What's in a choir's sound?

The impact of mirroring in choral ensembles

What kind of sound do you want from your choir?

A little over a month ago, I had the pleasure of observing a few world-class music educators in their element as they worked with the choristers in the Lawrence Children’s Choir. The educators worked on several things with the kids including breath support, rounding out the tone of the ensemble, and intentionality with the music, but what I found most interesting throughout the entire rehearsal was the conductors’ use of modeling to craft the sound they wanted from their students.

Modeling is something most of us know is beneficial in rehearsal, but I’m not convinced that we truly understand its impact on the success and health of an ensemble. It’s true strength is brought to the forefront when observing children as they will pretty enthusiastically dive in to attempt what is being requested of them if the environment has been set in that way. They’ll emulate our passion, our energy, our technique, our tone, and our musicality. That gives us instructors a powerful responsibility to shepherd our students’ gifts well! They’ll emulate our positives as well as our negatives if we’re not careful.

Before we can even develop technique, tone, musicality, and articulation, we’ve got to create an attitude in the ensemble that will encourages students to put their best foot forward, challenges them to be vulnerable in their efforts, and expects them to be on their toes. This happens as students watch the teacher model that desired behavior in the classroom. The LCC provided a brilliant example of this concept. Walking into the room, I noted smiling faces, excited about the singing that was taking place and the community they were surrounded by. I saw young children singing openly and fearlessly and taking cues from their leaders. These kids were clearly enjoying themselves. Then I looked over to Ms. Welch, the conductor, and I realized that she was in the same joyous (and yet focused and determined) state that the kids were. In fact, she was leading the effort! The choristers finished their song, and after giving a few cues, Ms. Welch welcomed Dr. Yu up to work on pieces for the upcoming collaboration performance of Carmina Burana in Kansas City.

Dr. Yu built on the momentum already present with her own dose of energy. She began with praises for how wonderful the kids sounded and throughout the rehearsal provided wonderful images of what she wanted from the group, further communicating her intent through gesturing and her facial expressions. Dr. Yu made a clear effort to tell the kids what they did that was wonderful and even paused after a run-through to recognize Ms. Aber who was playing the piano brilliantly. All of these things established the sense of encouragement and community which opens the students up to share their voices and to try new things. When the music had been completed Dr. Yu communicated her satisfaction with the group and passed the floor over to Ms. Waldron who took the gesturing idea a step further and used it to really draw out the sound she wanted.

The choristers had been working on a German piece which was very wordy and had begun to fall into a quarter-note rut as the choristers focused on their articulation. While the kids sounded beautiful, the piece wasn’t moving as it could and they weren’t expressing their musicality as they had so beautifully done earlier. To get the music flowing again, Ms. Waldron immediately took to gesturing (another form of mirroring) to convey the sound that she desired from the group. She had all the choristers paint with their hands as they sang as she did as well to model the flow desired. And it was effective!

So all of this speaks to the passion, camaraderie, and musicality of the group, but it thus far has not addressed their tone quality. This ensemble’s tone was so beautiful and contained such depth that I couldn’t help but gush about it to whoever would listen for the rest of the night. I awe-struck by the warmth and richness of their tone and I just really wanted to know how a director got such a healthy, well-rounded tone from children. That question was answered the first time I heard Ms. Welch sing to model for the kids – they sing just like she sings. She models a warm, relaxed, and rich tone, and they learn from her. She supports her tone with the breath, and so they do as well.

It reminds me of an eye-opening session I attended during the last SWACDA conference led by Dr. Brian Winnie and Dr. Brad Pierson on how much of an impact mirroring has on a choir’s output. To put the session quite simply, the facilitators made a clear effort to emphasize that if you want to change your choir’s sound, then change your face, change your expression, change your posture and body language. Do the things physically that you would do personally to release the sound you intend to produce and the ensemble will mirror you.

The facilitators emphasized that choirs are far more a reflection of their conductor (even in the moment) than we often admit or even consider, and that as such, the science of conducting is less complicated in action than we often make it. We do to it what well-meaning teachers often do to the art of singing – “raise your eyebrows…posture!... open your mouth! Close your mouth…hands at your sides…” What my observation of the LCC confirms, is that we should instead have an intention, understand the road map to achieving that intention, and then draw it out of the ensemble.

So, what's in your choir's sound? The answer may be found through a better question: What's in YOUR sound?

KMEA Feb 2014 Lawrence Childrens Choir