Building Expressive Singing Through Quality Literature by Dr. Gary Packwood

Building Expressive Singing Through Quality Literature by Dr. Gary Packwood

When I think about how to develop expressive singing in my Junior High and High School choirs, I am reminded of Stephen Covey’s book title, Start with the End in Mind.   Skill development, learning, drilling and memorizing occupies most rehearsal and private practice time.  In the midst of the long and complex road to performance, I focus on the end goal in order to prepare for and deliver a satisfying musical experience for both choir members and the audience.  To accomplish this end task, I select literature that builds expressiveness into my choirs’ practice time so that they are flexible and respond effectively to me during practice.   As students get comfortable with the repertoire and with my style, they contribute back to the group their thoughts on the music’s intention.  One of my primary goals as a music educator is to nurture and encourage reciprocal participation grounded in aesthetic awareness and musical security.

When I approach a new choir in the classroom or special performance, I focus on four key elements to select literature appropriate for the choir so that it performs a “finished product” successfully in concert.  At the same time, I intentionally pick literature just beyond the choir’s ability. The challenge keeps members engaged in rehearsal and stretch their musicianship.  I open with musical calisthenics to warm up the group. The exercises set the tone for my leadership style and our group relationship.  I describe the practice session we are about to experience and invite students to feel themselves “getting into their body”, because physical centering is necessary preparation for mental concentration.  We begin with breathing exercises and responsiveness to my conducting cues. After general physical warm-ups, I focus on vocal warm-ups, ear training and rhythmic exercises.  Two of my favorite tools are The Complete Choral Warm-up Book by Russell Robinson and Jay Althouse and Voice Building for Choirs by Wilhelm Ehmann and Frauke Hassemann.  Once the basic elements of musical expression are understood, students are ready to approach the aesthetic requirements of melody and harmony. Because the group performs at a consistently higher level after using this sequence, I am able to focus attention on intonation, sections and individual outliers.

After we warm up, I assess the group’s level of development.  The activity helps me decide what I would like members to learn as a result of the experience.  I start with a homophonic song to assess the group’s general sight reading and introduce musical terms choristers will encounter in the score.  For example, River Sing Your Song for Me arr. by Eugene Butler offers little dissonance between the parts so that I can assess tonal stability. In addition to crisp technical musical requirements, the piece’s effectiveness depends on textual and syllabic stress.  The concentration required to control the piece’s various complex elements knits members together as a body focused on a common goal.

After the opening song, I might pick counterpoint, such as Dominus Vobiscum arr. by Jacob Narverud to detect students’ ability to hear intervals and to sing independently and on pitch.  Singers must maintain their parts and hear the whole ensemble while confronted with an independent solo instrument.  The song highlights open vowels that stabilize tonal production and vocal placement. All parts operate independently, and this factor is the essential element that creates the expressive magic.

Closely related to technical ability is a sense of what students know, what styles of music they have encountered, their level of musicianship and their breadth of expressiveness.  I select pieces specifically designed to enhance their musicianship skills.  In addition to the counterpoint test, I select two contrasting pieces that test students’ abilities with different genres.  I focus on dissonance and rhythm, which are typical trouble spots for Middle School and High School choirs.

Break of Day by Michael John Trotta introduces some rhythmic challenges and tonal centers.  It demands careful attention to phrasing and offers ample room for discussion about interpretation between the choir director and choir.   Wade in the Water by D. Davison is an excellent way to strengthen the skills of young bases and tenors and offers solo opportunities.  The piece’s effectiveness depends on careful attention to accents and rapid dynamic changes.  Its musical principles and fluidity are grounded in folk idioms.

All of the elements of the rehearsal come together in Kinley Lange’s Bear Me Gently.  The piece features open vowels, independence from accompaniment, hemiola rhythm with immediate change in dynamics and macro/micro phrasing.  In addition, the parts sing against each other, creating the tension that generates energy and captivates attention.

As a result of the rehearsal outline and the pieces I introduce through it, I am confident in the successful outcome of the performance my choirs produce, and the choir senses my confidence in its abilities. Equally important to me as the final performance product is my underlying goal that singers will come away from practice with a deeper skillset and a richer sense of musical expression.  Everyone works hard for technical competence, but the fun comes when everyone knits together as a group focused on the musical odyssey.


* This article highlights my Reading Session’s message at Jackson State University’s Choral Symposium VII.  You can receive 15% off of the selections referenced above at with promo code:  jackson917 through September 22, 2017.


Dr. Gary Packwood
Director of Choral Activities, Music Education Division Chair

Program Administrator and Director of Choral Activities

Mississippi State University

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