June 21st, 2013
Making time to incorporate movement exercises during rehearsal can be a challenge, but a number of conductors are finding that it makes a real difference in the way their groups sing.
Singing is a full-body activity, but that might not be immediately obvious to someone watching a chorus rehearse. Too often singers get stuck in a static sitting or standing position that does not allow for the free movement of the breath and body. That stiff posture can contribute to a less than resonant, less than in tune, less than energetic sound.
Increasingly, choruses are drawing upon movement as a tool to help singers reach their full potential. They’re turning to a variety of practices and techniques, often used in combination, to serve a number of goals: building body awareness, increasing breath support, bringing mental focus, building trust among choristers, reinforcing articulation and rhythmic patterns, and connecting with the meaning of the music.
The big challenge, of course, is making time for an activity that at first glance may seem peripheral to the task at hand. “We’re in this kind of repertoire machine,” says Justin Montigne, a professional choral singer and a voice and yoga teacher. “We have Sunday services to get ready for or the fall concert. To actually step back from that even for a couple of minutes in rehearsal and plan in something physical often seems to a director like too much time, too much distraction, too much outside the mission of that rehearsal.”
Yet many conductors believe that the benefits of movement in creating a more full-bodied, unified, and beautiful choral sound justifies devoting precious rehearsal time to movement exercises.
With Kids, Movement is a Natural
Incorporating movement when working with young singers is a no-brainer way to encourage focus and a connection with the music, say conductors of children’s choruses. “Kids love to move and they are natural at it,” says conductor Emily Ellsworth, who regularly uses movement in rehearsals of her Anima, Young Singers of Greater Chicago (formerly the Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus). Ellsworth borrows from an array of practices, including yoga and tai chi, with a focus on coordinating breath with movement.
Bruce Lengacher works with eight separate choral groups in his role as director of choral activities at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California. He uses different kinds of movement exercises with his young singers to help them first, concentrate on the task at hand, and then, connect with their own bodies and with their fellow singers. “With high school kids, depending on what time of day it is, they can be either asleep or squirrely,” Lengacher says, “so I always start rehearsal with some kind of physical thing.”
If the choir is working on a piece that requires smooth legato, he might do figure eight movements with his palms facing out and ask the singers to mirror his fluid line. Or he will ask singers to pair up, placing their palms close to each other but not touching. “As they sing the exercise, one person is the leader and the other has to follow,” Lengacher says. “It’s great for building trust.”
Movement exercises often morph into some basic tai chi, which is a favorite practice of Lengacher’s.
He often uses a move called the “downward press”—standing with legs apart and pushing the hands down at the side, while taking a breath. This helps his students “visualize and mimic what the diaphragm is doing when we breathe,” he says. “Overall, tai chi exercises improve body awareness and control and help everyone focus.”
Lengacher finds that using movement allows his students to connect the music with their bodies—something that he says is especially important for adolescent singers. “You have these guys who in freshman year are 5’6” and the next September are 5’11”. Physical activity helps them to get comfortable with their own bodies.”
What’s Good for Kids is Good for Adults
Through a new role as conductor of the University Singers at Northwestern University, Ellsworth has discovered that movement is just as important for her older singers. “The singer’s instrument is the same no matter your age,” she says. “It is the whole body, not just from the neck up. So I steal from many different practices to warm up the whole body.”
Ellsworth takes the temperature of her singers as they come into rehearsal to guide her as to what kind of exercise to do. “If they come bounding in the room, I might do a more calming, quiet exercise,” she says. “If they are dragging in, I might do more active things. It depends on what they seem to need on a given day.”
Ellsworth typically sets aside quiet time at the beginning of rehearsal to establish a sense of calm. She then uses yoga and tai chi exercises to activate the breath. “I may have them do the Eagle Pose to stretch their upper backs and shoulders. Or I’ll have them do alternate nostril breathing where you breathe in through the right nostril while holding the left nostril closed and then breathe out through the left nostril with the right nostril closed,” she says. “It’s all about coordinating inhalation and exhalation with body movement and making breath a very conscious exercise.”
"Feeling the action of different kinds of articulation kinesthetically helps singers to recognize the pattern and then to remember it." ~ Cheryll Chung
Ellsworth’s singers tell her they really appreciate having time to quiet the mind and get the breath moving before tackling difficult repertoire. And Ellsworth says she can hear the benefits. “There is a better collective focus,” she says, “and I hear more overtones in the sound when they are freer in the body. When I don’t warm up the whole body I tend to get a less unified sound because they are bringing the baggage of their day into the rehearsal.”
Beginning rehearsal with movements that activate the breath is especially important for older adult singers, says Jeanne Kelly, director of the Levine School of Music, Arlington Campus, who conducts choirs for older adults in the Metro DC area. “Some of my singers live alone so they don’t talk a lot,” Kelly says. “So they don’t breathe. They take little clavicular breaths. So doing breath work is so important. And when they do it, they can hear the difference in their voice.”
Cheryll Chung grew up singing in children’s choirs where movement was a key part of the rehearsal process. When she formed Toronto’s Cantabile Chamber Singers in 2006, Chung wanted her mostly young adult singers to get the same benefits. So she incorporated many of the movement practices into her rehearsal routines. Cantabile’s choral season begins with a retreat at which experts lead sessions of yoga and the Alexander Technique. And Chung, like Ellsworth, often starts rehearsals with alternate nostril breathing. “This helps you find the center of the breath and to breathe deeper,” she says.
