This year, Dianne Berkun-Menaker is working with 16 teachers through the Music Educators Workshop to share her Cross-Choral Training™ method.Cross-Choral Training is a holistic and experiential approach to voice and musicianship training designed by Ms. Berkun-Menaker for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, which prepares students to sing challenging music of many different genres and styles in both an educational context and on the professional stage. The voice program, created in partnership with Jeannette LoVetri, is based on vocal function and health and supports the development of the individual singers as well as the ensemble. Here are her top 10 tips for choral directors everywhere.
1. Ask, don’t tell.If we learn best what we learn for ourselves, then the job of the good choral leader is to guide the students to derive the elements and concepts of music through directed questions, thoughtful reflection on experiences, and ever-increasing awareness.
Set the bar high but never too far out of reach. Most all children can learn to sing—and sing well—when instruction is clear, based on things they can understand and do, and in sync with how the vocal instrument functions.
With every musical challenge we have only to take one step ahead to feel a sense of accomplishment and confidence in achieving our goals. Begin by discriminating amongst the largest generalities—same or different—and how (longer, shorter, higher, lower)—and narrow the focus until the answer is unmistakable.
Authentic performances of various musical styles usually include a vocal quality that is distinctive from other styles. In the same way that it can sound silly to hear an operatic sound applied to a show tune, we need not direct children to sing all styles of music with the same vocal quality. Even the youngest children can—and enjoy—playing their vocal instruments with varied colors and textures.
In a results-minded culture, it is tempting to focus on the finished product before having shored up the foundation with a lasting and healthy technique. Take the time to establish the fundamentals, beginning with the coordination between the body and the breath, then build a framework on register balance, and finish with vowel sound colors.
Before we can get the vocal engine humming beautifully, we have to address the sound at its source—the muscles of the larynx and the vocal folds. A good paint job cannot disguise poor function underneath. For clarity, vitality, and consistency in the sound, we must strengthen the vocal fold closure and coordination.
For the average chorister, head register (light mechanism) is the weaker vocal adjustment. Since most speech and popular music singing are chest register dominant, there is little opportunity to develop head register unless it is done intentionally. Spend time cultivating this quality—isolating it, strengthening it, moving it higher and lower in pitch—until it can be integrated into the whole, allowing for expanded pitch range, a wider range of timbres, and the ability to sing in a consistent quality from top to bottom.
Singers are often confused by vocal language such as “sing from your diaphragm” or “resonate the sound in your mask.” Too often, singers are asked to focus on a desired result instead of the direct actions they can take toward achieving it. A well supported, resonant sound, with warmth or brilliance, is a product of how we shape and adjust the vocal tract and regulate air pressure. Begin with what students can do most easily, like “open your mouth, smile, use more pressure from your abdominal muscles,” until the singers develop enough skill to call the result at will.
Often teachers move from source to source looking for the list of exercises that will transform the sound of their groups. In reality, there is very little magic in a scale pattern. The teachers' bag of tricks contains only a mental concept of the desired sound, his or her ability to evaluate what is heard for how it is being produced, and an understanding of the mechanics for changing what is heard. Focus on these skills and go work your own magic!
Combine one-part unified register quality, one-part unified vowel sound shapes, and one-part equal dynamics—then, sing and enjoy!