Creating a Lifelong Singer

When Susan McMane was in high school, she probably spent about as much time chanting “two, four, six, eight” as she did singing “do, re, mi.” 

“I was a cheerleader, and it was probably the worst thing I could have done for my voice,” she says. “The way we use our voice for talking and other activities can hurt it as much as singing if we’re using it incorrectly. I would have liked for someone to have told me that.”

When she got to college, McMane also realized she was behind in music theory. She spent her first year at Indiana University catching up in a pre-theory class.

Today, as the artistic and executive director of the Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco, McMane has the chance to intercept girls early and instill the foundation for singing she wishes she’d had. She estimates that about 85 to 90 percent of her singers go on to sing in adulthood—an unusually high retention rate.

It’s no secret that a large percentage of singing high schoolers don’t join another chorus after graduation. So what does it take to foster performers who will stick with it, as McMane does?

Some answers might lie in a 2015 study Doreen Fryling submitted as her doctoral dissertation at Hofstra University. In a survey of high school singers, Fryling, who  teaches music and chorus at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York, found a strong relationship between a desire to keep singing, vocal ability, and “self-efficacy,” defined as “belief in one’s own ability.” In other words, it seems singers are most likely to seek out adult choruses when they feel confident about their vocal abilities. (For more on Fryling’s study, see “Keeping the Choral Singer Pipeline Flowing.”)

YWCPSusan McMane leads the Young Women's Choral Projects of San Francisco. Photo: Joseph Fanvu.

In YWCP, McMane places a particular importance on thorough vocal training, going so far as to include biweekly voice lessons and weekly theory classes in the price of tuition to give the girls all the tools they’ll need later in life.

Vocal ability? Check. Self-efficacy? Check. If Fryling’s dissertation is correct, McMane has concocted the perfect recipe for a lifelong singer.

Why create a lifelong singer?

For children, the benefits of singing are no secret. Chorus America’s 2009 Chorus Impact Study found that young choral singers see greater academic success and more advanced social skills than those who don’t. Several other studies show kids who read music tend to score higher on math tests and have a greater understanding of arithmetic.

But it’s also worthwhile for those who conduct youth to consider the benefits kids could receive from continuing to sing in adulthood. Studies have shown that singing can improve cardiovascular function, relieve stress, and decrease anxiety. One study observes it could even ease the symptoms of lung disease, Parkinson’s disease, and chronic pain.

That’s not to mention the handy life skills kids and adults alike hone while they’re performing in a choir—skills that could carry over into their professional and personal lives.

“What [my singers have] learned in terms of commitment, in terms of being part of a group and seeing yourself as one piece of a larger puzzle, is applicable to other aspects of life,” says Joy Hirokawa, who conducts the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.

Bel Canto Children's ChorusJoy Hirokawa leads the Bel Canto Children's Chorus.

These are all great reasons for youth choir conductors to focus their efforts on creating lifelong singers, but they won’t sway young singers themselves—after all, no 13-year-old has cardiovascular health on the mind, and many don’t intend to keep singing forever. If conductors want to focus their efforts on creating lifelong singers while also making room for those who might not stick around for the long haul, they have to focus on the immediate benefits children receive from singing.

Sharon Paul, who conducted the San Francisco Girls Chorus in the 1990s and now serves as chair of music at the University of Oregon, follows a number of SFGC alumnae on Facebook and sees a pattern in those who continued to sing.

“Besides loving music, the camaraderie that they experienced as children in choir has fed their feeling of enjoying being part of a community of singers,” Paul says.

Fryling’s dissertation backs her up on the importance of camaraderie. In her review of existing research, Fryling found several studies that point to social connectedness as a primary reason for participating in choruses. Other studies have concluded that aesthetic fulfillment is the most important factor.

Combine this knowledge with Fryling’s conclusion—that good vocal ability and high self-efficacy correlate with persistence in singing—and you’ve got a seemingly foolproof formula for building a lifetime singer. Of course, community building and confidence boosting are easier said than done—so we’ve compiled a few tips from McMane, Hirokawa, Paul, and other seasoned experts.

Make them collaborators

No more Sage on the Stage. To keep kids invested in the music, conductors must embrace the role of Guide on the Side.

“I’m seeing a paradigm shift across the country,” says Rollo Dilworth, who teaches at Temple University, publishes choral music and warm-up exercises for young singers, and conducts honor choirs all over the country. “The old-school, teacher-centered approach is being replaced by a more student-centered approach where the conductor is really just a facilitator who lets [students] engage in problem-solving and discussion.”

