Protecting Your Voice As a Choir Director

By Choralosophy Contributor, Lori Sonnenberg

Adapted and posted with permission from Lori Sonnenberg’s Blog: https://www.sonnenbergvoice.com/post/protecting-your-voice-as-an-educator

Special Note for Choral Directors: You spend all week making everyone else’s voice sound beautiful and it’s easy to neglect your own. This Fall set an example for your choir by taking care of your voice.

Voice loss, vocal fatigue, and hoarseness are common complaints among educators and directors, and this is especially true during the first few weeks of the fall semester. This is a common theme in voice therapy this time of year, too. While all that downtime vocally over the summer is a much welcomed thing and provides needed vocal rest, it tends to make things a little more challenging at the start of the school year. Gaining back the vocal stamina, and endurance to teach without vocal fatigue is the priority. It’s important to have a plan to recondition the voice, and have reasonable expectations of your voice as you ease back into full-time vocal demands.

Will you experience a little hoarseness in the first few days and weeks? Probably. Will you notice vocal fatigue and tiredness? Almost certainly. Are these things normal and expected? Yes. With daily attention and a commitment to these components, you can reduce the effects of the increased voice use. Voice rest, hydration, adequate sleep and rest, and minimizing stress are also very important, but there’s no substitute for optimizing your voice each day.

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In this article, we’ll cover what I consider the top 5 vocal tips for educators and choral directors as you manage those busy vocal demands returning to the classroom and rehearsal/performance spaces. These tips will help you to manage your overall vocal health and wellness, maintain vocal sustainability and consistency, combat early semester vocal fatigue and hoarseness, and build vocal stamina and endurance for the days, weeks and months ahead. I want you to have a vibrant voice that is strong and capable for your occupational voice demands.

Daily Morning Vocal Exercise/Warm-up

The first tip is doing some sort of vocal exercise and warm-up in the morning before teaching. This is non-negotiable. It can be as short as 5 to 10 minutes on the way to school in the car. It has to be done. My top three favorite components that need to be included in that are below. These can all be done on full range pitch gliding and short, simple musical patterns.

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Various trill exercises that get airflow coordination going and begin to make the voice loose and flexible. I generally recommend using:

1. Trills

  • lip trills
  • tongue trills (rolled r)
  • raspberries

2. Non-Trill SOVTEs

  • Straw phonation (in or out of water)
  • Buzzy consonants like /v/ /wh/
  • Kazoo like sounds

3. Resonance and Speech Warm Up

  • humming, speaking exercises using words

Resonance and a speech warm-up. A favorite of mine is humming on /m/ while making a chewing motion. It’s great for loosening up the jaw, the oral facial muscles, the tongue and gets the resonance moving around. That noise easily leads into speech exercises like practicing words that begin with /m/, like “mmmmoon,” “mmmmany,” and “mmmmmountain.” This type of exercise helps to bring the voice a little more into the front of the face with what we call forward resonance. An added helpful tip is to say the word “m-hm” right before words and counting. All of these can be heard in the video here.

Resetting the Voice

A vocal reset is the concept of using a vocal exercise, vocal warm-up, or a sound that feels really good to you. This can help bring the voice back to baseline or a sort of “home base” and reduce effort for speech and singing during busy vocal days. It can also help reduce vocal fatigue. This helps to gain more vocal sustainability and consistency throughout the week. I encourage you to reset the voice in between classes and rehearsals. This can be done with a simple, short exercise and used periodically throughout the day. Even 20-30 seconds can sometimes be enough to bring the vocal folds back to ideal shape and position for phonation. Some good examples of a reset would be any of our trills (as above), straw phonation, buzzy sounds that vibrate the lips like /v/, /m/, and or /wh/. I also find a simple speech warm-up using words that start with /m/ or /y/ work very well for a lot of my patients.

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Self-Monitoring for Vocal Fold Swelling

Self-monitoring is one of the most important components of long-term vocal health and success. Understanding vocal overuse and being familiar with our own baseline and capabilities helps us to know when we’ve gone past our limits. I always say “Vibration is not infinite. It’s a biological thing that has limits.” The more we use our voices, the more we vibrate our vocal folds, which means the more likely we are to develop a little bit or sometimes a lot of swelling on the vibrating edge of the folds. Knowing what vocal fold injury sounds like, feels like, and how to monitor baseline vocal capabilities can help identify acute swelling. Vocal fold swelling almost always affects the voice “top down” meaning that the highest notes in our vocal range will become limited first. And believe it or not, sometimes the most subtle swelling may not even affect the voice until the very highest pitches in the range at very soft volume levels.

