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Choral Tone Revisited

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Guest Roffensis

I always start with raw material, usuallly about 7 years old. First thing is to get them to find their heasd voice at all, as primary school will only have taught them to sing in chest and basically sqwauk!! I usually start with the OO, which can take ages with me often having to show them myself in falsetto, but once that clicks I can tell them to remember how it feels, and where it comes from. I ask them to tell me. I then get them to sing in chest voice, and tell them point blank that is not the sound I want. Ditto for the other vowels. Diction is another matter, and all you can do is show them, and let them see you have the confidence and carefree attitude yourself to sing out reagardless. Boys at that age will copy you in everything you teach, and are an open page for you to write upon. Yes i have blueprint, a sound that I contantly aim at, and it is exactly Willcocks/Vann/Thalben Ball, and everything is tailored to that. All bar Latin, which sound plain ridiculous in stuffy English tone. For that I go more thinner vowelled, particularly the "i" in say Virgine, but Latin is the sole exception. Boys also copy each other, and there is a distinct sense of competition going on, which is good and healthy, but needs to be kept in place, with everyone feeling equally valued....and important. It really is a case of "pulling" the voice up into the head, and the use of vibrato (not all the time) actually helps this, as well as increasing power dramatically. I could go on, but do you want me write a book!?

R

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I always start with raw material, usuallly about 7 years old. First thing is to get them to find their heasd voice at all, as primary school will only have taught them to sing in chest and basically sqwauk!! I usually start with the OO, which can take ages with me often having to show them myself in falsetto, but once that clicks I can tell them to remember how it feels, and where it comes from. I ask them to tell me. I then get them to sing in chest voice, and tell them point blank that is not the sound I want.  Ditto for the other vowels. Diction is another matter, and all you can do is show them, and let them see you have the confidence and carefree attitude yourself to sing out reagardless. Boys at that age will copy you in everything you teach, and are an open page for you to write upon. Yes i have blueprint, a sound that I contantly aim at, and it is exactly Willcocks/Vann/Thalben Ball, and everything is tailored to that. All bar Latin, which sound plain ridiculous in stuffy English tone. For that I go more thinner vowelled, particularly the "i" in say Virgine, but Latin is the sole exception. Boys also copy each other, and there is a distinct sense of competition going on, which is good and healthy, but needs to be kept in place, with everyone feeling equally valued....and important. It really is a case of "pulling" the voice up into the head, and the use of vibrato (not all the time) actually helps this, as well as increasing power dramatically. I could go on, but do you want me write a book!?

R

Richard - a book would be good, maybe. How do you get them to produce the oo? Tongue position for that vowel? And what do you do about vibrato? - it either comes or it doesn't if it's true vibrato - you can't 'add' it or remove it if it isn't naturally in the voice, I think. Can you expand on those points ? Best S

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Guest Roffensis

:lol: Vibrato it's true is not always possible, but all my choir do it.It isn't a "quiver" jelly type, it's slower, and adds a passion to the voice and words, used appropriately. The OO is easy to find with a few tactics, it's often also a process of elimination, and can take a while to get them to realise exactly what it is you are listening for. If you can get that out of them, you have cracked the first big hurdle. I always start them high up, typically at about top A. If they cannot hit an A then settle for a little lower, the rest will happen, the vocal production is the thing to get right at first. I get them to carry head tone down to middle C...Yes!... it's low, and of course the vocal output is far less being so low for a treble range if you are to keep to the head voice, but it is possible (just :) ), with a slight degree of chest, and they do become stronger over time. It is the carrying up of the chest voice that you have to avoid. The top head note has to be carried downward. I have tried all kinds to get the OO, even to getting a boy to say "cooeey", and crack two vowels in one!! The second you hear any chest you must crack down on it and stop it, or they will settle into the habit, or become confused. As to diction, once they realsie how certain vowels are sung, it becomes second nature, and they sing "stuffy" despite broad scouse accents. Maybe cos I'm a southerner!!........ Oh and tongue postion for the OO is down, and slightly curled back under, mouth open and forward, jaw down relaxed as much as possible. if you get them to look in a mirror it helps, so they can see what they are doing and also see the different shapes and how the sound changes. A bit like budgies really I guess!!