When Dilworth leads warm-ups with children, he’ll ask them to take on different personas: opera diva, country western crooner, Broadway star, Gregorian monk.

To the kids, it may seem like nothing more than a fun icebreaker. “But then, when we start rehearsing something, I’ll ask them which of those sounds is right for this piece,” he says. “They make that decision through discussion—I’m not making that decision for them.”

Fostering a collaborative environment gives kids a sense of ownership over the music, he finds, increasing their excitement for singing and their motivation to sing the music well.

Even the playing field

A common plight of community choruses is that some singers come in with raw talent but no experience, while others have extensive training. If you use too much musical jargon, you’ll lose your talented beginners; dumb things down and you’ll bore the veterans to tears.

Robyn Lana, conductor of the Cincinnati Children’s Chorus, has found the key to community chorus success involves repetition and collaboration.

“When you’re introducing a concept that some singers may already know and others don’t, I say one thing several different ways,” she says. “I’ll start with basic terms. ‘We’re singing this phrase really loudly and I think it should be softer.’” Next time, she might ask if they notice dynamic markings in the score. “If that’s a new term for some of them, I’ll add, ‘What are dynamics? What am I even talking about?’” As a result, she says, “you’ve set up a situation where the advanced kids can help the others and explain the terms. Neither group is bored.”

Don’t underestimate your singers

It’s a commonly held belief that children can’t learn to read music until they can read words. But after observing her three-year-old daughter singing along at Omaha Children’s Choir rehearsals, Amanda Stevenson didn’t buy it.

“She overhears bits of my rehearsals and will actually sing most of the music, no matter what language it’s in,” Stevenson, the chorus’s founder and director, says.

It inspired her to start a pre-K program, open to children ages 3 to 5.

“We can teach them so much, and it’s really extraordinary,” she says. “Everything is taught by rote, and it’s all a cappella. We teach them singing games, how to keep a steady beat, how to use their body to feel the music. We even use solfège and rhythm syllables.”

If three-year-olds can learn solfège, why set boundaries on what school-aged children can do?

At the San Francisco Girls’ Choir, “our kids would sing in any language because they didn’t know yet that that was supposed to be hard,” Paul says. “Kids are fearless. It’s the perfect time to expose them to African music, pentatonic songs, eight-part harmony...whatever.”

Make your chorus look like your community

Paul remembers a moment in the SFGC when, during a challenging rehearsal, two singers from opposite sides of the tracks held hands in solidarity.

“One came from a very wealthy family in the suburbs, and the other came from a very poor family in the projects,” Paul says. “When else would those two kids have crossed paths to work toward a common goal?”

Multiple studies show that children who are exposed to diversity grow up with more compassion and more open minds—key personality traits for building a lifetime singer. As children grow up, go off to school and search for jobs, they’ll relocate to different cities and meet a wide variety of people; the less insular they are, the more apt they’ll be to seek out community choruses wherever they go.

To keep a diverse set of singers on the roster, conductors must ensure every child feels welcome—and that starts with tolerance for a variety of singing styles.

“I work with kids from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, so I have to understand that the voice is capable of creating a wide spectrum of sound,” says Dilworth. “I don't want kids to grow up feeling like the only way they can legitimately sing is in the Western classical bel canto style. While that’s the conservatory practice, it is not the only way.”

Dilworth, whose childhood in St. Louis treated gospel music and Latin liturgical music with equal gravity, welcomes a variety of vocal styles by programming a wide variety of pieces for his choirs. “I don’t have any qualms about programming a pop song,” he says. “Pop is just another piece of the musical puzzle.”

Know your audience

It’s crucial that children buy into the music you program—and that could mean more popular music and less classical at the beginning.

“The ‘Jubilate Deo’ round is lovely, but it may not be the first song you want to teach children in the inner city if you’re trying to engage them in choral singing,” says Dilworth. “It’s a language that’s far removed from any experience they’ve had in their lives. If you want to have a diverse choral ensemble, you’ve got to be inclusive...and that includes how you program repertoire.”

Henry LeckHenry Leck, founder and conductor laureate of the Indianapolis Children's Choir.

That’s not to say your first choral concert has to be a showcase of Rihanna’s greatest hits. You can build trust, says Henry Leck, founder and conductor laureate of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, by programming music your singers know alongside music from cultures they’re not yet familiar with.

