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Guest Article - reprinted with permission of Bill Ross, Editor, NC Division ACDA "Melisma"

Mark Johnson, North Central R & S Chair

Kooshes, Mirrors, Tennis Balls and Roller Coasters

Teaching young singers can be quite a challenge.  Getting new members in my organization to get in touch with their singing voice (something most of them have never experienced) is tricky and requires some creative ways to help them along vocally.  How do you explain the difference between high and low notes?  What’s a head voice?  I have to open my mouth to sing?  How do you explain to young singers that there is no ‘ceiling’ or ‘floor’ to the sound they can create? 

Even as the years pass by, I still feel that my falsetto is quite strong and I use it frequently to have young singers ‘model’ my high sounds.  However, I have to keep in mind that my timbre is MUCH different than that of an eight-year-old and their ears are confused when they try to emulate my falsetto voice. 

More often I will use other advanced singers to sing for the entire choir, giving them a chance to show off their own high, light, open sound.  I have also been fortunate enough to observe many conductors work their magic with young people.  From Kemp to Sateren, and Caldwell too, I’ve learned much more is needed than traditional instruction with youngsters.  In addition to using the voice, the following ideas have become staples in my rehearsals with young voices. 

The koosh toss.  Using a ‘yoo-hoo’ call-and-response with koosh balls helps singers relate high to low and instills pitch relation all in an easy activity that takes their mind away from making the right sound or producing the right pitch.  I start the call, toss the koosh underhand to a singer, and have them respond while tossing it back to me.  Tossing it higher to increase range and lower (you get the idea)…  Sometimes I substitute the ‘yoo-hoo’ with a question like “What’s your favorite color?”  My young singers want to do this vocal exercise every rehearsal.  They love it!  Sometimes I’ll have more advanced singers join me in front of the room to help lead.  Remember koosh balls.  Inexpensive and even if you’re a bad throw, there’s no way to hurt a kid.  We even have an ‘anemone’ koosh that lights up in the dark. 

Roller Coasters.  Each rehearsal during warm-ups, I choose a different singer to draw a roller coaster on the board.  The young boy takes a piece of chalk and draws his own coaster on the board, full of twists and turns, highs and lows…  the make believe ‘ride’ each voice is about to take.  Once drawn on the board, we trace the coaster path with our voices on ‘ooo’, pretending to ride the twists and turns together, but at the same time coaxing their voices to the highs and lows the creator has designed.

About five years ago, I purchased four cheap, hand-held mirrors.  Not the small compact kind, but the larger mirror with the handle on the bottom.  During the early part of a rehearsal, I might notice a singer or two that is forgetting to open their mouth and drop their jaw.  Quickly the piano will stop and out come the mirrors.  After showing an example of a bad sound with no open mouth, I take a mirror (usually first making some comment on how bad I look or that I’ve cracked it once again) in front of my face to watch my jaw drop and my mouth open when I sing.  We all love to look at ourselves right?  Kids will do this forever.  In fact, I have to remind them to share their mirror with a neighbor after watching themselves a couple of times.

The boys have become most fond of Gloria, a tennis ball all dolled up to look like a cross between Goldilocks and Cher.  Complete with lips and expressive eyes, I took a knife and made a slice half-way through.  Now by lightly pressing your fingers on the sides of the opening, her ‘jaw’ drops and suddenly the space becomes enormous, just like a shrieking muppet.  As you can guess, she gets passed and thrown around at rehearsal, each boy taking his turn to make sure she has good space and is singing right along with the rest of the choir.

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