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October 21, 2011

The Fat-Reducing Benefits of Ensemble Singing
By Nicole Lamartine, President, WY ACDA

Slamartineo, by singing in a choir, I can lose my belly fat? Well, new research is showing the effects of singing on the “Bodymind,” or the relationship of the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems.  Read on. 

While attending the “The Choral Singer” workshop presented jointly by the Association of British Choral Directors and the British Voice Association in May of 2010, I was struck by one particular segment.  Graham Welch, the Chair of Music Education at the University of London gave a session on “Singing Behaviour and Development Across the Lifespan.”  The entirety of his session was extremely informative, but I want to highlight a few items that lead us to a small but significant point.

  1. Welch explained that there is a bi-hemispheric network in the brain for vocal production – both sides of the brain are active in the psychomotor process of phonation.  This simply means that regardless of whether a person is speaking or singing, the process is the same for phonation.  (As a side note, this fact is particularly interesting for those of us who work with uncertain or non-pitch-matching students.  It suggests that we should work from speech, a phonation pattern already familiar to the student, to bridge the gap into singing distinct pitches.)The neurological processes for real and imagined singing are the same.  So, if you imagine singing, it is the same, neurologically, as actually singing.  Repeated musical practice optimizes the neural circuits:  repetition, even when imagining, changes the strength and number of the synaptic connections in the brain.

  2. He referenced the “Lawrence Parsons Project” that aired as a PBS television program in which, through CAT scans, he was able to show that the neurological activity in the brain was in a much smaller area when a person was singing alone.  When the subject sang or made music with another person, the brain activity was much more intense.  So, we can deduce that singing alone does not have nearly the brain-activating powers as singing with others.

  3. Cortisol is the hormone secreted in response to stress.  It can suppress the immune system1, reduce bone growth2, reduce fertility, and in recent studies, has been purported to move fat from storage depots and relocate it to fat cell deposits deep in the abdomen.3  We know that the body’s level of cortisol is the highest in the morning around 8am and tapers off through the day.  Welch provided research proving that singing together in groups (ensemble singing) for one hour in the morning reduced the level of cortisol in the subjects’ bodies by the equivalent of six hours. 

There are many benefits of ensemble singing that Dr. Welch presented in his session.  It is significant to realize, however, that if we strive everyday to 1) increase the number and strength of our neural pathways through practice (real or imagined), 2) increase our bi-hemispheric brain activity through singing with others, and 3) reduce our cortisol significantly through ensemble singing every morning we can literally become healthier human beings in body and in mind.

1 Palacios R., Sugawara I. (1982). "Hydrocortisone abrogates proliferation of T cells in autologous mixed lymphocyte reaction by rendering the interleukin-2 Producer T cells unresponsive to interleukin-1 and unable to synthesize the T-cell growth factor". Scand J Immunol 15 (1): 25–31.

2 Shultz TD, Bollman S, Kumar R (June 1982). "Decreased intestinal calcium absorption in vivo and normal brush border membrane vesicle calcium uptake in cortisol-treated chickens: evidence for dissociation of calcium absorption from brush border vesicle uptake". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 79 (11): 3542–6.

3 Maglione-Garves, Christine A., Len Kravitz, Ph.D., and Suzanne Schneider, Ph.D., “Cortisol Connection:  Tips on Managing Stress and Weight,  Accessed on September 13, 2011.


May 18, 2011

The Blasphemous “B” Word:  An Approach to “Blend”
By Nicole C. Lamartine, Director of Choral Activities, University of Wyoming and president, WY-ACDA

Ilamartine have never been a fan of the word “blend.”  Every conductor has his or her own interpretation of the word and its function in the ensemble.  The connotations are endless, although there are scholars who are able to give a tight and tidy textbook definition of the word.

One student asked me why I never used the word in my choral rehearsals – and I was stumped.  I did not have my own tight and tidy reason for why I disliked the word so much.

Then, at choir retreat last weekend, I came up with a visual demonstration to explain to my choir why the “B” word does nothing to describe the sound I want to hear in their choral ensemble sound.

Earlier, each section had decided on a color that described or inspired their vocal sound within the ensemble.  With pots of acrylic paint, I daubed four circles of brilliant color representing the sound of each section:  the sunny yellow of the sopranos, the deep plum of the altos, the spring green of the tenors, and the dusky blue of the basses.

university-mus-service-ad“These are the bold and striking colors of each section in this ensemble.”

Then, with some water on the brush, I painted back and forth across the palette.  The result was a large grayish splotch of yuck.

