10 exercises guaranteed to get your singers listening more carefully

Listed on January 19, 2015 in Blogs!

I went to a workshop recently run by the amazing Su Hart who has spent around 25 years working with the Baka people of Central Africa. Living in the rainforest as they do, listening well is literally a matter of life or death.

ear to the ground

photo by Rex Bennett

Su’s workshop reminded me yet again that singing is all about listening. But how can we get our singers to listen to each other better? Here are 10 exercises to get you started.

Unlike the Baka, listening well is not a matter of life and death to most choirs, but it IS the key to great singing as an ensemble.

Being a very visual culture, we use our eyes far more than our ears so need a bit of help to remember how to listen properly. Here are some simple exercises you can use with your choir to help them listen better. You can do them separately or blend one into the other.

  1. hear the silence – every song starts from silence. Remind your choir. Ask them to stand in silence and focus on the sounds they can hear from outside the rehearsal room (wind, cars, children playing, dogs), then ask them to re-focus on the sounds from inside the rehearsal space (breathing, creaking floor, shuffling, throat clearing, doors banging).
  2. hunt the vowels – write each of the five vowels down on separate pieces of paper until you have enough to hand out to every choir member. Ask them to keep their vowel a secret. Then at your command, everyone begins to sing their vowel on any note and sets off to find everyone else in the room who’s singing the same vowel. Remind everyone to sing very quietly.
  3. sing the same note and disappear – choose a note that everyone can sing comfortably in the same octave for quite some time. Get everyone to stand very close together facing different directions. Mix the usual parts up. Everyone starts to sing on an ‘aw’ as a sustained drone. Tell the singers that after they’ve taken a breath they need to gently ease back into the overall sound. Ask them to match the quality and volume of all those around them. Tell them that you want them to disappear into the sound so it’s not possible to tell who is singing what.
  4. call and response chords – sing a note, any note and ask the choir to sing it back to you (choose one that the whole choir can sing in the same octave). Comment on their accuracy and repeat. Sing a different note. Then sing two notes and tell them they can choose either (from now on it doesn’t have to be in the same octave). Play with unusual intervals. Comment on their accuracy and repeat. Then try three notes. Start with familiar chords, then less familiar. Comment on their accuracy and repeat.  Continue building up chords as far as you want to go.
  5. play with pauses – in the exercise above begin to leave longer and longer pauses between giving out the notes and when you ask them to sing them back. Don’t allow them to ‘rehearse’ their note by singing it quietly to themselves!
  6. softly does it – take a song and see how quietly the choir can sing it. Then sing it even quieter. The quieter it gets, the closer they should stand. Try to get them in a huddle rather than standing in normal choir formation. Maybe even put their arms around each other. The closer the better.
  7. sing in trios – pick a song that everyone in the choir knows really well. Divide into small groups with one from each part, so you will have lots of trios or quartets. Tell them to stay in their small group and to focus within it, but to stand very close to everyone else as reinforcement. Get everyone to sing the song. Give feedback. Then ask the small groups to spread out and make more space between each group. Repeat the exercise. Continue until the groups are as far away from each other as possible. Ask for feedback.
  8. focus of attention – each time you repeat a song, ask the singers to focus on listening to a different thing, e.g the person standing next to them, the altos, the overall sound of the choir, their own breathing, etc. Gradually ask them to focus on more than one thing at a time.
  9. stop conducting – one problem with a choir can be that the singers become so used to someone standing in front of them conducting that they stop taking responsibility for themselves and start to believe they can’t do it without that person guiding them. Without telling the choir, start a song off, gradually stop conducting, then walk off and listen. There will be an initial blip probably, but then they’ll manage fine and begin to listen more to each other. Repeat the exercise, but just give the starting notes and tell them they all have to begin together but without you bringing them in.
  10. turn out the lights – this is really an extreme version of the previous exercise, but it’s also more powerful because by depriving the singers of one sense it helps them to focus on another. Get the choir to sing a song they know really well completely in the dark. You might start it off for them then turn the lights out, but eventually they should be able to do the whole thing completely in the dark.

So there you have it: ten exercises that I’ve developed over the years. I’ve got lots more, but I hope this will encourage you to invent your own (and maybe even share them with us in the comments!).

Remind the choir (and yourself) that listening is key. And if you get a chance, go to a Su Hart workshop – you’ll be amazed at how inspiring it will be.

Chris Rowbury

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