We’ve all seen it. The choir that sings with beautiful tone, perfect intonation, crystal clear diction… and a thousand yard dead-eyed stare that would make extras on the set of The Walking Dead jealous. Here are 10 proven strategies to get your singers opening up and showing on their face what they’re already feeling.

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1. Get ‘Em Moving!

Getting your students association physicality with their singing can be a great starting point to cure choir zombie syndrome. Have your students “push” an imaginary basketball into water for a tenuto, grab a paintbrush and paint across a legato line, or throw a dart for an accent. Don’t allow them to half-heartedly go through the motions, but really move with the music, even incorporating full body movement if possible (throw a baseball, swing a golf club, roll a bowling ball). Because composers often use articulations to emphasize emotional moments in music or text, this can get students emphasizing those moments with more than just their voice, a great first step.

2. Stop. Mirror Time.

Incorporate a silent mirroring exercise into your rehearsal that starts with physical motions, but transitions into facial expressions – or do both! Say aloud the feelings you are showing on your face: surprised! ELATED! …concerned…, intrigued, confident, confused, holding in a fart (make it fun!). Randomly call them out later in class, or reference those expressions when describing how they might emote a phrase.

3. Do As I Do, Not As I Say…

Especially useful with younger singers, model by singing through a short passage of their song, emoting clearly. Keep it brief and challenge the students to imitate you. Lead a discussion after on how the students felt while singing and expressing.

4. WWYEFD? (What Would Your Expressive Friend Do?)

Call your most expressive singer forward and have your choir mimic their expressions. Make it a fun mirroring game, or run through a song they know well. Enhance the lesson by selecting an expressive singer from each section!


5. And The Award Goes To…

Buy a fake Oscar trophy and award it for that rehearsal to the best actor on a short passage. Take a moment before the competition to explain how actors put themselves into a character, and how the best actors make a script come alive through breathing life into the words on a page and conveying feelings through their voice, their face, and their body language.


Don’t forget to have your winner give a tearful speech thanking their musical influences… hint hint…

6. Compare and Contrast


Hit the mute button, fire up the YouTubes, and show side-by-side performances of two choirs in your students’ age bracket. Select one performance where the choir is expressive in performance, and another where they are suffering from zombie syndrome. Lead a discussion on which performance your students prefer, and why.

7. Rate Yo’ Self

Record your students in performance or in rehearsal and play the video back for them. Have them rate themselves on their expressiveness, and how well it fits the music. If your students are improving as the year goes on, compare video from the beginning of the year with a few months later to highlight the improvement and motivate further growth!

8. Check Yo’ Self

There are a number of ways to allow your students to see themselves in real time. Check out thrift stores and garage sales for mirrors and hang them around your room, invest in a classroom set of cheap handheld mirrors, or if your school is tech friendly, have your students use the front facing camera on their iPads or Chromebooks. Once students can see themselves in real time, coach them through passages or songs with different facial expressions. How does Amazing Grace look with an angry expression on your face?

(Answer: bad.)


9. Make Fun Of Choir Zombie Syndrome

Not to be confused with making fun of your singers. Choir Zombie Syndrome is, ultimately, a defense mechanism. Students need to feel that it’s safe to break out of their comfort zone, and humor never fails to grease the wheels of serious instruction. When all else fails, in a silly, general way, make fun of CZS. In (only slightly) exaggerated hyperbole, act out a slack-jawed middle school singer who drools on their music, picks their nose, and flings it across the room. Nobody wants to be that guy.

10. As A Wise Man Once Said…

Put the text first! Never underestimate the power of deep reading and how it helps your singers to understand the story that they are telling… and expressing! Put the author and their work in a historical context, study the original text, paraphrase the concepts, dialogue about what it means to you and your singers, and discuss how it might impact the musical ideas in the music.

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About Ryan Main

Ryan Main HeadshotRyan Main is in his seventh year with the Independence School District at Nowlin Middle School, and his second at Van Horn High School. In seven years at Nowlin, he has driven program growth from under 40 to over 250 choir members. In only two years at Van Horn, from 80 to over 200. His choirs receive regular superior ratings, and recently made their first conference appearance at the Southwest American Choral Directors Association Conference. Ryan has founded the Nowlin Black and Gold choir, the Nowlin Honors Women’s Choir, the Nowlin 6th Grade Choir, the Van Horn Varsity Concert Choir, the Van Horn Junior Varsity Concert Choir, and the Van Horn Pitch Perfect Project. He is a member of the American Choral Directors Association, the National Association for Music Education, and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Ryan holds a Bachelor of Music in Music Composition from the University of Missouri – Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance and Master of Music degrees in Music Composition and Music Education from the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. An award winning composer, his music has earned two Editor’s Choice distinctions from JW Pepper, and has been performed internationally, including performances at the Midwest Band Clinic, the American Choral Directors Association Southwest regional conference, the American Choral Directors Association Florida conference, and honor choirs and bands around the nation. His music has also appeared on state lists and reading sessions, check it out at www.ryanmain.com.

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More About Ryan…

Ryan is more proud of a choir that cares about each other and has fun, productive rehearsals than a choir that can perform flawlessly. He didn’t join choir until his sophomore year of college and spent most of that year trying to figure out how solfège worked. He’s almost got it now. Ryan loves to write music that is gripping and intense, which probably comes from watching too many superhero movies growing up (men’s choirs dig it). In his free time, he likes to spend time with his super cute nieces and his super opinionated dogs, work out, netflix binge, and cook – usually while listening to the Find Your Forte podcast. As a chef, he has been described as “not terrible” and “you know, fine I guess”. He has accidentally set two oven mitts on fire and hopes to keep it that way.

Ryan is a member of Choir Nation on Facebook