A gasp from the ensemble. 

“This is what I see when I hear the “B” word.”

Then each section was instructed to make a collage of smaller cards, each representing a member of the section.  Each member painted a color representation of his or her vocal sound on a card within the spectrum of yellow for sopranos, purple for altos, green for tenors, and blue for basses.

Each student painted with gusto and the “B” word became a brilliant array of individual colors within a specific spectrum.  Sopranos had splashes of orange, pink within yellow.  Altos swirled together reds, greens, and yellows amongst purples. Tenors daubed blues and yellows, and reds within greens.  Basses painted an array of blues, grays, and teals within blues.

I would rather see a rainbow than a gray cloud any day.  And it is that rainbow that is so exciting when I hear my students.


November 13, 2010

Student Investment: Getting to the Heart of the Music

lamartineBy Nicole C. Lamartine, Director of Choral Activities at the University of Wyoming and President, WY-ACDA

In a world where students are becoming increasingly dependent on technology for information, it is imperative that we as musicians find the human, intellectual, and interactive investment in the choral rehearsal.

Students tend to be vessels waiting to be filled, and most of the time, they are, with images, sounds, webpages, video clips and such coming at them from a computer screen or cell phone screen.  Are students able to invest in the filling of their own knowledge vessels?  I believe so.

I have made a real effort this year to step away from the giving of information in my teaching, to steering towards student discovery through experience.  It is true that rehearsals can be more efficient when we give a list of details for students to mark in their parts of “how” the music should be.  But we must ask ourselves if the students are invested in their learning and in the collaborative commitment of the ensemble to making the music come alive.  What would happen in our music making if we ask questions that involve our students’ intellect and imagination to come to conclusions about how we should “do” the music?

In rehearsal last week, I was looking for more commitment to musicality from the ensemble.  I simply said, “Go further and be daring.  Sing with all of the musicality in your being.”  The result was lackluster.  I asked,  “Did you like that?”  Silence.  A few outspoken students replied “no.”  I said “Try again.”  After singing, they looked at me, wanting to be filled with my view of how the music was or needed to be.  I said, “This is your music – did you like it?”   “NO – we can do that a lot better!”  “Then go for it.” 

And they did, with commitment, vitality, and ownership, creating musical line and detail that I could have told them, but that they discovered for themselves.  The discovery and experience makes it real for students who live in a digital age where information is always coming at them by way of our digital screens.  The tangible success in the ensemble’s music making paves the way for further student discovery.  The ensemble invested in and took ownership for their learning.

We should all be so lucky, and I am thankful for this group of singers who took a chance on themselves and on me. 

For an excellent DVD on collaborative choral rehearsals, I highly recommend Leslie Guelker-Cone’s “The Collaborative Chorale Rehearsal:  Inspiring Creative Musicianship” (Santa Barbara Music Publishing).

Work hard, be well, and explore together!


September 17, 2010

“I figured it out… through thinking!”

By Nicole C. Lamartine, Director of Choral Activities, University of Wyoming

lamartineI tried a new approach in teaching my vocal jazz ensemble last year – learning everything on solfege.   At one spring rehearsal:

“Ok, basses, may I please hear measure 12 – I am looking for the E-flat.”
“Dr. La, I have a question.”
“OK, Elly, I will get to the altos in a minute – let me finish this bit with the basses.”
Basses sing a stellar E-flat.
“Now, Elly, what was your question?”
“….Oh, … never mind”
“No, really what was your question?”
“It’s ok – I figured it out…through thinking.”

This was the exact interaction that is forever etched in my brain and packed away in that folder of memories that I can pull out when I am having a bad teaching day.  I am grateful for my very talented alto, Elly.  She is a whiz at solfege and took to the new approach of learning all of the vocal jazz repertoire on solfege.

Now, this dear alto, Elly, was not trying to make a joke, but her simple and innocent explanation inspired raucous laughter of support from everyone (as Elly is blonde…very blonde).  I was laughing through tears of joy that she depended on herself to overcome a musical challenge.

She made me realize that by taking a chance to provide a tool for the students to become empowered in the learning process, I had increased her intrinsic motivation to assimilate and synthesize her music.  She took responsibility for her mistake and fixed it on her own during the rehearsal at a point when my attention had to be on another section.  What a gift she gave to me that day and she became a role model for the others.

Every tool that we can give to our students that empowers intrinsic motivation of intellectually active musicians affords opportunity for deep learning. 

I still don’t know what her question originally was – I may never know.  But it sure would be great if we all figured things out through thinking!

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