“When you do lots of different genres of music, they won't put blinders on and say, ‘I only like hip-hop,’” Leck says. “In the beginning they might not be all about that Bach you programmed, but they’ll trust you enough to sing it and they might come away thinking, ‘That Bach was really great!’”

Meet them where they are

When Joy Hirokawa realized the location of her Bel Canto Children’s Chorus made it tough to access for economically disadvantaged families, she moved the entire operation from rural Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, to the more urban Bethlehem-Allentown area.

“We couldn’t support diversity in our ranks, and that was really troubling to me,” she says. “We moved to be more accessible.”

Amanda Stevenson, whose children’s choir is located in economically segregated Omaha, finds that some families just don’t have the resources to get their kids to rehearsal no matter how close they live—and it’s on her to solve that problem. “Last winter,” she recalls, “one grandmother’s van broke down and she said, ‘We can’t sing with you guys anymore.’ I was like, ‘This is silly—you live five minutes away from me!’ I picked them up for rehearsals for the rest of the term until they were able to get their van repaired.”

Youth choruses who want to give every child the opportunity to discover a lifelong love of singing should be prepared to go the extra mile, emphasizes Elizabeth Núñez, associate artistic director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.

“When we invite children to join YPC, we take into account what they need to succeed—not just in terms of musical knowledge and financial scholarship, but also caring about the realities of their day-to-day lives,” she says. “We spend hours on the phone with families to get to know their needs and letting them know we value their participation in our community. We ask, ‘Are you going to be there? Do you need a MetroCard? Did you get a carpool together?’”

Lighten up

For those who conduct children’s choruses, it’s important to regularly remind yourself why your singers are there. As Doreen Fryling’s dissertation illustrates, young singers show up to weekly rehearsals mainly for the emotional fulfillment and camaraderie. In other words, they’re not there just to perform in a perfect concert every few months.

“There should be fluidity in every artistic endeavor,” says Elizabeth Núñez. “As conductors, if we become too rigid in the pursuit of our goals, it’s not fun; and that’s why [choristers] stop singing.”

Elizabeth NunezElizabeth Núñez, associate artistic director of the Young People's Chorus of New York City, during an energizing moment in rehearsal.

That’s not to say artistic excellence isn’t worth striving for; in fact, singers could also leave if they don’t feel artistically fulfilled. But while drilling notes and refining choreography may seem like the most important things to focus on at that final dress rehearsal, it’s equally important to create bonding experiences or facilitate in-depth discussions about the music.

“Why do you come to the chorus? Because you like to sing. Why do you stay? Because you made a friend. How do you make a friend? You talk,” she says. “You can walk into a classroom and create a very controlled environment and the children will listen, but creativity and love of the process will not become part of the fabric of who they are.”

Try this out, Núñez suggests: Next time a conversation erupts in the middle of rehearsal, ride it out for a couple of minutes before refocusing on the music. Chances are your productivity won’t be affected—and your singers will leave rehearsal feeling happier and more connected to the group.

Aim for molding good citizens and good singers

Alyssa Sadoff isn’t sure if her 14-year-old son Elliot will pursue a career in music. But she knows the years he’s spent in the Young People’s Chorus of New York City have forever changed him for the better.

“The exposure to all different types of music, the challenges, the frustrations, the successes of rehearsals, have all been really great for him,” Sadoff says. “Because of YPC, he’s matured, he’s learned how to set goals and make conscious choices to achieve them.”

Núñez confirms that making its singers the best possible citizens is YPC’s foremost goal.

“As our alumni have gone on to college and careers, they’ve told us, ‘Singing in front of thousands of people all over the world taught me to present the best version of myself,’” she says. “That confidence is important and it translates to so many aspects of life.”

The Chorus Impact Study has shown that people who sing in a chorus are more likely to volunteer, vote, and contribute to philanthropic causes—so it’s a good bet that their willingness to engage will keep them close to choral music. Even if singers don’t continue performing on stage, there’s a high likelihood that their commitment to community will keep them in the audience.

“The bottom line is that we instill a love of singing for a lifetime,” Henry Leck says. “If they loved their choir, if they loved the way or another, they will always be drawn back to good singing.”

Jill Kimball is the public relations manager for CU Presents at the University of Colorado Boulder. She devotes her spare time to choral singing, freelance writing, blogging, and traveling.