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Using Chorales to Teach Intonation, Articulation, and Phrasing

By Todd Stalter | February 24, 2018

Using Chorales to Teach Intonation, Articulation, and Phrasing

If you’re like me, you’re busy preparing literature with your band for contests and festivals. And, if you’re like me, your band plays chorales every day. Well, why not use your musical imagination with your daily chorale study to sharpen your students’ intonation, articulation, and phrasing for more effective and musical performances?

View the sample below. Using this chorale, you can...

(Click the image to view the full PDF sample from
Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development for Advanced Concert Band.)

Improve Intonation:

Wanting students to play the intervals of a musical line in tune is a “given,” but often they need to work up to this. In my experience, ensemble intonation issues largely stem from playing out of tune intervals in the different voices within the musical fabric. Solve that problem, and you’re winning 80% of the battle already! Devoting some time every rehearsal to build deeper listening skills will creative a transformation of your ensemble’s sound.

  1. Begin by having pairs of players on the same instrument on each voice play a phrase or two of the chorale at a comfortable dynamic to see if they can match perfectly, and don’t be satisfied until it is perfect (for example, begin with two flutes on the soprano voice).
  2. Add players by pair until the whole flute section is involved.
  3. Progress to another section with the same voice (clarinet 1) and repeat the above process.
  4. Continue this process with each section that plays the same voice (alto sax 2, trumpet 2 & 3, euphonium).
  5. All players with same voice play together.
  6. Repeat the process with the alto, tenor, and bass voices. 

Though this may seem tedious and time consuming, dedicate 5-7 minutes per rehearsal for this technique each day, and I promise you it will pay huge dividends as long as you are consistent in your approach. Students become more attuned to listening to each other to match, and their idea of a perfect match becomes more discerning and demanding, resulting in a higher level of ensemble cohesiveness.

Address Articulation:

  1. Have the ensemble play the chorale phrases staccato to determine the accuracy of their rhythmic alignment.
  2. Next play accented. Then legato. Sopranos and altos can play accented over a legato tenor and bass (and vice versa) so both they and you can hear a difference in musical textures. 
  3. Use chords on the fermatas to achieve good balance and tone with different articulations (staccato, legato, accent, marcato) and at different dynamic levels within sections, families, and full ensemble.

Practice Phrasing:

Does your band have problems with phrasing? Chorales are one solution, but you have to approach them differently with your band. The idea, of course, is to get your students to always play melodically and instinctively create phrases on their own, so all you have to do is shape and mold what you hear naturally coming out of your ensemble—a truly collaborative musical experience!

  1. Tell the sopranos to play the first phrase as musically as possible, and to create the shape of the line as they feel it.
  2. After a few repetitions, both you and they will begin to hear a common phrase come out because they are listening and reacting to each other (which is exactly what we want them to do as musicians).
  3. Do the same with the alto, tenor, and bass voices. Combine voices in different combinations so students can hear and react to one another.
  4. Then comes the most important part—transfer this idea and concept in their approach to literature. Insist that all parts should always play as melodically as possible, and through repetition and recognition of musical textures and balances, your band’s phrasing will take a quantum leap forward.

It’s easy for a daily chorale to become a monotonous part of rehearsal, but if you use your imagination and work outside of the box a little bit, your students won’t know what to expect next, you’ve got their full attention from the get go, and they are honing their musical skills and can then apply them quickly to the literature at hand. 

What exercises do you use in your ensemble to improve their intonation, articulation, and phrasing? Let us know in the comments below!

Todd Stalter

Composer/conductor Todd Stalter is the Director of Bands at Eureka High School in Eureka, IL, and serves as Chair of the Department of Fine Arts for CUSD #140. At Eureka, he directs all components of the high school band program in addition to teaching General Music grades K-4, and 5th and 6th grade brass and percussion lessons and technique classes.

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