We can use singing in a light, high range head voice (or falsetto) to assess possible swelling from vocal overuse. I suggest using the first phrase of “happy birthday.” This is to be done before warm-up and the start of the teaching day. Get to know your typical baseline for this so that you can detect even minor changes in your voice. If you notice that your “ceiling” is lower than usual or if you have to get louder and use more effort to make it work, you need to do less vocally that day. How much rest does it take to get back to baseline?

To learn more about swelling and self monitoring check out our last blog post on Mucosal vs. Muscular Fatigue and keep an eye out for our upcoming blog All About Swelling!

Relative Voice Rest

Absolute voice rest (complete silence) is not necessary in most cases of vocal overuse. The exception would be severe voice loss and hoarseness or something we call aphonia which is complete voice loss. Relative voice rest simply means reducing your overall normal voice use or in extreme cases only using your voice when necessary. This type of voice rest is ideal for those of us who live very busy vocal lifestyles. You should use relative voice rest if you notice your baseline is different (or lower) on a given day. Taking short vocal naps off and on throughout the day for 20-30 minutes can go a long way towards maintaining your vocal health and baseline. Some techniques and tactics to incorporate relative voice rest are below:

  • Reduce demonstrating for students and singers
  • Consider silent rehearsal
  • Schedule at least 2 days per week with a lower vocal load
  • Pace yourself vocally with fewer commitments daily

Personal Voice Amplification System

Use of a personal voice amplification device can significantly reduce vocal volume, effort, fatigue and help your voice use each day “cost less.” These devices are easy to find online for reasonable prices and are surprisingly very powerful. I typically suggest splurging for a wireless option, but even a wired one that is less expensive is better than not using one at all. Classroom acoustics are generally poor and noise levels are high which make us feel the need to speak louder and use more effort.

Occasionally, I get feedback from music teachers who are concerned about how using a device will make them be perceived by others. As if needing one suggests that they don’t have a healthy voice or that they don’t use good enough technique. My pushback is this – using one shows that you take your vocal health and wellness seriously. That you want to make sure you have a clear, strong, healthy voice to use each day so that you can do your job effectively without struggling. Children and students with hearing loss and auditory processing disorders will be able to hear you better. In fact, all of your students will hear you better and likely be more efficient in their work because of that. There are many studies behind this topic.

Conclusion

Don’t wait for your voice loss to become more severe before taking action. Developing strong awareness skills around the more subtle changes our voices go through can help us maintain our very best baseline. And optimizing our daily voice use as above goes a long way towards ensuring that we have a strong, capable voice to support us even on the busiest of days.

If you are finding vocal fatigue and pain is causing you to struggle in your workplace or personal life know that there’s hope. Consider reaching out to a voice SLP or an ENT to talk about your symptoms. You don’t have to have an active voice disorder to work with Sonnenberg Voice. You can book a session with Lori to get personalized tools and advice for your voice and how you use it.

Episode 119: Yes Middle Schoolers CAN! with Dale Duncan

In this episode I sit down with THE Middle School choir guru, Dale Duncan to talk about sweet spot for success in Middle School vocal music. Middle School Singers are often overlooked and underestimated. What they need is an educator that believes in them, and provides high quality instruction in a school that supports them. We talk about the balance between high expectations, trust building, pitch matching in puberty, motivation of middle schoolers, connection and belonging and how they all serve each other. Dale also shares a bit about what it is like to be retired, his favorite things about teaching Middle School as well as talks through some of its greatest challenges. We ranged a bit into other areas too like pre and post pandemic choral music, and education and some of the changes we have seen, as well as why years 20-30 can be the “prime years” for teachers.

Dale Duncan
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Episode 119
The best sight singing tool on the market. A must have for any band/choir or orchestra teacher and their students. In class and at home tools to build their literacy at their own pace. Enter “choralosophy” at checkout to get 10% off every time you renew at http://www.sightreadingfactory.com
Enter Choralosophy at Checkout for a 5% discount when you shop for folders, robes and other gear for your choir program! www.mymusicfolders.com and www.mychoirrobes.com

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Paul Rudoi and MANY more.
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From Dale’s Website

I have taught middle school students for well over 20 years.  I currently teach over 340 un-auditioned choral students.  I have up to 84 students in one class by myself.  I could never have managed that as a young teacher, but along the way, I have learned several tips and tricks to help me successfully manage this age group of students in a positive learning environment.

