Singing Together, Not Just At The Same Time- 6 Best Ways To Improve Ensemble Awareness

What we can achieve together far exceeds what we can achieve alone.

As directors and singers, we intuitively know that choral ensembles succeed or fail as a group. A common trait among all great choirs is a heightened sense of ensemble. We can define this ‘sense of ensemble’ as awareness of how an one’s contributions interacts with the contributions of the rest of the group. Our choral ‘Spidey-sense,’ if you will.

It is crucial that we place high priority on developing a heightened sense of ensemble. Below are some ways that you can encourage your ensemble to sing together, not simply at the same time.

Prioritizing a unified breath is the single most important thing a group can focus on to promote a heightened sense of ensemble.

In addition to having a bunch of positive technical effects (release of tension, establishing vowel shape on inhalation, etc), committing to a breath that is absolutely together instantly places high value on acting together. It increases our corporate awareness of what our fellow singers are doing, even before the moment of phonation.

To start together, breathe together.

This really comes first! We all have different ways of establishing focus at a rehearsal, be it a rhythmic call and response exercise, a succinct verbal reminder about expectations, or a routine activity. However you get it, the important thing is that this focus is established and maintained. Don’t talk over your choir, and demand that your group is focused before giving an instruction. Rehearsals will be more efficient, and you will repeat yourself less. The trick is to never accept a lack of focus.

In many ways, learning to be a musician is learning the art of preparation. This might mean preparing for an audition, a rehearsal, or for singing a new phrase. So much of our lives involve intelligent and thorough preparation.

So, this means your singers need to know their music in order to be empowered to have musical opinions. Help free them from basic note/rhythm concerns by setting clear goals and expectations for knowing notes and rhythms. Some of my high school choirs use part recordings to learn their music. If you have a group that can sight-read from day one, celebrate!

A shared rhythmic pulse is essential to unified ensemble singing. This should be communicated in the breath impulse from the conductor, and maintained by everyone. A basic rule for singers is to internalize the whatever division of the beat is most prevalent in a score (for example: if you’re in common time, and you’ve got a lot of dotted-eighth/sixteenth rhythms, you know your singers need to internalize the sixteenth note to execute the rhythm successfully).

Some find it helpful to identify the three ways of interacting with a tempo (behind, on, or in front of the beat). A focus on being in front of the beat seems to yield the greatest success!

A phrase can only be as good as its first note, and by extension the breath that precedes it. Simply holding the first chord gives you an opportunity to assess how students are listening to each other, if we have a shared sense of tonal color, balance, etc. Make sure the first moment of a piece is successful. Remember, success breeds success!

Choirs have the privilege of working with text. Teach your choir to identify important syllables (circle them) and phrase to and away from them. Cultivate your singer’s intuitive ability to identify these important moments by asking them to share their opinions with their SINGING, not through verbalizing their ideas; they will discover they often have the same intuitive ideas about what words are most important.

Nouns and verbs are often important- they can always start with that!

-John Wilson

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7th Grade Choir (25 students total: 10 sopranos, 10 altos, 5 baritones)

Winter Feels the Sword of Spring by John Parker & Ruth Elaine Schram (3-part mixed, piano)

This piece is a really good example of text painting. The song moves from minor to major as winter melts into spring. Some of the alto part has a rather wide range as alto parts go. I found this to be a good opportunity to teach my students how to move between registers and begin to develop their understanding of mixed voice. The writing is very melodic for all three voice parts, and there are several teachable moments with regard to dynamic and tempo changes.

Dragonfly by Cristy Cary Miller (3-part mixed, piano)

This selection ended up being more challenging for my students than I expected, but it has been an overall success. Cristy Cary Miller has turned out to be a very reliable composer/arranger for my classes over the past 3 years – this is the fourth work of hers that I have done. This particular selection is in a minor key with some difficult but doable chromaticism. It is also a good opportunity to work in mixed meter with a constant interchange of 6/8 and 3/4. It is also a very dramatic setting of Tennyson’s descriptive poem.

Going Over Home by Sonja Poorman (3-part mixed, piano)

This is a lovely medley/partner song of “Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” The range is very appropriate for 7th grade boys with changing voices, and the writing is very melodic for all voice parts. My students have enjoyed all of their repertoire this year, but this one is clearly their favorite.


