Sandy Marron on the Vocal Instrument

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On the Sunday morning of the recent Sweet Adelines convention in Birmingham, delegates had the opportunity to participate in a workshop led by Sound Category judge Sandy Marron and Showmanship Category judge Judy Pozsgay. They work as a team in their own chorus, the increasingly successful Lion's Gate Chorus in Vancouver, and their material saw a wonderful integration between what are often seen as quite disparate aspects of barbershop craft.

I plan to write in more detail about the integration of vocal and movement skills in another post (it was originally part of this one, but grew into a separate one its own right), so will focus today on Sandy's approach to vocal pedagogy.

Her starting point was the need for tone to balance both warmth and brilliance - and how the various choruses she'd heard in the previous day's contest needed to develop one or the other. This led to an explanation of the voice with a model based on three primary elements.


  1. The Box: This is the foundation of the voice, the breath and support system that fuels it all
  2. The Dome: This is where the sound gathers warmth, and involves soft surfaces such as the soft palate
  3. The Beak: This is where the sound gathers brilliance, and involves hard surfaces like the teeth.

What I found striking about this model was the sense of doubled-up imagery. The ideas of Dome and Beak carry meaning at both a macro/metaphorical level, and a micro/literal level.

On the macro scale, the Dome captures imagery of both a long-necked posture, and the concept of the head voice, while at the micro level, it has the specific technical dimension of raising the soft palate. Its roundness serves as a metaphor for the richness of tone it imparts, and evokes memories of both the acoustics and emotional worlds of Mediterranean churches. I was interested to note Sandy's use of an open-wristed gesture much like the 'Sistene wrist' of the British cathedral tradition (documented in Chapter 9 of my Choral Conducting and the Construction of Meaning), which is likewise associated with both head-neck relationships and the inner space of the mouth.

The Beak, meanwhile, evokes the well-established notion from voice teaching of singing 'into the mask' as a way to conceptualise forward placement, while inflecting it with pointy imagery for the specific sense of ping that puts the bling into the Sweet Adeline sound. Then at the literal level, it draws attention to the role of the teeth as sound board for the voice.

Now I like this doubled-up imagery in all kinds of ways. First, it appeals to both concrete and metaphorical thinkers, and, moreover, gives both a means to enter into each other's worlds.

Second, it is simple without being simplistic. There are a small number of elements, each with a vivid and well-differentiated identity and in clear relationships with each other. This makes the model easy to grasp and memorable.

At the same time, though, it contains a richness of imagery, wrapping up connotations from multiple traditions of voice pedagogy and wider cultural associations so that people can integrate prior (and presumably subsequent) instruction and life experience into the model. That is, it organises knowledge as well as imparting it.

The reason I find this particularly valuable is that one of the problems you get in singing teaching is the perpetual need to go back to basics. Elements of technique like stance, breath and tone are always open to development, refinement, enhancement, but the risk is that re-visiting the fundamentals involves a form of starting from scratch that tries to over-write all previous instruction. (People who have changed singing teachers will recognise syndrome this as well as anyone who has been to more than a couple of singing workshops.) At best, this feels like a waste of previous learning, and opens up all kinds of issues with The Blue Paint Problem. Sandy's model offers a way for people to connect new and existing knowledge, and thus engage in the kind of deep learning that involves making sense of the world.

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