Sunday, August 02, 2009

Singing in harmony 2 – small group skills

Last week I wrote about some of the skills needed to be able to sing in harmony. Most of them were focused on singing in a large choir. This week I want to consider those skills that are needed to sing harmony in a much smaller group, perhaps a group with only one singer on each part.

Photo by Cindy Funk

I’d love to hear from those of you who sing regularly in small groups to see whether I’ve missed any important points out or if you have any useful tricks that you can share. Do drop by and leave a comment.

harmony singing in a small ensemble

Although I’m focusing here on small group singing, most of the points equally apply to larger choirs. The main difference will be in where you place your focus of attention. In a small group, the focus can be on all the other singers and the overall sound, whereas in a larger choir the focus may be more on the singers around you and the harmony between your part and the section of the choir standing either side of you.

I ended last week’s post with what I believe to be the three most important skills needed for harmony singing: the ability to listen, listen, and listen.

listen – to yourself

Singing begins with yourself. You make a sound which you have total control over. Using feedback you get from listening to others, you can adjust your own vocal output. By listening to yourself you can:

  • check that you are always in tune with the other singers;
  • make sure your volume is appropriate so your harmony part doesn’t drown out the others or fade into the background;
  • see if your vowels and vocal quality are appropriate to the song and blend in with the other singers.

listen – to others

By listening into the other singers in your group – both individually and as a whole – you will get the necessary feedback to sing your own part well. Singers are human beings rather than beat boxes or synthesisers, so tuning, timing, vocal quality, etc. will shift constantly during any song. You need to be alert to all these minute changes and follow them accurately.

  • Are the other parts louder/ softer than you?
  • Have they slightly changed pitch?
  • Is their timing getting faster?
  • Where are they putting that syncopated beat?
  • Where are they taking their breaths?

listen – to the harmonies

This is more about the overall effect of your group of singers. In some sense, it’s not about listening to the sounds that are there, but the gaps between the sounds. For me, that is the joy of harmony singing. Rather than feel that another harmony part is “putting you off” somehow, if you focus on the gap/ interval between what you are singing and what the other parts are singing, then it stops being about the individual notes and more about the effect that harmony has on us.

Harmony singing is all about team playing. By listening to the overall effect that the harmonies are having, you can make tiny adjustments to your own singing that will serve the whole. When harmony is working properly in a small group, it stops being about the individuals. It is almost as if the song is singing itself and you are simply enjoying and inhabiting the spaces between the notes.


To be able to use the feedback from what you are hearing, you need a certain amount of self-awareness. It’s no good noticing what the others are doing if you can’t feel or hear what you’re doing yourself. If you can’t detect that your body is in tension, or that you’re breathing incorrectly or that you’re singing too loud, then you won’t be able to make the necessary adjustments to serve the group. If you’re a control freak, then maybe harmony singing is not for you! You need to surrender your ‘self’ to the group and the music.

Developing self-awareness is not that hard, but can take some practice if you’re not used to it. The enemies of self-awareness are any things that take you out of being in the moment:

  • fear (of making a mistake, of not being a good singer, of not knowing the words);
  • boredom;
  • arrogance (“I know this song inside out”, “I don’t need to listen, I’ve learnt this song before”);
  • daydreaming, trying to repeat the past (“Last time we did this it was great, this time it’s going to be even better!”);
  • anticipating the future (“I really hope the gig is going to go well”);
  • measuring yourself against others (“They’re all far better at this than I am”);
  • bringing outside baggage along (“I can’t believe how rude that woman was in the shop this afternoon”).

And many others. In fact, there are probably far more reasons for not being in the moment, than being in the moment! But … it is vital if you want to sing harmony well.

watch my lips!

Even though you might not be able to hear the exact notes coming out of a singer’s mouth (because you’re focusing on the harmonies), or see their belly move when they’re breathing, you can get important information just by looking at other singers’ mouths. Watch the others in your group like a hawk and you will stay in tune, breathe at the same time, and keep in time. Simple but very, very effective!

breathe easy

You might not be able to hear the others breathe, but you certainly need to know when they are breathing. Breath can be a cue to start a song. It will ensure that you all start the phrase at the same moment. It can enable sustained drone parts by ensuring that you all breathe at different times. It can help with moments of suspension/ tension in a song (i.e. sustained pauses).

keep your friends close

It’s not very British to stand that close to each other. We like our personal space! But just look at small groups Corsican singers for example. They stand exceptionally close to each other. Their focus is entirely on each other and the sound they are making. They are usually physically touching and you can see them leaning in and putting their ears right in front of other singers’ mouths. You can never stand too close when singing harmony!

focus in, and focus out

I’m assuming that your harmony singing group will want to share songs with an audience. This means finding the tricky balance between focusing totally inwards on the other singers and the beautiful harmonies that you are making (very tempting!), and sending the music out to the audience. You need to have at least three focuses of attention: on yourself, on the rest of the group and on the audience. It’s impossible to maintain three focuses at the same time, so you have to keep jumping between them, not letting any one of them dominate. A tricky act, but one which is possible with practice.


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