The adjudicator's predominant theme---depth of sound

by Richard Nance (reprinted by permission from his article in WA ACDA's UNISON of Winter, 2000







If there is a predominant area that it seems I always address on the contest evaluation form and in the brief clinic following a performance, it is depth of sound. I thought it might be valuable to share some ideas on this topic in this venue. Another problem area is phrase direction, but that will have to wait for another column.


Over the years I have noticed that many choirs do not create as much resonance as they are capable of. This is due to some things that are in my mind rather easily addressed. For a singer of any age to produce good resonance, there must be a relaxed singing posture, followed by the proper intake allowing the maximum amount of air to flow into the body. The proper space for the vowel is set as the air is brought in. As the air flows back out, the diaphragmatic muscle gradually controls the flow, and the placement of the vowel is felt with both space in the back of the mouth and vibration in the forward mask of the face. That’s it in a nutshell-sounds like one of those boring music education texts, doesn’t it!


Perhaps there is a better way to remember these things. I prefer lists of helpful ideas to boring discourse anyway:

Good vocal tone from a choir begins with the proper intake of air and all the elements associated with that.


For proper resonance to occur, the soft palate has to be in a raised position, with the tongue down and the throat open and relaxed as the air is brought in. As the air flows back out, the back of the mouth remains high and the sound is brought forward so it is not swallowed.


Vowels must be thought of as being close together, as in a logical progression. I prefer to practice them this way: ee-eh-ah-oh-oo. For all vowels, there must be a feeling of space in the back of the mouth. The changes from one vowel to another take place with small changes in the tongue position, the teeth and the lips.


Always vocalize from the head voice down-never from the chest voice up. This is the most important rule for building beautiful tone and lack of tension in the voice.


Provide enough space between singers so they can breathe, and their bodies can resonate. It’s amazing to me how choirs cram together when there is usually plenty of space on the risers.


Conductors must constantly monitor and work on tone quality. Making the choir sound good gives them something constant and builds confidence and integrity. Watch the singers as they breathe, make sure they are taking in the air correctly, setting a good position for resonance. Their faces must be animated, as must yours-they emulate the way you breathe. Be sure you listen for good easy focus, not airiness or tension in the sound. Use students who are good examples for modeling. When cuing entrances, the conductor must show the singers how to breathe with his/her face and gesture.


Mark breath preparations in the score, prior to entrances. By the time the entrance comes it is too late!


Listen. Turn your ears on. Tape the choir regularly and play it back for them. Ask for their input about how the group sounds-always with a positive spin on the good things that they hear and how things can be improved.


Bring in another conductor to work with the choir early in the rehearsal process-as soon as notes are learned well enough that the singers can concentrate on sound. This allows you to step away and listen, and provides fresh input for the students. Waiting until the week before contest is less useful.


Instill this thought in your singers…the quality of your sound matters above all else!


From my bag of tricks
Here are some things from my “bag of tricks” that always seem to work for building tone.

For relaxation and finding the breathing mechanism:

  • Have the singers reach for the ceiling, going up on their toes and stretching the fingers. Then have them fall loosely over, hanging like a rag doll from their waists. Their arms should be relaxed and should dangle loosely. Ask them to concentrate on the feeling of the blood running to the fingertips. Once they have been in this position for about 10 seconds, have them rebuild their spines, one vertebrate at a time until they are back in a relaxed, upright position. Ask them to center their heads on top of their spines.


  • Have singers lay flat on their backs, with their arms at their sides and bodies relaxed. Dim the light in the room, and possibly play something quiet and meditative for them, putting them in a relaxed state. Their eyes should be closed, and they should concentrate on the flow of their breath. Have them inhale through the nose for four counts while raising the back of the throat, then opening their mouths so the air gradually flows out. While in this position, have them lightly rest one hand below their sternum, allowing them to feel the natural expansion of diaphragmatic breathing. Or, have them stack a short pile of books in the same spot, allowing them to see the books move up and down as they breathe. It is important for the singers to know that they don’t have to push the stomach out for this breathing to occur.


