The Choral Singer’s Cheat Sheet
Invaluable Information! This section is reprinted from the Towne Singers website
This next section is a priceless collection of wisdom from some of the greatest teachers and leaders of choral music. Their names are listed at the end of this section. Read, think about, and incorporate these thoughts into your singing, and you will not only become a better singer, your enjoyment of your chorus experience will be expanded amazingly. Do not try to absorb all of this material at one sitting. Savor it, one bite at a time, like a good meal.
• I. Diction
• Unlike other kinds of music, choral singing marries sound to words to intensify the meaning of each. Our charge is to tell the story the author and composer want told. Words are the coin of our realm; they matter. Diction begins with properly formed vowels and properly articulated consonants.
• Pure Vowels
• ah (psalm)
• eh (set)
• ee (see)
• aw (saw)
• oo (soon)
• ih (sit)
• ah (sat)
• uh (sung)
• Medial Vowel
• ah (task)
• a eh + ee (say)
• i ah + ee (sigh)
• o aw + oo (so)
• w oo + uh (one)
• ie ee + oo (view)
• ye ee + eh (yes)
• ya ee + ah (German “ja”)
• yaw ee + aw (yawn)
• Vowels are sounded on the beat; consonants precede the beat slightly [RLS].
• The vowel in any unaccented syllable has the basic sound of “uh” in “sung” with a tinge of the vowel that is printed [JFW].
• Sing “tall” vowels, never “wide” ones – especially “ee,” “eh,” and “aw.”
• Keep vowels “on top of” the tongue, never along the side edges. Make maximum space above the tongue when singing, particularly on “ah,” “aw,” and “uh.”
• “Ah” is often easiest to sing with a high arch (raised soft palate) and a low floor (released base of the tongue).
• Diphthongs split their energies and emphasis in a 95-to-5 ratio (95% sustained vowel, 5% vanishing), except for “w” and “y” at the beginning of a word, which reverse these proportions (5% / 95%) [JFW].
Vocal Consonants Having Pitch (VCHPs)
l th(thine) z
m n zh (azure)
• VCHPs that open a word or syllable take the pitch of the vowel that follows; VCHPs that close a word or syllable take the pitch of the vowel that precedes them [JFW].
• Shape the mouth and throat for the vowel that follows a VCHP while singing the VCHP (so thee ≠ thy ≠ thou ≠ this ≠ the, etc.).
Pure Explosive Consonant
p t k f ch
b (≠ p) d (≠ t) g (≠ k) v (≠ f) j (≠ ch)
• Pure explosive consonants are made with the lips, teeth, tongue and the breath in the mouth [JFW].
• Articulate consonants with a loose jaw and an active tongue [JFW].
• The ideal singer is a genius from the eyeballs up and an idiot from the eyeballs down [HVP].
• Voiced consonants require a neutral vowel (“uh”) after they are sounded – essentially like adding a quick extra syllable [JFW].
• Explode consonants, don’t implode them. Audiences may love us for our vowels, but they respect (and pay) us for our consonants.
• “D” has sound, “T” ton’t.
s sh th(thin)
• Sibilants are like garlic – use them sparingly. A little “s” goes a long way.
• Pronounce sibilants 50% softer than the other sounds around them [FW].
• R at the start of a word is normally flipped if the word is passive, rolled if the word is active [JFW].
• If you can’t flip an “r,” insert a quick “d” (think of a bad Dracula imitation). So “cry” = kuh + dah + ee.
• R within a word is normally sung as “uh.” So: “Lord” = Law + uh + duh (“Lord” ≠ “lard”) [JFW].
• Sing all the sounds in all the words, all the time, at the right time – every time [FW] with beauty and meaning [RLS].
• The right note at the wrong time is still the wrong note!
• II. Phrasing
• Just as individual sounds (phonemes) are combined to create words, words are combined to make phrases. Emotion resides in words and sounds, but meaning is conveyed by the phrases we sing and the way we sing them – with line, energy, and shape.
• Any word with more than one syllable has shape, and this shape can only be achieved by conscious, deliberate, and intentional changes in volume and vowel [RLS].
• Word shape is created by stress and release. It’s like Wayne Fontes– first you stress him, then you release him.
• Any note longer than the shortest note has direction – either crescendo or diminuendo. Sound is dynamic: always in motion, either going to or from somewhere. It’s never static, never sits down [RLS].
• To create a smooth legato line, sing vowels only until the vowels align with the beat. Then add the consonants back in “on top” of the vowel line [RLS].
• Choral music is a combination of sound and non-sound (silence). Every sound and every non-sound has its own discrete place in time, its own unique rhythmic slot, its own specific duration. Each must be a deliberate decision consciously chosen and consciously enacted by the singer [RLS].
• Two consonants in succession (p/l, d/b, t/f, etc.) require a neutral “uh” vowel to be rhythmically inserted between them. Two words, one ending in a consonant and the next beginning with one, frequently require this neutral vowel (or “schwa,” or “shadow vowel”) for clarity of articulation – and again, this is a sound with defined duration [RLS].
• Don’t have events – make lines. Have events in the delivery room at the hospital.