All best,

Richard

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...A forced chest tone will in time wreck a voice, it is really a form of shouting and the strain can be heard, and it causes a voice to break faster...

 

Richard - I would not necessarily agree with your first point. Certainly over-singing in any register can strain a voice; but I am not completely clear as to what constitutes a 'forced chest tone', in your view.

 

The latter point - no! If you mean the process of a boy's voice breaking (when the vocal chords thicken, etc), then this cannot be brought about by anything other than physiological and chemical changes, which, in turn, will be influenced by hereditary tendencies.

 

Whilst I, too, am unhappy about using such terms as 'head-' and 'chest-tone', I will, for the sake of clarity, use them here.

 

I would question whether it is possible (or even desirable) to encourage a boy to sing in 'head' tone down as low as middle C - the result would surely be breathy and without any real projection.

 

I would also be wary of demonstrating something which you wish your choristers to sing, in falsetto - which is, arguably, confusing, since (for the adult male) this involves a different technique. I have found that boys often respond better if I pitch the notes in a range comfortable for my own voice - and then get them to sing it at a pitch which is comfortable for their voices.

 

Notwithstanding, your point regarding the 'EE' vowel was good - boys (and girls) often tend to try to produce this by flattening and widening the mouth-shape. I also insist on a wider mouth-shape (with the jaw dropped, of course).

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Richard - I would not necessarily agree with your first point. Certainly over-singing in any register can strain a voice; but I am not completely clear as to what constitutes a 'forced chest tone', in your view.

 

The latter point - no! If you mean the process of a boy's voice breaking (when the vocal chords thicken, etc), then this cannot be brought about by anything other than physiological and chemical changes, which, in turn, will be influenced by hereditary tendencies.

 

Whilst I, too, am unhappy about using such terms as 'head-' and 'chest-tone', I will, for the sake of clarity, use them here.

 

I would question whether it is possible (or even desirable) ot encourage a boy to sing in 'head' tone down as low as middle C - the result would surely be breathy and without any real projection.

 

I would also be wary of demonstrating something which you wish your choristers to sing, in falsetto - which is, arguably, confusing, since (for the adult male) this involves a different technique. I have found that boys often respond better if I pitch the notes in a range comfortable for my own voice - and then get them to sing it at a pitch which is comfortable for their voices.

 

Notwithstanding, your point regarding the 'EE' vowel was good - boys (and girls) often tend to try to produce this by flattening and widening the mouth-shape. I also insist on a wider mouth-shape (with the jaw dropped, of course).

 

I think I know what Richard means by that forced 'chest' sound - it's using the same amount of vocal fold mass as speech employs, and it just can't be carried beyond a certain range - that is the source of the nasty register break we all want to avoid and the vocal mechanism has ways of protecting itself in these circumstances. Lightening the voice as pitch rises is essential, but it has to relate to various postural issues too. The 'ee' vowel is crucial - but as I said before it's what the root of the tongue does that's important (the idea that the tip shouldn't wander about is more established generally now) - a sensation that the tongue is vertical and resting in a relaxed space against the upper back molars is the best strategy for lots of reasons. No space here to go into it in detail! Jaw released and relaxed, rather than dropped, is a terminology I find helpful - if it's dropped too far (like in a yawn) the joint in front of the ears gets involved and the interconnection of musculature eventually puts downward pressure on the larynx from the chin - this inhibits the free movement of the larynx (it rises slightly for higher pitches, and needs freedom to tilt forward to access the thinner vocal fold configuration which enables easy access to high pitches) and will in the end also cause register problems. A sensation that the upper jaw is lifting can be more helpful - a sneeze rather than a yawn - and this also helps with soft palate position. The neck needs to feel like it is lengthening vertically too as pitch rises - this helps to 'support' the larynx as it deals with register changes. Actually heavy 'chest' register can be carried up quite a long way - singers in musical theatre use it. It's called 'belting' and is a specialised technique which needs very expert training - it has NO place in the sort of music we deal with and no one who doesn't know exactly what they're doing should even think of trying to train in this style.

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Guest Roffensis

yes I agree with that. As I said, head carried down, never chest up. Incidently I avoid my boys singing anything below D, but the C is good as a safety net, as in "if you can do that you can do a D well". I would be most interested to hear what people think of the old Westminster sound under George Malcolm, and also to hear what people consider his technique was......

