By Kathleen Reed

Everything I learned about speaking, I learned in choir. A big thanks to my high school choir director Wayne Shaw, who was passionate in his pursuit of presentations and performances of excellence. I will be forever grateful that he taught me:

  • How to stand before an audience: feet solidly planted, hip-width apart; knees slightly bent (not locked); good posture, with shoulders back and head held high (to open the airways); hands hanging loosely by my side; leaning forward, with energy, ready and eager to begin.
  • How to avoid distractions. No gum. No fillers notes, words or ill-timed breaths. No flashy or clanking jewelry to interfere with the lights or the mic. No visual disruptors: make sure your fly is up, your hem is down, your shirt is buttoned, and your hair is in place. No pacing, swaying, or wild gestures. Don’t touch your face or hair, even if there is a bug flying near your open mouth or your nose itches. Focus on the audience, focus on the message. What you have to deliver is important. Don’t let distractions rob you or your audience of its value.
  • How to begin. Always pause to take a deep cleansing breath before you begin. Inhale deeply through your nose. Hold. Let it out, using the diaphragm to push the sounds out to create a strong and sustained flow. Wayne liked us to “attack the first note”.
  • How to create resonance by amplifying my voice to create a bigger and deeper sound, or lower my voice to a whisper to cause listeners to lean in.
  • How to use the full range of my voice, from high pitch to low, to keep from sounding monotonous.
  • How to articulate to make sure my words were understood, pronouncing each syllable clearly and distinctly.
  • How to use facial expression to convey the emotion behind the words.
  • How to use rhythm and tempo to spit words out in rapid-fire staccato, or slow them down and make listeners anticipate what will come next.
  • How valuable an intentional and dramatically placed pause could be.
  • How to emphasize important ideas through repetition. In music this happens with the aid of motifs and choruses. In speech, this happens with catchy or repeated phrases, explanatory introductions and succinct summaries.
  • How to anticipate transitions and move gracefully through them.
  • How to discover and perfect our personal preferences and style. Wayne exposed us to lots of different kinds of music: classical, spiritual, contemporary, chants and syncopated rhythms, 4- and 8-part harmonies… As speakers we do this by listening to others, exploring and experimenting with different methods and means of delivery until we discover what works best for us and our audience.
  • How much practice matters. We spent hours sitting and standing as one; hours warming up our voices; hours on breathing techniques, sight-reading music and learning music theory. Hours on knowing our part by heart and how our part fit with all the other parts. Hours on learning choreography, if the music was better conveyed through the use of space and movement.
  • How to trust the director. To realize that he knew the music better than any of us, and as we yielded ourselves to his interpretation, his timing, and his vocal and visual clues, the applause would come. Learning to follow his direction took humility and discipline, and the better we became at following him, the greater was our success. It was an honor to be under his direction and to be recognized as one of his own. It was personally gratifying to have the sense of accomplishment at to perform at a consistently high level. Listen to your speaking coach!
  • How each voice has its own important part to play, and it needs to be heard.
  • How one had to earn the right to be a soloist to be heard above the others.
  • How important it is to be part of a group. In community, our job is to be aware of the others around us, to listen, harmonize, hold our own distinct part, work toward resolution of discord, be attentive to timing and key changes, to stand together, move together, and work together.
  • How to read an audience, to get and keep their attention.

Whether it’s a performance delivered by a choir or an expressive speaker, a well delivered message is music to the ears.