Twenty-one tips on choir performance for emerging music educators

by Georgina Philippson

While at Oregon ACDA we were asked what would you share with music teachers who have been teaching for five years or fewer… A list was born in that moment. It’s what I’m passionate about. I’ve always said, “My job is to help people find their unique voice, and that has nothing to do with singing.” Take what you like. Discard the rest!

1. I believe in cut time. It is a great choice to promote flow and forward momentum. (Sidebar: It takes two points to determine a line in space; sometimes it takes two beats to inform a tempo.)

2. Identify “no breaths” and “stagger breathing” opportunities for your students and hold them accountable for reproducing these choices.

3. Know the difference between a lift and a breath in your music. Not all lifts are breaths. Punctuation in music will help guide you to a choice that YOU LIKE. It is important to like your choices.

4. Make artistic choices that are additive; it will increase the overall sum of the experience for all involved.

5. Add to your “invitation to make sound” and “release gesture” vocabulary EACH YEAR! Notice they are not referred to as cues and cut-offs. (Steal one gesture from a master teacher in performance five times a year and put it in your body to see how it feels. You’ll have a treasure trove of new gestures by the end of the year. I learned this through vocal jazz, trying riffs and runs from people we listen to and admire.)

6. Trust your accompanist/choir and melded gesture in order to enrich a “shaping” experience. There are several moments where patterns do not inspire art. (This builds great muscle memory, too.)

7. Remember, first notes of a phrase and closing consonants are not always accented. In fact, hardly ever. Especially when it’s a pick-up.

8. Make subtle/nuanced gestures seen…not behind other fingers or a music stand. They can’t see it and will resort to looking at your face, and tend to panic a bit.

9. Craft musical moments out of informed and weighted risk taking.

10. Please, please, please – coach soloists, duets and quartets in voice pedagogy of their sections and how they function within the context of the piece, style, small ensemble and voice part.

11. Look at choir/sections when initiating sound. Human aspect of what we do. Choose people. It will feel better for EVERYONE!

12. Open your physical heart space to ensemble AND the audience when addressing them.

13. Embrace the diphthong as a deemphasized, but intentional beauty-maker.

14. Breathe in on the first vowel sound of each phrase.

15. Introduce foreign language titles in “accent” if there are literature introductions. (Especially appreciated at solo and ensemble contests.)

16. Address mental page turns post memorization. In memorized performances choirs can continue to sing page turns. One can tell when the music slows down out of fear or faster with anxiety about turning the page. This muscle memory often translates to performance.

17. All preparatory on-set breaths are not created equal… some are in time and some are NOT. (Oh, and breathe with the ensemble… I didn’t breathe with them for about two years… such a difference.)

18. With piano introductions, allow your collaborative partner to interpret an artistic laden/replete moment without gesture. Give permission, validate as an artist and appreciate being surprised with what transpires.

19. Refrain from mouthing lyrics of passages; it creates unintended micro-tempi. There will always be choir members who anticipate what you’re about to mouth, those who are with you, and those who have a hard time seeing and will be focusing more on what they are seeing, than what they are singing which creates self-doubt and a “late” phonation. (However, during a legato or rit passage, mouthing minimal targeted sections can add to ensemble confidence and execution, especially for choirs that do not rehearse much before concert.)

20. Think of Vogue… before leaving the house for rehearsal take off at least one gesture. Err on the side of clarity. When it’s clear they will get it. If it’s not clear there will be confusion. Less really IS more.

21. Know the word-for-word translation along with the poetic, and the modern-day gestalt/paraphrased progression of each prose. This step gives added value, meaning and an expressive tool bag at your disposal. When in doubt, go back to the lyric.