All best,

R

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Insofar as the 'chest' voice is concerned, yes, I agree, Stephen, that type of forced sound is anathema to that for which we strive.

 

However, my original point was not this! I merely expressed doubt that the 'head' voice could be carried down as low as middle C (or D). My point was that the resultant tone (if there was any) would be breathy and have little or no carrying-power.

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yes I agree with that. As I said, head carried down, never chest up. Incidently I avoid my boys singing anything below D, but the C is good as a safety net, as in "if you can do that you can do a D well". I would be most interested to hear what people think of the old Westminster sound under George Malcolm, and also to hear what people consider his technique was......

All best,

R

 

You've hit on an important point Richard - repertoire. Are you really saying that you choose your repertoire to fit the sound you are cultivating and that anything which strays outside the range limits of the sound you prefer can't be attempted? Isn't the whole point of technique to enable you to tackle what composers throw at you, no matter what? What about the men in your choir? Do you have to transpose everything up? How do the altos feel about that? I wonder if it has to be acknowledged that the repertoire suited to the older style of training was actually fairly limited in its technical demands - no extremes of compass of dynamic, no angular lines requiring great agility. How would those boys have coped with Weir, Macmillan, Langlais and Poulenc? They do sing very beautifully - but what they sing is not technically testing by modern standards.

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Guest Roffensis

There are no men :( , and the rest of the choir will not generally attempt parts, so a good top line is what I aim at, at least for now...... Of course I do not throw anything at them that is beyond reach, and if it's Latin then I tailor the sound, but again we are talking about tone here, not repertoire. It's like what you can and can't play on any given organ, so if it isn't convincing best not bother. Of course I choose anthems etc that I know they can do and do well, otherwise I wont let them. Nothing worse than a choir trying to do more than they can, particularly when so young, even if they do sound older.

R

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There are no men :( , and the rest of the choir will not generally attempt parts, so a good top line is what I aim at, at least for now...... Of course I do not throw anything at them that is beyond reach, and if it's Latin then I tailor the sound, but again we are talking about tone here, not repertoire. It's like what you can and can't play on any given organ, so if it isn't convincing best not bother. Of course I choose anthems etc that I know they can do and do well, otherwise I wont let them. Nothing worse than a choir trying to do more than they can, particularly when so young, even if they do sound older.

R

It's not quite an exact analogy I think Richard - of course you can't play trios on a one manual, but you're already suggesting that you can 'tailor' vocal sound to suit different genres - so why not tailor range too? A wider vocal range would open up wider repertoire choices. Maybe this is a limitation of the 'head voice' approach.

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Guest Roffensis

I see where you are coming from on that one, but most choral stuff sits easily within a normal treble range, typically middle D to a top C at most, and the head can cope with that. As I have said, it is necessary to employ some chest lower down to gain power, but mine seem to cope ok.

All best,

R

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Question for all those choir trainers who are clearly far better than I:

 

Is it better to let your singers develop a well-rounded technique they can apply to singing in a choir, or is it better to train your singers for singing in the choir firstly and singing a broader repertoire as secondary?

 

Opera singers do not seem to feel restricted to singing just opera: they sing Lieder, art songs and just about anything else. A cursory glance around a Cathedral song school or a lay-clerk's abode will reveal things like Schubert's Winterreise, Dichterliebe, etc. Do we want our choir members to be singers and musicians first who sing in a choir or do we want them to be more specialised for singing in a choir?

 

I feel a similar analogy could be run between an organist and a musician...

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Guest Roffensis

Well as the boys in my choir are in the choir paramount, that is the obvious priority both for them and for myself. I frankly care little about them singing anything else at present, becauase its use in church would be nil, and practice time is at a premium as it is. No doubt when some are older they will turn into fine Altos or whatever, and it will of course depend on them what their own musical challenges will be. For my part, I am simply getting the best out of them the best way I know how to, at a parish level. This of course is far different form a cathedral level. To return to the tone argument, one has only to listen to a Cd of Anterhms from Kings under Willcocks, and a more recent one of the choir under Cleobury to hear a dramatic difference in the tone of the boys, who under Willcocks used a good degree of virato which certainly brought a passion to the words optherwise lacking to some dgree in "white" tone singing, ie flat with no vibrato. This has only ever been my argument, and to why this style has gone so much out of fashion, and to state a regret for the same. Wicks at Canterbury also used it, though not as fully as Willcoks, or Thalben Ball. I have incidently heard many a very competent organist ruin a choir by insensitive registrations, and I have often thought how sad it is. I consider myself a musician first i hope, and then an organist, and try my best ever to accompany in a sympathic way. On another count, I respect those organs I play that are coplete entities by one builder or several which are balanced to their task, and put my own trifles second. I think all to do with church need to see why they are there, and a excellence in what they do, and are asked to do, should be the main concern. No doubt songs etc have their place in a singers life, but my own priority is the church, and to do some little to preserve a old tradition of singing, sadly neglected, either through choice, lack of commitment, or dare i say it, effort.