• This is America: even the little notes get a vote. Each note one vote [RLS].
• Connect short notes to the long notes that follow them (think “pick up” all the time). No orphans! [RLS].
• Lift on the dot in dotted rhythms. Keep thinking motion to the right [RLS].
• Phrase by subtraction, not addition. When taking a breath, shorten the note you leave, rather than adding extra time before the note that comes next. It’s like getting small children ready to go to church: the more you have, the earlier you have to start. In general, the idea is “leave early to arrive on time.”
• Dynamics are always relative, never absolute: they are a neighborhood, not a destination [RLS].
• Almost every phrase has a dynamic arch (crescendo/diminuendo), what the medieval and renaissance theorists called “arsis et thesis.”
• Crescendi and diminuendi are created by deliberate decisions to add or subtract volume, and these decisions are made over time, aligned with the subdivision of the beat [RLS].
• Regular beat (pulse) is a sign of physical – and musical – health. It’s not slapped on from the outside: it springs from within. Conductors don’t, and can’t, “keep” the beat. Only the singers can [RLS].
• Suspensions are like cows – milk them, by leaning into the suspended note (normally the tied one).
• Bar lines are an arbitrary convenience created for conductors who can’t count. They are weightless transparencies: never let the audience hear them.
• Time is music’s canvas. Paint all of it with sound, unless the composer wants a rest or the conductor asks for an articulation (consonant, breath, staccato, etc.) [RLS].
• III. Vocalism
• Choral excellence is grounded in vocal health. Good singing is good singing, no matter where it happens to take place. While individual vocal study is always best, the following items are also helpful to recall:
• Never sing louder than your vibrato. If your voice suddenly goes “straight,” you’re over-singing: back down, no matter what the conductor demands. He’ll figure it out eventually.
• Close “ah” forward to make a tall “ee” and “aw” forward to make a tall “oo.” Don’t close the jaw up for these vowels – close the sound forward and keep as much space between your molars as you can.
• At approximately G in the alto/bass voice and C in the tenor/soprano, the proportions of resonance and the lengths of the vocal cords change to produce an identified as the “passagio” [FL], the “break,” or the “lift of the breath” [HW], sometimes called a ]”register shift” or passing from “chest voice” into “head voice.”
• Four things need to happen in coordinated fashion at the lift: a) less breath, b) more space, c) darker vowel, d) higher focus.
• At the lift, begin to modify vowels as follows:
• “ah” to “uh” “aw” to “uh”
• “eh” to “ay” “oo” (soon) to
• “ee” to “ih” “oo” (soot) [JFW].
• In general, as pitch ascends, open vowels (ah, aw, uh) close and closed vowels (ee, oo) open [JFW].
• Above G in low voices and C in high voices, roll the shoulders slightly forward (not up!) and tuck the pelvis under – both help to open the lower back [JFW]. Or try hugging a tree, holding a beach ball under water, or allowing your spine to lengthen.
• Singing above the lift is about power, not pressure. We use less breath, because physics tells us “as frequency doubles, intensity squares” [HVP]. It takes less work, not more, to move a lighter object than a heavier one.
• Move all the resonance, but not the weight. Never use more resonance than you can move in tempo.
• Fast singing is like Indiana basketball – it pays to be mobile, agile and a little bit hostile.
• The softer you sing, the richer your vowels must be. Soft singing is just loud singing sung quieter.
• Always keep the breath behind the sound, never at it (strident) or in it (breathy) [FL].
• When breathing in, breathe in the vowel, the volume and the mood – silently. This allows the mouth, throat and other resonators to set themselves automatically [HVP].
• Don’t “take” breaths unless you plan to give them back. Instead, let the bones hold you up and let the air fall into your body space [JJ].
• Begin the sound as the last element of the inhalation part of the breath cycle. Don’t suck air and then hold it; this only builds tension in the throat and increases the likelihood of a hard glottal attack.
• Singing is, in a real sense, exhaling on pitch. It is about release, not “production” or “projection.”
• Begin the sound from where the breath went – NOT from the throat.
• Sound can only be produced by vibration. If I can hear you breathe, something’s vibrating that shouldn’t be – probably the sides of your throat.
• Physical support is dynamic tension achieved by a balance between the inhaling and exhaling muscles. It’s a feeling of poise, not rigidity.
• Muscles exist to move bones, not the other way around. “Posture” and “pose” share a common root – one of stiffness, so think “stature” rather than “posture.” Music is by definition sound in motion – we should allow our bodies to support this and to reflect it.
• There are no “high” notes or “low” notes – only faster and slower frequencies. All the notes on the piano are the same distance from the floor [HVP].
• The further “up” you sing, the “lower” in the body you must work [FL].
• Focus “brightens” (comes forward, approaches speech) as pitch descends. Snarl a little bit as you approach the bottom of your range [HVP].
• IV. Interpretation and Miscellaney
• Vowels convey emotion, consonants communicate data. Emotion without data is self-centered wallowing; data without emotion is robotic. Both are essential for communicating meaning – which is our job.
• Choral music always tells a story. Anything less is just mechanical precision – and less than human.
