can cause as many vocal problems as undersupport.
  • For posture: "Sing in the position of breathing––breathe in the position of singing."
  • Take an easy, silent breath.
  • Breath holding may increase lung capacity, but will not enhance breath management.
  • If the vocal onset or release is jagged or erratic, move the hand in an upward sweeping motion to encourage a smooth onset or release of sound.
  • If the vocal release is tight or constricted, keep the throat open after phonation; imagine that you are continuing to sing, even after you have released the sound.

The Italian concept of appoggio (support) is amply illuminated by Miller (pp. 23-29). Though it is roughly translated as "support," appoggio is much more: a dynamic balance of abdominal and thoracic muscle movement, coordinated with vocal onset (phonation), which allows cooperative (antagonistic) coordination among the muscles. Its features are

  • an elevated sternum, never slumped
  • ribs expanded and maintained, as much as possible, in the "expanded" position during exhalation
  • shoulders, neck, and head relaxed
  • torso stable in the epigastric and umbilical regions
  • relaxed glottis


Once the body is ready and energized for singing and the breath vitalized,
it is time to "wake up the nose."

The Italian maxim goes something like this: "Put some nose in the sound without the sound being in the nose." Virtually everyone agrees that, in the bel canto style, nasal singing is avoided. The converse is also true: "cut-off nasality" is to be avoided. Nasal sound has a twang that is generally out of place in classical singing. On the other hand, the sound of "cut-off nasality" is dull and monochromatic, flat (not in pitch but in resonance). In a balanced voice there is some nose in the sound, but the sound is not nasal. A good test is to sing and pinch the nostrils. If the sound doesn't change at all, there is no nasality in the sound: it has "cut-off" nasality. If the sound changes a lot, there is a nasal twang: it has too much nasality. If the sound changes slightly, then the balance is probably right. This is a tricky concept to teach. Studio voice teachers use a variety of techniques to get the right mix of nasality in the voice.

In a choral setting I have found that the best way to "wake up the nose" is through a humming vocalise. Ask the singers to bring the lips gently together as if humming [m]. Place the tip of the tongue easily behind the upper teeth as if singing [n]. Hum using this combination of [m] and [n]. Experiment in mid-range with random humming sounds, single pitches and gentle glissandos. Use the humming "puppy whine" in upper register as a means of developing nasal placement and as a technique to connect with head register.

Once singers are comfortable with humming, introduce this vocalise: 5-3-4-2-1 (sol-mi-fa-re-do) in major mode and in a comfortable mid-voice range. Hum the first four pitches and sustain the final pitch on the vowel [a]. Repeat several times a half step lower each time, but remaining in a comfortable range.

Another useful vocalise on the same pitch pattern (sol-mi-fa-re-do) or a more extended pattern
(sol/mi – fa/re – mi/do – re/ti – do) is [ni-ne-na-no-nu] sung while doing gentle circular gestures with your in front of the body as if lovingly stroking a cat.

Observations about Resonance

  • A resonator is a secondary vibrator, not capable of initiating pitch, but capable of altering the amplitude and timbre of the pitch for better or worse. If the voice doesn't sound good or if it is not projecting well, it may be because the resonators are not well adjusted.
  • Resonance adjustment (the tuning of the cavities of the mouth and throat) is often most effectively done through vowel modification. For example, if the [ah] vowel is too bright, modify it to [aw].
  • If the resonating cavities (primarily mouth and throat) are not tuned to the pitch from the vocal folds, then the vocal folds must "force" the air cavity to vibrate, rather than vibrating in sympathetic resonance with the voice. Forced resonance is inefficient for singers; sympathetic resonance is the goal.


Once you have animated the body, initiated consistent breath flow,
easily connected breath to sound, and energized the nasal placement,
it is time to extend the range of the vocalises to awaken the full range of the voice.

There are numerous vocalises that effectively achieve the goal of vocal extension. The two that I use most frequently with choirs are these:

  • This arpeggio: do-mi-sol-do-ti-sol-fa-re-so sung on these syllables: [u - - - a - - - -].
  • The ascending arpeggio is on [u] and the descending arpeggio on [a]. At the same time move your hands in a big "rainbow" arch, beginning in the middle of your body and radiating outward.
  • The scalar passage: 1-2-3-4-5---1-2-3-4-5---1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 on these syllables: [si - - - o], [si - - - o], [si - - - o - - - - - - - - - - - -].
  • On the first five pitches, each time make a small circle with the hands in front of the body; on the 9-notes scalar passage make a big circle with the hands, again radiating outward. NOTE: this exercise may not be as effective if sung too quickly.


  • There is something about movement of the body that exerts a positive influence over the sound that is produced, energizing it with freedom and connection to the breath.
  • When the voice is "cold," it is best to begin the vocal warm-up with descending vocalises in mid-range. This procedure, especially with inexperienced singers, will more consistently deliver vocal sounds that are free of tension and on pitch.