All best,

R

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What resources are out there to help people train youth choirs, particularly boys?

 

I often feel that I'm bumbling along, hoping that I'm doing things right...

 

I rather feel that most of the choral tradition in this country relies on experience rather than teaching - i.e. the more successful trainers have come up through the cathedral/collegiate tradition. I'm fortunate enough to have started off that way, but never had the reinforcement that would have come with being organ scholar or assistant at an establishment that had a treble line...

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Guest Roffensis

Schools are ever the finest resource, but it's not easy. I always have to face a hard slog to find more in the future, but do all I can to keep it going. Sunday league football and peer pressure, not to mention bullying, are all factors, and it takes a boy with courage to come forward and enlist for a choir, but truly keen ones will. You also need parental support at all levels to succeed. You also have to underline the postive aspects of it all in terms of character building, responsibility, loyalty, team work and so on. It's a case of approaching local schools and writing to the parents and making the choir and yourself known, and of making it look fun and enjoyable, and getting attitudes away from the stick in the mud dowdy reputation that "church" often seems to have. Social activities with both kids and parents are also winning factors. Hire a minibus or two, and get out each holiday for a day, and turn it all into a proper little"club" where parents can make friends and the kids know they are part of something, that isn't all "work". Choirs help justify the existence and/or preservation of an organ also. If a church sees that the organ has an outreach, it wont complain (quite so much!....) when the organ needs a few bob spent on it.

 

On another note....I don't think choir training has so much to do with what route one has taken as having ears to hear what sound you are creating. At parish level, all boy top lines ARE very rare now, and should be guarded as such. A good ear and a natural instinct are most important issues, and neither can be really learnt, it has to be there naturally I think.

all best,

R

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A good ear and a natural instinct is the important issue, and neither can be really learnt, it has to be there naturally really.

 

Thanks for the response!

 

A good ear and instinct I agree with, but surely there's something more than that in actually teaching boys to sing, and, more importantly, sing in the way that you want them to, and that will stand them in good stead for later in life?

 

John Bertalot's books, if you can get past the way they're written, seem to convey some of this, but I wondered what other resources are out there that the more experienced folks, such as yourself and Stephen Farr know of...

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Thanks for the response!

 

A good ear and instinct I agree with, but surely there's something more than that in actually teaching  boys to sing, and, more importantly, sing in the way that you want them to, and that will stand them in good stead for later in life?

 

John Bertalot's books, if you can get past the way they're written, seem to convey some of this, but I wondered what other resources are out there that the more experienced folks, such as yourself and Stephen Farr know of...

 

About fifteen years ago, I would happily have recommended the resources available through the RSCM - unfortunately, this organisation is but a shadow of its former self, having (in my view) taken a disastrous wrong-turn in its policies and appointments.

 

One or two suggestions spring to mind - but as to how practical these would be, you will have to decide for yourself!

 

You could approach colleagues in your area and see if it would be possible to attend a few practices to observe methods.

 

There are also a few videos and DVDs around (mostly concerning King's, it has to be said) in which there is some time devoted to filming choir practices. It is possible to pick-up a few ideas by watching these. However, as another contributor has said, little in the way of 'tricks' is actually given away by the choirmasters concerned.

 

There is a good general book on singing technique available - Giving Voice co-authored by Hilary Hill (or was she 'Parfitt' by then?) and David Hill.

 

Certainly insofar as general principles are concerned, I would place high emphasis on tuning, breathing and diction. There is little point, for example, in attempting to cultivate a rich sound (with a slight vibrato) if accuracy of tuning and breathing techniques have not first been mastered.