  • Back in a standing position, have the students imagine holding a small basketball in front of them, with their hands just resting on the outside. As they breathe in (palates up, faces animated!) the ball expands, and their hands just go along for the ride. Have them watch their hands, not you. After the hands reach a horizontal position in relation to the body (thus expanding the rib cage), collapse the ball back in, air flowing out with pressure, gradually. The students must monitor their hands as they gradually go back to the first position. You can either have them hiss or sing a tone during this while you count out loud or snap a beat. You can build their endurance by gradually adding more counts and by adding crescendos and decrescendos. While rehearsing pieces, you can use this exercise if the students need help making it through phrases.


  • For finding the intercostal muscles, have the students lightly point the fingers into the area just below their sternum, then have them do staccato hiss pulses. They can also “dog pant.” Make sure to have them take a deep, cleansing breath after short periods of this. Always be sure they are taking in the air properly, with good space inside the mouth.


  • For creating “active” air, hold the hands out down at waist level, and pump them in small circles with great energy.


  • Shoulder massages or back rubs are always good-or just have the singers “shake loose” once in a while.


  • For finding proper mouth position here are some useful visualizations:


  • Holding a very fragrant rose under your nose, breath in deeply for eight counts. Can you feel the soft palate go up and the tongue go down? Be sure to savor the scent in your mouth.


  • Attach a rubber band to the top of your head above the soft palate. As you breath in, stretch the rubber band up. Be sure to keep it up until you take the next breath and then stretch it again.


  • Poke a spoon of hot, steaming mashed potatoes into your mouth. Be careful not to burn your tongue!


  • Sip air in through a straw, and then blow the air out of the straw into a balloon.


  • Hold your right hand in a cupped position next to your ear, emulating the position of the soft palate inside the head. You can arc it slightly forward and back for an enhanced feeling of this.


  • Hold the hands in front of you, one on top of the other in an open cupped, position. As you breath in, open them apart.


  • For singing, with ease, energy and good support in the upper range, shoot imaginary hoops or throw a baseball. This only works if the mouth is set in the proper position when breathing. Make sure to follow through!


For developing better resonance:

  • Hug an imaginary tree for a fatter sound (stolen from Pat Michel, who stole it from Ed Harmic).


  • Bring the sound forward to the back of the teeth.


  • If you look dead, you sound dead!


  • Draw a five-inch round "hole" on the chalkboard, or cut one out of black construction paper and put it on the wall. After a "mashed potato breath," have the singers sing an "oo" through the hole, and tell them that the sound won't get through if there is any extra air around it. Again the key is the breath and the visualization.


  • Have the students make a small circle with their fingers at arm's length in front of their faces. Start with an "oo," but then modify it gradually to other vowels. The sound should be sung through the circle.


  • Sing the sound on the tip of your nose.


  • Nya, Nya, Nya, Nya, Nya. (5 tone descending scale). Don't be afraid to let it be brassy or ugly. Next, feel the sound in the same place, but warm it up.


  • Put ten years on that sound. Sing it like an opera singer. You weigh 300 pounds and have been singing at the MET for many years!


  • Vocalize females on "vee" or "veh" in the lower range. These vowels place with more resonance than "ah." For males, it's just the opposite. Vocalize females on "ah" or "oh" in the upper range for easier placement, and on "ee" or "eh." Think "ah," but sing "ee."


  • Rehearse passages on a single, unified vowel. I like to use "oo" or "o". Then use the words, but tell singers to feel the single vowel.


  • Have you noticed how a lot of students talk within a limited low range? Have your singers talk and chatter in the head voice, moving around throughout the full range. Have them do a yawn sigh way above the pitch you want to resonate, gradually coming back down to the pitch in the head voice.


  • Vocalize all women as sopranos, carrying the head voice down as far as possible, gradually blending it with the chest voice.


  • Have the men sing an "oo" vowel in the lower female register while the women sing the same pitch. Move the men down the scale while the women go up, and then have them come back together.


hope you find something here that you can use in your teaching.

The time is fast approaching for large group choir festivals and contests. I have the fortunate opportunity each year to adjudicate around the state and in some neighboring states. It’s always gratifying to listen to and work with young people and their conductors in these situations. It’s a time when you see the culmination of a lot of hard work, and the strength of the bonds that have been developed between the singers in the choirs and their conductors. I must also mention the general camaraderie shown at these festivals between conductors and among all the students from various schools. In most cases all the students listen to the other choirs, and I have found them to be respectful and very supportive, no matter which group is on the stage.

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