Five or ten minutes spent in leisurely "warming up" by humming gently and singing softly, with a few deep-breathing exercises, at the beginning of a rehearsal, will pay large dividends by putting frayed nerves at ease, reviving exhausted spirits, and bringing depth to the voices. Singers always find it interesting to "sit up tall," feet flat on the floor, and spend a little time panting through the mouth or sniffing through the nose, dog fashion, to encourage deep breathing in the right area. Another method is to hold the breath as long as possible, with the mouth and throat open and relaxed. When forced to resume breathing, watch carefully the deep, rhythmic action of the abdominal muscles, as the lungs make up for lost time. All these exercises will draw the attention to the region that extends from the lower edge of the ribs on down deep into the abdomen. Keep the abdomen relaxed on the inhalation. You cannot breathe too deeply. This is the way the Spirit of prophecy counsels us to breathe. It is the way animals breathe, and the natural way for us, too.
Always endeavor to save the voices of your singers. In learning a new number, have them hum or "la, la" their parts while learning. Never let your choir sing to the limit of their volume on a full-voice passage and get to shouting and shrieking. Caution them to stay back just a little from the limit of their volume but to mix the limit of emotion and feeling with such passages, letting the tone come from "deep down:"
Point out attractive passages or runs in the various parts. Such a part may consist of only three or four notes in the alto section, for instance, but it will add to the beauty of the number. Ask the singers to bring these parts out quite prominently. Try to find several passages in each number where the choir may sing softly by contrast. Many choirs find it difficult to sing softly. They think they are singing softly when they are only beginning to approach the ideal. To help remedy this, get an old-fashioned alarm clock that ticks quite loudly, and set it on the piano or somewhere near. Now tell the choir that when they come to the proper passage you want them to sing so softly that they can still hear the clock tick. It works wonders !
Do not let your singers fall into the common habit of singing in a listless, lifeless fashion on the soft passages. Tell them to be more alive and to keep behind their voices all the throbbing life and vitality they can muster, as if just itching to burst forth in full voice, but keeping the "steam turned off" to the desired volume. Keep up to strict time. Also when singing mezza voce (half voice) we must open the mouth just as far as, or farther than, when singing full voice, and we must articulate more clearly than ever, using the lips in an exaggerated fashion.
There is nothing that will give character to a choir number like accenting. Make sure all four parts do it, as it is more difficult for the harmony parts to keep this in mind. I often "dare" the choir to overdo this accenting, being careful, however, not to hurt their voices. I have never had it overdone, but the attempted exaggeration makes them conscious of the necessity for accenting and helps the idea to sink in. "Like as a Father" (No. 66, Church Hyntnal) is a good example to study in accenting, and also in shading. The words and first syllables of words that we accent are underlined in the stanza below. The solid line above each line of words indicates that the volume is to be full or increasing, and then to gradually decrease where the line becomes broken. Generally speaking, one can increase the volume as the notes in the melody are ascending and shade off as the melody descends.
"Like as a fa-ther pit-ies his child,
So the Lord pit-ies the sin-ner defiled;
Waiteth in kind-ness, pit-ies our blind-ness,
Long-eth to wel-come, though of-ten reviled."
The accenting usually falls on the first beat of a measure. There should be few exceptions to this. I exaggerate the shading, accenting, and expression in the first stanza of this number, even to sacrificing the time on the words "kindness" and "blindness," mixing plenty of feeling with these words. Omitting the second stanza, I have the choir hum on the third stanza (teeth wide apart, lips just touching, tongue resting on the floor of the mouth) while a baritone or contralto sings the melody. Then the choir sings the last stanza faster and with full volume and plenty of expression all the way through, as a contrast and final climax to the number. By studying the words and possible expression of some of these beautiful old hymns, one can get his choir to make them come to life as something living and new, throbbing with holy emotion and transcendent meaning.
Many amateur choirs chew up their words because they have not learned to sing on the basic vowels. In the stanza above we have a number of words that illustrate this point. The basic vowel of "like" and "child" is ah, as it is also on the last syllable of "reviled." To many it is a revelation to sing ah on a word like "child." Tell the choir to think of this word as being three feet long. Use a half inch for the "ch," and another half inch for the ending, "ild," singing ah on the remaining thirty-five inches—"ch-ah-ah-ah-ild."
One can improve the vowels by emphasizing the preceding consonant and using it to throw the voice into the vowel. An exaggeration of the "1" before the oh in "like" seems to produce a bigger, clearer tone on ah. So also with the "f" in "father," and the "ch" in "child." The accenting of "m" or "n" before a vowel is particularly helpful. The emphasizing of consonants is especially helpful in reaching high notes and in making them ring clearer. Be sure to use the lips in an exaggerated fashion, keeping them free and pliable, however.
If you feel there is something wrong with a number on which you have been working, look to the basic vowels and their preceding consonants, and bring it to life with some judicious accenting and plenty of feeling and expression. These things are fundamental.
Keep a box of short pencils handy and have members mark up the music—breathing places, soft and loud passages, important words, etc. A few moments spent in this way is as good as a half hour of practice on some numbers.
Keep cool. Don't fret and fuss. Don't talk over the heads of your singers with high-sounding musical terms. Be a learner with your choir. Give rebuke, correction, and suggestion with a smile. Be tactful ! It's not hard if you think and try. There are always some voices that need to be checked up for various reasons. Tell the choir that as a rule the voices that show the most promise have to be corrected most frequently. In a large measure this is true. Anyway it supplies the balm for the corrective.
When the choir stands for its special, a smile from the director or a whisper, "Do your very best now," often gives the members just the lift they need to quiet the nervous and awaken the apathetic. Mix emotion, feeling, and smiles with your directing. Your spirit will be contagious.
Every director has had the experience of working on a number for weeks, seemingly getting nowhere. I have seen wonders happen with such a situation when we have stopped right in the middle of the struggle and had a word of prayer, asking the Lord to help us with that particular song.