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I started my career in North Carolina where I taught for 5 years. In the beginning, I struggled enormously with classroom management.  My middle school students totally “ran over me”.  I was unstructured, inconsistent and ineffective.  I was discouraged and felt like a total failure.  I felt alone.  I thought often about quitting teaching and doing something else.  I was armed with a masters degree and absolutely no idea how to teach this age group.

I am not a quitter, so I kept going.  I observed other teachers, and slowly began to figure a couple of things out that helped me hang in there.

I continued my career in New Jersey for the next 6 years.  It was there that I saw an amazingly gifted choral educator who had created the most magnificent middle school choral program I had ever seen.  She graciously allowed me to observe her teaching a few times, and that was when things began to click for me.  I began to realize how to relate to and successfully teach this age group.  That is when my programs began to grow exponentially.

Episode 118: Leveling the Playing Field with Dr. Chantae Pittman

On this episode Dr. Chantae Pittman joins me in the ongoing conversation surrounding the philosophy of choral music education. Why are we there? What is our function? Just how critical is it that students who complete a term or more in vocal music in school are able to reach some level of music reading proficiency. Dr. Pittman outlines her daily routine in the classroom and describes how literacy fits in for her in the classroom. I have a wonderful opportunity here to bounce my ideas off of an accomplished colleague. Tune in and hear how Chantae’s band background informs her current vocal education background, and more. This episode was fun for me because I learn a lot from speaking with colleagues each week. Tune in and share that benefit!

Dr. Chantae Pittman
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Episode 118
The best sight singing tool on the market. A must have for any band/choir or orchestra teacher and their students. In class and at home tools to build their literacy at their own pace. Enter “choralosophy” at checkout to get 10% off every time you renew at http://www.sightreadingfactory.com

Dr. Chantae D. Pittman is the Director of Choral Activities at Campbell High School in Smyrna, GA in the Cobb County School District, and adjunct professor at Georgia College and State University. Dr. Pittman is passionate about all forms of music. She is a proud graduate of Tennessee State University having received her Bachelor of Science in Music Education in 2010. She has since earned a Master’s Degree in Music Education at VanderCook College University (Chicago, IL, 2013). In May 2021 Dr. Pittman graduated from The University of Georgia where she completed her Doctorate in Education with an emphasis in Choral Music Education. During her 13-year career in choral music education she has taught students from elementary through high school.

Due to that experience, and her demonstrated commitment to excellence in performance, she is highly respected as a choral clinician, music education consultant, instructor, grant writer, and adjudicator. She is very active as a soprano soloist and choral musician as a member of the Grammy award winning Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus since 2011, and the Atlanta Women’s Chorus since 2020. Having performed with orchestras, choirs, and small vocal ensembles throughout her career as a musician, Dr. Pittman proudly continues to learn, grow, and develop as a musician and pedagogue. She is a proud and active member of the Georgia Music Educators Association (GMEA), National Association for Music Education (NAfME), American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), National Educators Association (NEA), Georgia Association of Educators (GAE), Sigma Alpha Iota, Professional Music Fraternity, Inc., and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.

Receive 10% Discount on your orders at http://www.graphitepublishing.com where you will find the works of Jocelyn Hagen, Eric Barnum, Timothy C. Takach,
Paul Rudoi and MANY more.
Enter Choralosophy at Checkout for a 5% discount when you shop for folders, robes and other gear for your choir program! www.mymusicfolders.com and www.mychoirrobes.com

Visit stageright.com for top of the line, affordable staging options like risers, acoustical shells and more!

Find Dr. Pittman on Instagram

Episode 117: Finding My Voice with Benedict Sheehan

In this episode I have a chat with GRAMMY nominated conductor and composer, Benedict Sheehan of the St. Tikhon Monastery Choir. This passionate conversation begins with Benedict’s advocacy for people, like himself, who stutter. As you will hear, it is important that we remember that EVERYONE has something to say. We need only listen. We then discuss the ways the GRAMMY nominations changed his routine, his love of the Orthodox Church music tradition and how it has shaped his sound aesthetic. Finally, we approach the concept of the “composer’s voice,” and the importance of a frame of reference from which to approach the music. Tune in to hear these items and more discussed on the Choralosophy Oxford series!

Benedict Sheehan
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Episode 117

Composers Recommended by Benedict

Two-time GRAMMY® nominee and American Prize-winner Benedict Sheehan has been called “a choral conductor and composer to watch in the 21st century” (ConcertoNet) and “a remarkable musician” (Choral Journal). He is Artistic Director and Founder of the Saint Tikhon Choir and Artefact Ensemble, and Director of Music at St. Tikhon’s Monastery and Seminary in Pennsylvania. His works are published by Oxford University Press and others, and his award-winning choral recordings and performances have received widespread critical acclaim.