 

I am sorry not to be more helpful, but I hope this is some use to you.

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Thanks for the response!

 

A good ear and instinct I agree with, but surely there's something more than that in actually teaching  boys to sing, and, more importantly, sing in the way that you want them to, and that will stand them in good stead for later in life?

 

John Bertalot's books, if you can get past the way they're written, seem to convey some of this, but I wondered what other resources are out there that the more experienced folks, such as yourself and Stephen Farr know of...

 

ajt/Richard - I do think that there is more to this than just an ear and instinct. Singing is a skill that can be taught, and there are certainly principles behind a sound technique that no-one, however gifted, is just going to hit on by chance; but the knowledge can be acquired. This becomes more the case when trainers have to sort out voices with problem areas - there isn't a predictable steady supply of natural, easy, fluent voices now, and the first year or two of a boy's training sometimes needs to be spent unpicking the unhelpful vocal habits with which he arrives. I don't imagine the Willcocks generation of choir trainers had this problem to the same degree. As for material - no, there isn't much. Some of the RSCM Voice for Life material is quite good; David/Hilary/Elizabeth's book is very good. My particular luck was a) in working as assistant to two brilliant choir trainers, from whom I learnt countless things and secondly when I arrived here in having a specialist child voice consultant as teacher to the choristers here for three years - she is currently working on a PhD on adolescent voice and at the time she taught here was also teaching in the London cathedrals and coaching child singers for the ROH and ENO. I went and watched many of her coaching and teaching sessions, played for lessons she gave to adults, watched and accompanied her masterclasses, and sent her innumerable emails asking why, what, how..she very patiently and kindly sent me detailed responses and it was enormously helpful. Now I quiz my wife about her own lessons with a different but equally wonderful teacher, some of whose priniciples are proving very helpful in the work we try to do with the boys here. To summarise a fairly long winded response - get talking to some capable singing teachers and ask pertinent questions would be my recommendation. Ask them why they do why they do what they do and get a working knowledge of how the voice actually functions.

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About fifteen years ago, I would happily have recommended the resources available through the RSCM - unfortunately, this organisation is but a shadow of its former self, having (in my view) taken a disastrous wrong-turn in its policies and appointments.

 

One or two suggestions spring to mind - but as to how practical these would be, you will have to decide for yourself!

 

You could approach colleagues in your area and see if it would be possible to attend a few practices to observe methods.

 

 

Thanks for this! I have the Hill/Parfitt book, and found it excellent. Obviously, combined with singing lessons, this helps greatly with training youngsters.

 

Your suggestion about approaching someone locally to see how they handle things is an excellent idea, I did observe a couple of rehearsals at Lichfield when I was teaching there, but at the time wasn't particularly aware of how much I didn't know - I shall have to approach the same gentleman again... Different cathedral now, of course :o

 

I worry, though, that this is skill that is dying out, and there is no opportunity for people to learn it. As you say, the RSCM (don't get me started - I'm on the local committee, and agree with your comments) should be the institution to do this, but doesn't. The Voice for Life choir trainer's manual is quite good but, as with any book, it's just a collection of words - turning them into practical use, and making sure that those words have been interpreted properly, is a very important thing; if we choir trainers don't teach children to sing properly, then we have failed both ourselves and the children.

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My particular luck was a) in working as assistant to two brilliant choir trainers, from whom I learnt countless things and secondly when I arrived here in having a specialist child voice consultant ...

 

Precisely my point - the passing down of this knowledge relies on being assistant, or at least, having access to, someone who already knows what they are doing. Someone who, at one point, was assistant to someone else who knew what they were doing, etc. Then you go on to impart that knowledge to your assistant(s)... It's a great tradition, and works wonderfully well for cathedrals.

 

But, for those of us outside, barring a few larger, cathedral style parish churches, it's down to reading books and having singing lessons.

 

The RSCM is, of course, the organisation to which we look to provide this kind of training outside of the cathedrals.

 

So, what can we realistically expect them to provide? What is a practical way to train would-be choirmasters, outside of the assistant organist cathedral tradition?

