In my last couple of articles, I’ve been talking about the importance of working to develop your choir’s voices in rehearsal, particularly in the context of community choirs. The benefits are twofold: a better choral sound and a more enthusiastic, motivated choir.
Today I’m going to focus in on two aspects of technique: breathing and posture. We can encourage good practice with exercises that are fun, practical and accessible to singers with a range of vocal ability.
I want to address the issues of posture and breathing together because they are closely linked. You simply cannot breathe well if your posture is poor. Added to that, a choir with poor posture, slouching and breathing shallowly, will look and sound pretty awful in performance.
So how do we convince our singers that these two elements are crucial to good singing and good performance? I think a short explanation to make them aware of their posture and breathing followed up with practical exercises which are repeated in a succession of rehearsals is the best way to go. Repetition of good practice will help make good breathing and good posture part of the singing routine.
Here are four great exercises for breathing and posture:
1. Slouching – At the start of a rehearsal, ask everyone to get into their best slouch (this always gets a smile). From here, ask them to unravel the slouch and stand tall imagining a string is pulling them up from the crown of their head (make sure it’s the back of the neck that lengthens, not the chin that rises). They should stand with their feet shoulder width apart and gently sway, front to back and side to side, until they find their centre of balance. Shoulders should be relaxed and not hunched forward or stretched too far back. Ask your singers to take a mental picture of this posture and create it when they sing. At this point you will also have everyone’s quiet attention so it’s a great exercise for focusing everyone at the beginning of a rehearsal.
2. Keeping a level head – This exercise is a great way to make sure singers understand what can happen to their posture when they start moving up and down their range. Ask them to stand as in exercise 1. Then using the sound ‘hoo’ create a siren taking them from a mid point in their voice, down to the lowest note then back up to the highest. I like to imagine it’s a rollercoaster ride and finish the siren with some high loops. Undoubtedly, many people will move their head accordingly – down to reach the low notes and up to reach the high. This, of course, is detrimental to good singing. Point this out to your singers and try the exercise again asking them to look straight ahead this time.
3. A good sip and hiss – To help your singers identify how to breathe well when they sing, ask them to place a hand on their tummy. From here they must breathe in using a sip sound pushing their hand away and expanding the tummy area. To breathe out, they should then make a hiss sound, bringing the tummy back inwards. Try this a few times making the hiss out breath longer each time. You can also try this exercise using different sounds for the out breath such as ‘ooh’, ‘aah’, ‘eh’ or ‘ee’. Pick a note which is good for all voices. Then, to help transfer this technique to the repertoire they sing, go through a piece once with just the breathing in mind. Ask your singers to place a hand on their tummy and focus on the breath movement and keeping the shoulders relaxed. It may not be the best rendition, but it will help them to start applying what they learn in exercises to their singing.
4. Double and triple scales – Working on breathing with a single note is great for learning the technique but these scales will really put it into practice as the voice moves up and down the different notes. Depending on the ability of your choir or the stage they are at with their breathing technique you can choose either five note or full octave scales. Start using numbers and sing the scale up and back eg; 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1. This will prove easy for most so now double it eg; 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1. You can then triple the scale which will become more demanding and require a good supported breath. As well as numbers you could use doh, re, me or vowel or consonant sounds.
We’d love to hear your experiences and ideas for working on breathing and posture with your choirs so do get in touch if you’d like to share your experiences.
Next time, I’ll be looking at range and flexibility.