Described as “an up-and-coming conductor” (The Oregonian), “a rising star in the choral world” (Catholic Sentinel), and as having “set the bar for Orthodox liturgical music in the English-speaking world” (Orthodox Arts Journal), composer and conductor Benedict Sheehan is Director of Music at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and Monastery in Pennsylvania, Artistic Director of professional vocal ensemble The Saint Tikhon Choir, and CEO and co-founder of the Artefact Institute, a collective of “culture creators.” Working closely with his wife Talia Maria Sheehan, a professional vocalist and visionary music educator, the Sheehans have become two of the most sought-after clinicians in Orthodox sacred music in America. Benedict has appeared frequently as a guest conductor with the professional vocal ensemble Cappella Romana, where his performances of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil had one reviewer so “emotionally overwhelmed” that she was “attempting to hold back tears” (Oregon ArtsWatch). In 2018 he was instrumental in producing the monumental world premiere of Alexander Kastalsky’s Requiem for Fallen Brothers (1917) at the Washington National Cathedral. The project culminated in a 2020 Naxos recording on which Sheehan served as a Chorus Master and an Executive Producer. Benedict is in high demand as a composer. His works have been performed by the Grammy-nominated Skylark Vocal Ensemble, the Grammy-nominated PaTRAM Institute Singers, Cappella Romana, the William Jewell Choral Scholars, Te Deum, the Pacific Youth Choir, and many others. His new work Gabriel’s Message was recorded and released in 2020 by John Rutter, Bob Chilcott, and The Oxford Choir. Skylark’s recent recording Once Upon A Time (2020) features a “story score” by Benedict which has been called “evocative” (Gramophone), “quite extraordinary” (Limelight), “brilliant” (MetroWest Daily News), and “otherworldly” (Boston Musical Intelligencer). His music is published by Oxford University Press, Artefact Publications, Musica Russica, MusicSpoke, and St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press. Benedict lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and seven daughters.

The best sight singing tool on the market. A must have for any band/choir or orchestra teacher and their students. In class and at home tools to build their literacy at their own pace. Enter “choralosophy” at checkout to get 10% off every time you renew at http://www.sightreadingfactory.com
Visit stageright.com for top of the line, affordable staging options like risers, acoustical shells and more!
Receive 10% Discount on your orders at http://www.graphitepublishing.com where you will find the works of Jocelyn Hagen, Eric Barnum, Timothy C. Takach,
Paul Rudoi and MANY more.
YouTube Version
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Episode 116: What is Our MAIN Job?

Is creating a welcoming, inclusive, fun, engaging and safe learning environment enough to be an excellent choir teacher? I say no. Is choir an activity or an academic course of study? You can get a PhD in it. It is an academic subject. In this episode, I “dialogue” with many of you who joined a fantastic collegial discussion about the soul and the future of our profession.

In a school setting, I actually think it is immoral to deprive students of a rich music literacy (reading) education, taught to proficiency.

Chris Munce

Me, “We need to teach literacy and vocal pedagogy as our core academic content. When kids feel confident in their abilities in these areas, they are more likely to enjoy choir long term and stick around. They are also more likely to feel like they belong because they know they can contribute.”

The claim

Straw man #1: “We need to obsess about sight reading, train little unfeeling machines who can read anything and have flawless techniques and sing like robots. It also does not matter if kids feel happy or like they belong in the class. If they aren’t good enough, we can just kick them out.” Y’all…Rigor and accessibility are NOT opposite sides of a coin.

Straw Man #2: “Those aren’t the only things that matter.” I didn’t say they were.

Straw Man #3: “But modern music notation is not used in all cultures, so by centering it in your curriculum, you are sending the signal that those cultures are inferior.” Well, you would have to be in my classroom to know that. And you aren’t. It is possible to make literacy a focal point, and have students still understand that it is one tool of many that are used to learn music.

And I haven’t even started talking about the neurological benefits yet… that’s where we get into moral imperative territory. In a school setting I think it’s actually immoral to deprive kids of this. I know…strong words…

The best sight singing tool on the market. A must have for any band/choir or orchestra teacher and their students. In class and at home tools to build their literacy at their own pace. Enter “choralosophy” at checkout to get 10% off every time you renew at http://www.sightreadingfactory.com

It’s like youth sports. We could acknowledge that winning is more fun than losing. So it is important to teach kids to play the sport well so that they win more than they lose. It can be simultaneously true, that it’s not “all about winning“. There are other lessons to be learned by playing on a team. However, as the coach it would be ridiculous for me to say that the core part of my job is not teaching the fundamental skills of the game to beginning players. they learn the lessons of teamwork, and community etc. through learning the game, not separately.