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Guest Roffensis

Of course it all depends what sound you want to get out of your choir. observing modern choirmasters may often not come up with the goods, there are certainly no cathedrals I am aware of who teach the old Willcocks methods, that sound is simply not heard anywhere today, although I would single out Westminster Abbey as coming close to it, but without any real use of vibrato. Kings at christmas was superb, and a solo boy had a stunning voice, and the choir sang very much in the old style, even if not quite so hot on the diction as they were. (incidently at Westminster Abbey McKie was another excellent choirmaster)

Of course breathing and phrasing and a whole lot of different issues must all be taken into account and of course allowed for, that goes without saying. But to return to my point, if one listens to modern choirs the old sound is simply not there. How much one will learn from any who disregard the old method is open to question, no matter what their position or training.

All best,

R

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Guest Lee Blick
getting attitudes away from the stick in the mud dowdy reputation that "church" often seems to have

 

Unfortunately it is that and the word 'commitment' is the thing that keeps young people away from traditional church choirs these days.

 

In one parish we did manage to get a good balance between and traditional and modern music. As a carrot to encourage the participants to take part in choral and music training and services we organised DJ'ing, rap creating, computer music production, 'pop-idol' sessions which drew a lot of children in. We even had this ridiculous 'mat' with four arrows on it which the kids 'danced' onto accompanied by dance music in a sort of competition from a Playstation. It was very useful for teaching them about rythmn and timing.

 

I think the secret is to make music relevant to the children and to make it not too academic and just an extension of school. It was unbelievable how loyal and commited this made the children for the choir rehearsals and services. Some of the stuff they put together in the session got used in the Sunday evening 'Youth Praise' services.

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organised DJ'ing, rap creating, computer music production, 'pop-idol' sessions which drew a lot of children in.  We even had this ridiculous 'mat' with four arrows on it which the kids 'danced' onto accompanied by dance music in a sort of competition from a Playstation.  It was very useful for teaching them about rythmn and timing.

 

 

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Amazing.

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Of course it all depends what sound you want to get out of your choir. observing modern choirmasters may often not come up with the goods, there are certainly no cathedrals I am aware of who teach the old Willcocks methods, that sound is simply not heard anywhere today, although I would single out Westminster Abbey as coming close to it, but without any real use of vibrato. Kings at christmas was superb, and a solo boy had a stunning voice, and the choir sang very much in the old style, even if not quite so hot on the diction as they were. (incidently at Westminster Abbey McKie was another excellent choirmaster)

Of course breathing and phrasing and a whole lot of different issues must all be taken into account and of course allowed for, that goes without saying. But to return to my point, if one listens to modern choirs the old sound is simply not there. How much one will learn from any who disregard the old method is open to question, no matter what their position or training.

All best,

R

Richard - I wonder how wise it is to copy another choir's sound and impose it on another group of singers, however much you admire it. Different acoustics, different boys - different end result. You won't learn how to train a choir like Willcocks by watching David Hill, of course, but they will certainly learn a tremendous amount from someone who has been at the helm of some of the finest cathedral and collegiate choirs of the last half century. Compare the sound of the boys at the Abbey and Westminster Cathedral under James O Donnell - fine choirs both, and James is a superb choir trainer, but the two sets of boys sound completely different and the same person has trained them both. So why do they sound so different? (Incidentally, the boys in both choirs have regular professional singing tuition). I still can't quite apprehend your concept of vibrato. You can't 'use' it like a string player uses it, or an organist uses a tremulant - it either comes or it doesn't. What your boys are doing must be something else I think. AJT/pncd - a couple of books that might be interesting. They are very definitely about the voice in general rather than boy choristers in particualr, but they are very sound. 'A Handbook of the Singing Voice' - Meribeth Bunch - a concise and not too anatomically involved description of how it all works physiologically. Even I understand most of it and I'm no scientist... 'Singing and the Actor' - Gillyanne Kayes. Despite the title, this has a lot of very helpful information about general vocal technique, and some excellent exercises - especially good on register change etc. It's a kind of handbook for the Estill method of voice training, and while not all of that approach works for every singer, it provides a good basis for some things. Not by any means the only way to do it, but you might find it helpful to read - again, in conjunction with lessons/discussion from a good teacher - both books avoid vague imagery and airy terminology in favour of straight fact, a good basis for an understanding of basic vocal physiology on which you can then build an approach that kids relate to. There's a good bibliography in the Bunch book for serious researchers.

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