Once you have animated the body, initiated consistent breath flow easily connected to sound, energized the nasal placement, and extended the range of the vocalises to awaken the full voice, it is time to focus on vocal beauty.
NOTICE THE ORDER: vocal beauty is the last important vocal component to be addressed.

The exercise that I use most often for beauty of sustained singing is a single pitch in mid-voice, first hummed pianissimo and then sung with gradual crescendo on a succession of vowels that grows increasingly brighter: [u - o - a]. If the vowel is truly unified, somewhere in the [a] an overtone (or sometimes two) emerges as a result of the vowel unification. When this happens, the choir is truly singing in tune.

For optimum sound, think in this order:

  • Breathe
  • Sing
  • Sustain
  • Release

For optimum resonance, encourage the following:

  • A comfortably low larynx
  • A high velum
  • Balanced nasal placement
  • Relaxed lips
  • Relaxed tongue

For beautiful sound and optimum resonance, use the following:

  • the look of pleasant surprise on your face
  • the look of hopeful anticipation
  • the beginning of a smile
  • the appearance of inhaling a pleasant aroma, such as a rose

To do all of these exercises every day will probably require 10-15 minutes, and you may not have that much time in rehearsal. I generally use a 20-25% rule of thumb for vocal warm-up and sightsinging exercises. If your rehearsal is 50 minutes, take no less than 10 minutes for vocal and musical exercises. Find a plan that works for you and stick with it. Slight variations from day to day are good, but in general keep the routine the same; in the long run that will produce the most consistent results.

Research has demonstrated the value of singing every day. The vocal exercise does not have to be complex: easy humming in the shower or simple scalar passages in the car on the way to work are effective; certainly more extensive vocalizing is needed for more rigorous singing. The benefit of humming is holistic: somehow we feel more integrated, grounded.

If students resist vocal or musical exercises, tell them that we are merely "sharpening our axes." The story is told of two woodsmen, one of whom wanted to get the jump on the other by going immediately into the woods to chop trees. The other stopped first to sharpen his axe. Woodsman #1 felled his tree first, but Woodsman #2 felled many more trees by day's end.


  • PITCH-CENTERED. Singers can and should sing to the center of the pitch.
  • FREE. Good singing feels and sounds effortless; unnecessary vocal tension is released.
  • BEAUTIFUL AND RESONANT. Exercises that encourage a comfortably low larynx, a high velum, "forward" placement, relaxed lips, and relaxed tongue will contribute to a naturally beautiful sound.
  • A PLEASING VIBRATO. In Seashore's classic definition, "A good vibrato is a pulsation of pitch, usually accompanied with synchronous pulsation of loudness and timbre, of such extent and rate as to give pleasing flexibility, tenderness, and richness to the tone." Pitch fluctuation in a healthy vibrato is about a semitone with about six undulations per second. A vibrato that is too rapid is called tremolo; one that is too slow is a wobble. Vibrato is a result rather than a technique. When the voice is free, breath-centered, pitch-centered and resonant, vibrato emerges; it is not taught. Vibrato is a sign of a healthy voice. In Miller's view it is acceptable to call attention to unhealthy vibrato, so that a singer may correct it.

Much debate among singers, singing teachers, and choral conductors has centered on the topic of vibrato. I believe it is possible for good choral union and vibrato to peacefully coexist. (Consult recordings of The Robert Shaw Chorale or the Swedish Radio Choir with Eric Ericson conducting as examples.) Straight-tone singing to the point of "laser-like" vocal production (as I have heard in some choirs) is unhealthy and unpleasant. Likewise, a vocal free-for-all in which singers are allowed to do anything and everything with vibrato does not yield the most satisfactory choral sound.

A NOTE ABOUT AUDITIONS: Choral conductors who have a great variety of singers interested in choral ensembles have the joy as well as the responsibility of choosing the singers that best match their concept of choral sound. For example, in a select chamber choir of 30-40 voices that sings primarily a cappella repertoire, I prefer the lyric soprano sound, and (if I have the choice) will seek sopranos who can sing high and soft and who can produce a sweet timbre which is still energized and musical (much like the voice of Emma Kirkby). If during the audition you can choose voices that match one another, then you can use rehearsal time to attend to musical matters rather than matter of vocal unification. The larger ensembles that sing with piano or orchestra can more easily accommodate more vibrant, ringing voices.

A NOTE ABOUT BLEND: A chorus learns to sing together to the extent that members of the chorus have developed unified concepts of pitch, vowel, diction, rhythm, articulation, dynamics, balance, and timbre. In rehearsal I encourage all singers to

  • Sing precisely the same pitch.
  • Sing precisely the same vowel.
  • Sing exactly the same rhythm (with special attention to consonants).
  • Sing a unified articulation: staccato, legato, marcato, or tenuto
  • Sing a unified dynamic level.
  • Be sensitive to the need to balance all voice parts.
  • Sing with a unified timbre, bright or dark.

If we do these things, then I rarely find the need to say,
"Sing with straight tone." OR "Blend the sound."

References :

0 great voice/s:


Koir Universiti Teknologi Petronas 2009.

Senada, Seirama, Sejiwa.