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Ep 116
Enter Choralosophy at Checkout for a 5% discount when you shop for folders, robes and other gear for your choir program! www.mymusicfolders.com and www.mychoirrobes.com

Visit stageright.com for top of the line, affordable staging options like risers, acoustical shells and more!
Receive 10% Discount on your orders at http://www.graphitepublishing.com where you will find the works of Jocelyn Hagen, Eric Barnum, Timothy C. Takach,
Paul Rudoi and MANY more.

Episode 115: The A Cappella Revolution with Rob Dietz

A Cappella guru Rob Dietz joins me this week to tell his story of passion for the “Pop A Cappella” genre of ensemble vocal music. Rob is well known in this sub-genre of choral music for his work on “The Sing Off” and collaborations with groups as wide ranging as Pentatonix, to Flo Rida and Incubus. In this conversation, we explore the common threads of “A Cappella” and “Traditional” choral ensembles as well as what makes the small pop vocal groups special to Rob and the genre’s growing number of practitioners. We also discuss how choral directors, like me and many others who are NOT well versed in this style can effectively begin to expose our students to this outlet. Tune in and stay at least for the beatboxing demo! 😉

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Episode 115
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Rob Dietz is a multiple CARA winning singer and vocal percussionist who has been arranging, composing, teaching, and performing contemporary a cappella music for over twenty years. Based in Los Angeles, Rob is best known for his work as an arranger and group coach for NBC’s The Sing-Off. Through his work on the show, Rob has had the pleasure of collaborating with some of the top talent in the vocal music world, including Pentatonix, Peter Hollens, The Filharmonic, Voiceplay, and many more. He has been a contributing arranger for performances by world renowned artists including Smokey Robinson, Flo Rida, Sara Bareilles, Incubus, and Pat Benatar. His arrangements have been featured on several TV shows, including America’s Got Talent (NBC), To All The Boys: P.S I Still Love You (Netflix), and Pitch Slapped (Lifetime).

Find Rob on Twitter or Insta at @rdietz55
www.sightreadingfactory.com is the best literacy tool on the market today. Enter Choralosophy at checkout to get 10% off memberships for you AND your students!

A native of Ithaca, NY, Rob got his start singing in high school as a member of the a cappella quintet, Ascending Height, with whom he wrote and produced the first ever album of all original music at the high school level. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in music and an outside field in business. While at Ithaca, Rob had the honor of directing the all male-identified group, Ithacappella, with whom he twice advanced to the finals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. He was also a member of both the Ithaca College Chorus and the Ithaca College Choir -the college’s select, touring vocal ensemble.

Enter Choralosophy at Checkout for a 5% discount when you shop for folders, robes and other gear for your choir program! www.mymusicfolders.com and www.mychoirrobes.com

As a performer, Rob is an award-winning vocal percussionist, and his distinctive sound has been featured on several TV shows, including FOX’s Glee and The Late Late Show with James Corden. Rob was the founding vocal percussionist for both The Funx and Level, groups that gave him the opportunity to work with legendary performers including Jay Leno and Demi Lovato.

Rob has a deep passion for a cappella education, and is a founding co-director (along with Ben Bram and Avi Kaplan) of A Cappella Academy. In addition to his work with Academy, Rob is also the director of Legacy: an auditioned, community youth a cappella group based in Los Angeles. Since the group’s inception, Legacy has performed twice at Carnegie Hall, and has won the Los Angeles A Cappella Festival’s Scholastic Competition, the Southwest semifinal round of the Varsity Vocals A Cappella Open, and the Finals of the International Championship of High School A Cappella at Lincoln Center. Rob is a sought after presenter and clinician who has led vocal music workshops at events such as the National A Cappella Convention and the ACDA National convention. He is the author of “A Cappella 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing” available from Hal Leonard.

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Alongside his work in contemporary a cappella music, Rob is also an avid choral composer, with work published by Alfred Music Publishing and GIA Publications. In 2021 his piece “The Gift” received a jury commendation as part of the King’s Singers New Music Prize competition. His pieces continue to be performed by choirs from all over the world.

Mentioned in this episode
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