Using Movement to Shape Phrases and Teach Articulation
Chung also designs movements to teach the particular repertoire the group is working on. “Walking the beat” around the room helps establish complex rhythms in a Bach cantata, for example. To teach articulation, Chung has singers tap out the macro and micro beats on the palms of their hands or on their knees. “Feeling the action of different kinds of articulation kinesthetically helps singers to recognize the pattern and then to remember it,” she says.
Cantabile singers also are encouraged to use arm gestures to mark where a musical phrase begins and ends. “Drawing a big arch from the beginning to end of the phrase really helps,” Chung says. “Not only do you feel the length of the phrase, you are more connected to the phrasing and how you are breathing and where you are breathing.”
In a similar manner, Ellsworth uses gestures or hand movements to reinforce the shape of musical phrases. “I ask singers to think about which kind of paintbrush we need to capture the line of music,” says Ellsworth. “A four-inch wide kind that is used to paint a picket fence or a tiny one that a pointillist painter would use.”
Lengacher has incorporated techniques from the Laban conducting method for the same purpose. Laban’s eight specific hand gestures each signal different kinds of articulation in the music. For example, on fast sixteenth or eighth notes, singers shake their fists for every note. “It gets their diaphragms connected with the sound and then when you take the hand movement away they have more awareness and facility,” Lengacher says.
To get consistent vowels, Lengacher leads singers in other kinds of gestures. The long “e” vowel is symbolized by pulling an imaginary thread through the middle of the forehead. For the “o” vowel, singers circle their whole face with their hands.
In some cases, just inviting singers to “move” with the music can open the door to a more energetic sound. Kelly recalls a recent rehearsal where her senior singers were learning a Gershwin tune. “I said to them, ‘Folks, I can teach you the notes, I can teach you how to sing. But I can’t teach you how to feel this.’” Kelly had the singers put their music down and clap to the beat, then move their shoulders and continue the movement on down through the body. “People had a ball,” she says. “We did that for a minute and then sang the piece. It was 100 percent different.”
Helping Singers Come Up with Their Own Movement
Conductor Marci Major has used an array of movement techniques with the St. Louis Children’s Choir, her college choir at the University of Missouri, and her adult community chorus—including eurythmics, “walking the beat,” and using arm gestures to “paint” the musical phrase. But she noticed that once the specific exercises came to an end, her singers “would go back to their old robotic ways.”
Looking for something that would “incorporate movement that would be authentic to the singer’s body,” Major discovered Nia, or Neuromuscular Integrative Action. A sensory-based movement practice that incorporates the martial arts, the healing arts, and the dance arts, Nia focuses on alignment and invites practitioners to notice how the body is connected as they are moving.
One of the first exercises Major tried was asking her college singers to sing a song, feel the macro beat in their knees, and notice what happens in the rest of the body. “The answer is, the rest of your body moves,” Major says. “You can’t control it. Your hips start to move, your ankles move in order for your knees to bend.” From there, Major asked the singers to put that movement into other body parts, like the wrist, the toes, or the neck, and notice how that affected the rest of their body.
“They end up finding a way that their body feels really comfortable moving,” Major says. “It’s not like choreography. It’s not staged. Some move more than others. Some move with their hands. Some keep their hands at their sides. It is not me prescribing to them. They feel so comfortable with it in their own body because they have come up with the movement.”
Major’s college age and adult singers were a little slow to embrace Nia, she says. But a big selling point was being able to hear the difference movement makes in their sound. She started slow, incorporating Nia concepts into warm-ups. Then she transferred that into the rehearsal of the choral literature. Now she is experimenting with how to include authentic movement in the performance without it being “over the top or choreographed or making students feel uncomfortable.”
Yoga as a Pathway into the Body
Justin Montigne discovered yoga at a time when he was having trouble with his own singing voice. “I didn’t feel like I could get the freedom in singing that I wanted,” Montigne recalls. “A colleague suggested I try yoga, both for the mental and spiritual benefits. After one class I was hooked on the practice. After a few months I began to notice that my singing was better.”
Now Montigne works with choirs to incorporate yoga postures into rehearsal. As a practice, yoga is about using the breath and movement to tune into the body. “When you bring people’s awareness down below their throat in to their body,” he says, “their chests are open and their bellies are loose and free to move with the breath. Their knees are bent and they are down accessing their hips and legs.”
Justin Montigne leads yoga exercises during a workshop with the concert and chamber choirs of Henderson State University in Arkaldelphia, Arkansas.
Certain yoga postures are particularly helpful for singers. Tadasana (mountain pose) produces good singing posture—long spine, open chest and belly, and a strong and grounded stance through the feet, he says. And dandasana (staff pose), or “singer's dandasana,” promotes good singing posture from a seated position. “The sitting bones are now the 'feet' through which one grounds,” he says, “but the rest is like tadasana.”
Choruses that have incorporated yoga report tangible and almost immediate results. After Montigne led a yoga for singers workshop for the young women of the San Francisco Girls Chorus in the fall of 2012, interim music director Brandon Brack said he noticed “a more connected and freer sound.” He feels that yoga has helped the 11-16 year-old girls he works with understand the flexible athleticism required for efficient singing. “It has made a significant difference in the tone color of my ensemble,” he says.
Kelsey Menehan is a writer, psychotherapist, and long-time choral singer based in San Francisco. She contributes regularly to The Voice and recently guest-edited the Spring 2013 Singing and Wellness issue.
This article is adapted from The Voice, Summer 2013.