8th Grade Choir (50 students total: 20 sopranos, 23 altos, 7 baritones)

The Tiger by Sherri Porterfield (3-part mixed, piano)

This is a very dramatic setting of William Blake’s poem “The Tiger.” The lamb represents innocence, and the tiger represents experience – two halves of human nature. The piece is in a minor key with lots of great opportunities to work on dynamic and tempo changes. Even the “The Storm” (see below) has the greatest audience appeal, I think this song is actually the class’s favorite.

Where Go the Boats? by Phyllis Aleta Wolfe (3-part mixed, piano)

This piece is also a great opportunity to talk about text painting, and the accompaniment is very Schubertian in it’s role of portraying the river’s journey. The poem presents a metaphor for life and the fact that we don’t always get to see the full and final impact of our works. The song begins with a twinkle on the piano – the small ripple as you set your boat on the surface of the still water. The song ends with the words, “other little children will bring my boats ashore.”

The Storm is Passing Over by Charles Albert Tindley, arr. Barbara W. Baker

I avoided SATB music this year for balance reasons. The tenor part in this arrangement is unusually high, so even though I personally avoid this practice, I felt comfortable putting some of my low altos on the tenor line. The homophonic writing and closed harmonies proved to be a challenge for my students, but they really enjoyed the style and energy of the piece. There is a lot of room for improvisation on the repeated chorus – YouTube is a great place to look for ideas.

Contact Me

Amy Troxel

Clearview Regional Middle School

595 Jefferson Road, Mullica Hill NJ 08062


7th and 8th grade choir and general music teacher since January 2011

Collegiate Choral Festival

March 28, 2015

In photo, from left: John Leonard, Jack Hill, Jason Tramm, Dr. Jerry McCoy, Patrick Gardner, Joe Miller, Lisa Lutter, Christopher Thomas
Program: NJ Collegiate Choral Festival

 On Saturday, March 28, 2015, seven choirs representing six New Jersey colleges and universities met to perform for one other.  The event was conceived after a meeting in 2014 of NJ collegiate choral directors who saw the need for individual choirs to sing for each other.  The event was hosted by Patrick Gardner at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.  Dr. Jerry McCoy served as the clinician. car rent . Each choir performed for 20 minutes and then had a brief meeting with Dr. McCoy, who reinforced the many great things that occurred.  The purpose of the event was for students to share their work with each other.  The day ended with an informal gathering of all involved with refreshments and much comradery. It was a joy to hear the fine work of our singers and to observe the cheering and support clearly evidenced by the students in attendance. A commitment was made to make this a biennial event for our organization.

Jack Hill,
NJ-ACDA President

The Colleges and Directors involved:

The College of New Jersey – John Leonard
Ramapo College – Lisa Lutter
Seton Hall University – Jason Tramm
Rowan University – Christopher Thomas
Rutgers University – Patrick Gardner
Westminster Choir College – Joe Miller

News and Funk from Salt Lake City

NJ members at the 2015 National Conference

Check out “Salt Lake City Funk“, Colin Britt’s viral video !
Couldn’t go?  Read Lauri Lausi’s enthusiastic and entertaining report.


Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra

Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra

High School Honors Choir

High School Honors Choir

Latin American Honors Choir

Latin American Honors Choir

Old friends-Bob Duff-Lauri Lausi-Dave Lockart

Old friends-Bob Duff-Lauri Lausi-Dave Lockart

Pat Gardner, Colin Britt, Lee Mamolen, Luke Ostrow

Pat Gardner, Colin Britt, Lee Mamolen, Luke Ostrow

Laurie Lausi and honor choir student Hannah Kim

Laurie Lausi and honor choir student Hannah Kim

Chris Thomas, Cristin Charlton, John Thomas, Jen Sengin, Debbie Mello, Laurie Lausi, Jack Hill, Joe Mello, Lori Lynch,Pat Hachey, Jason Tramm

Chris Thomas, Cristin Charlton, John Thomas,
Jen Sengin, Debbie Mello, Laurie Lausi, Jack Hill,
Joe Mello, Lori Lynch,Pat Hachey, Jason Tramm

Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra

Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra

Conference Center

Conference Center


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Christopher Thomas is new President-Elect designate

Congratulations to Rowan Professor Christopher Thomas, our next President-Elect as of July 1, 2015.  Balloting has just ended, and voter turnout was high.  Thanks to all who cast their votes.