• The object of art is expression. The medium of art is technique [HW]. But technique without meaning is merely the act of a technician, and is ultimately sterile. Be artists, not technicians!
• Make loud mistakes – that’s what rehearsals are for. We can’t fix what we don’t hear. If you’re going to sin, sin boldly!
• Progress, not perfection, is our goal. Get the small things right and the big ones will follow.
• Ask yourself what – in a single word or phrase – is the message you’re trying to convey? Write it at the top of your music; reference it before the piece begins.
• The voice is the servant of the sound; the sound is the servant of the text; the text is the servant of the meaning. The only “right” sound is the one that expresses the full meaning of the text [RLS].
• Our business is recreation and resurrection – when we sing, we bring the dead to life [RLS].
• MUSIC IS THE VOICE OF YOUR SOUL!!!
• RLS: Robert Lawson Shaw was the founder and director of the Robert Shaw Chorale, and for the second half of the twentieth century was the driving force in choral music in America.
• FW: Fred Waring was a popular big band leader in the swing era who decided to branch out into choral singing. His first assistant conductor was an unknown college student named Robert Shaw.
• JFW: John Finley Williamson was the director of the Westminster Choir and the founder of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey.
• HVP: Herbert Vincent Pate was one of Williamson’s first students and spent 45 years as professor of voice and vocal pedagogy at Westminster Choir College.
• JJ: James Jordan is the conductor of the Chapel Choir and professor of conducting at Westminster Choir College, and author of “Evoking Sound,” a provocative text on choral conducting.
• HW: Herbert Witherspoon was one of the leading basses of his day and the first American selected as General Director of the Metropolitan Opera. John Finley Williamson was one of his students.
• FL: Francesco Lamperti was one of the first teachers to describe the principles of what has come to be called the “bel canto” style of singing.
• Copyright (c) 2005 by Gerald Custer. Reprinted with the author’s permission. Gerald Custer is an award-winning, Grammy-nominated composer and conductor. He is the music director of the Seaway Chorale and Orchestra and teaches in the Department of Music at Wayne State University.
Recordings – information and links provided by Dick Brightman
While adequate time will be afforded to all at rehearsal to learn to sing this music, it is most considerate to our fellow singers, and will result in more fun actually singing the music if each of us does our utmost to learn notes outside of rehearsal. Fortunately, we don’t have to take a rehearsal pianist home to do this. Technology has advanced so much that learning music on our own is quite easy. If you have access to a computer and the internet, there are a number of online resources to help you.
For general reference, there are several websites that offer recordings of individual parts of many choral works using synthesized midi or piano. Here are a few:
www.learnchoralmusic.co.uk (John’s Midi File Choral Music Site). Select Major Works and Anthems Choral Works, select <Composer Name>, select <Work Name>, and then by clicking on your part for each chorus, you can either play or download your part. It is helpful if you have the free QuickTime program installed on your computer (if you don’t, it is easy to download for free from Apple). We like Quicktime because the pull-down “Window” menu for this program has a “Show A/V controls” choice that lets you play the song slower. That sometimes helps to learn tricky passages. If you save the free mp3 file, you can load it into iTunes, cut a CD, or load it onto your iPod. (Note: Cannot listen or download from this site using an iPad)
www.cyberbass.com Select Major works, then <Composer Name>, then <Work Name>. Then if you have the right music player on your computer you should be able to listen to your part for each chorus. You cannot download from this site, but you can purchase a CD containing your part.
www.choraline.com This British site will for a small fee provide you with either a CD of your part or an mp3 download of the same. You can also purchase scores and other goodies. In our experience, their product is superior. Unfortunately, it does come at a price.
Having all these resources at our fingertips is wonderful, but they won’t help unless we actually take the time to sit down with our scores and actually use them. But it’s fun and rewarding!
You don’t have to buy a CD in order to hear some great recordings. The easiest way to hear whole performances of a lot of great pieces by some great choirs is to go to YouTube on your computer at:
Building Singing and Music Skills –
Information and links provided by Dick Brightman
Here are a few useful internet sites that provide information that may help to enhance singing and sight-reading skills and also increase knowledge of music theory. (Note: some of the sound links for these web sites may not work on an iPad)
As always, remember that while these web sites appear authoritative, it is the internet, so it is good to seek information from diverse sources. We have tried to avoid commercial sites and you should be able to use these web sites without any cost.
Some of these sites allow you to hear a sample of what is being discussed on the screen by clicking on a link. We have noticed that it is better to use the”right-click” button of the mouse or keypad and to open these links in a new “tab” than just to click on the link. This will allow you to stay on the screen that you are watching so that the sound reinforces what you are seeing. Of course, when you are finished listening to the sound link, you should close the tab. Sometimes, though, especially on the musictheory.net link below, it is sufficient to just click on the speaker icon.
Interestingly, most of these sources are in the UK where there is a strong choral singing tradition. We hope you find these resources helpful.
From Neil Hawes, an organist and choir director in the UK, there are 2 links, one for sight-singing:
and one for music theory:
From the Practice Choir in the UK:
From the Royal Free Music Society, on music theory:
and on finding your best vocal range (which part should you be singing?):
and finally, two music theory links: