Sunday, July 26, 2009

Singing in harmony 1 – how do they do that?

Last week I wrote about How to be a good choir member. This was prompted by an post on whether you need singing lessons or not in order to sing. I pointed out that there are several skills that can’t be learnt in a one-to-one singing lesson. One is being in a choir, another is singing with a group in three or more part harmony.

Photo by Piers Nye

I thought I’d use this post to consider what skills you need in order to sing harmony in a group. This week I’ll focus on those skills that are specific to singing in a choir. Next week I’ll look at small group singing. Of course, many of the skills needed overlap whether you sing in a choir or a small group, so the division is rather arbitrary.

big group, small group

I have led several community choirs, all of which sing unaccompanied in three and four (and sometimes more) part harmony. The experience of singing as part of a large choir is very different from that of singing in a small group, and some of the skills needed are different too.

Sometimes I have invited people from a choir to try out for a smaller ensemble that I was starting. I would tell them that the main skill needed (other than being able to sing in tune!) was to be able to hold a part on your own. If it is a three part harmony, then you need be able to sing your part in a group of just three singers.

I knew that not many people in the choir were able to do this (simply because they hadn’t had the experience), and yet loads of people came forward, convinced they could hold a part on their own.

At the try-out, I would point out when people were not holding their part accurately, and they would be surprised, thinking that they were doing fine. This shows us two things: that singing in a small group is different from singing in a large choir; and that self-awareness is an important skill for singing harmony.

harmony singing in a choir

Large groups of singers are far more forgiving of inaccurate singing than small groups. If there are 15 altos and a few singers are slightly out, then it doesn’t notice that much. But if there are only two altos in a small group, then it’s disastrous!

Often it’s hard to be aware of the harmonies going on in a big choir. Singers are frequently only conscious of the others around them who are singing the same part. More confident singers may be standing on the join between two parts, in which case they will appreciate the harmony between those two parts. For me, that is when harmony singing becomes a joy. I can’t understand those singers who find that the other parts are a distraction to what they’re singing! If you listen to how the harmony works, it will help you hold your own part.

divide and conquer

In order to experience harmony singing fully in a large choir, the director will often divide the choir into smaller groups, or get everyone to walk around the room singing.

Once we have learnt a song, I often divide the choir into groups of four singers – soprano, alto, tenor, bass – and spread the groups around the room to sing. There are enough other singers in your part somewhere in the room for you to feel supported, yet you are close to the other three parts so can experience the full harmony at work.

The skills you develop in exercises like this are pretty much the same as those needed in a small ensemble. When you go back and stand with the other singers in your part, you will find that the overall sound is more accurate.

move around

Another way of honing your harmony skills, keeping in tune and understanding how harmony works is to move to a different part.

You can go and stand near another part whilst singing your own part to feel and hear how the harmony works. Or you can go and learn another part in addition to your own part to get a broader sense of the harmonies in a song. You can then hear your original part being sung against your new part. By changing parts frequently, you can also experience different aspects of the harmonies in a song: main tune, parallel harmony a third above, drone, mirroring part an octave below the tune, etc.

practice makes perfect

You don’t need to have any particular music training or understanding of music theory to be able to ‘understand’ harmony. Understanding can happen at a visceral, subconscious, or intuitive level too. When listening to the radio or a CD or your MP3 player, see if you can pick out any harmonies in the voices, or even better, sing along and make up a harmony of your own. You’ll be surprised how easy it is in most cases!

listen, listen, listen

These are the three most important skills needed for harmony singing. I’ll be talking more about them next week when I look at the skills needed for small group harmony singing. Other skills I’ll be considering are breathing, standing close to each other and focus of attention.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, July 19, 2009

How to be a good choir member

Last week I wrote about whether you need singing lessons in order to be able to sing. I suggested that people should simply jump in and join a choir before they ever consider individual singing lessons. I pointed out that there are important group and harmony skills that cannot be taught one-to-one.

Photo by CowGummy

This week I want to consider what qualities make for being a good choir member. Of course, this list is personal and not exhaustive, so I would welcome any additions from all you fine readers out there. Do drop by and leave a comment. I always welcome your feedback and wisdom (it can get lonely this side of the keyboard!).

So, in no particular order, these are the qualities that I believe make for an ideal choir member:

  • punctuality
    It takes a while to build up a safe, creative atmosphere, but only a second to destroy it. If we’re doing some focused warm up work, we don’t want people wandering in half way through!

    I know some people get stuck in traffic or have to come straight from work, but persistent latecomers aren’t showing respect for their fellow choir members (or the work or the choir), and are often the ones who would benefit most from the voice training and stress-busting warm up!
  • commitment
    Commitment to the choir can be shown in many ways (not least turning up on time!). But for most community choirs, the most important commitment is simply to turn up every week!

    There are many people who pay for the whole term but show up only once or twice. Again, this demonstrates a lack of respect for both the choir and its members. Also it implies that the work that we do each week rehearsing and learning songs is not that valuable and it’s possible to just turn up for the concert.
  • responsibility
    It’s all too easy to let your choir director or other members of your part do all the work. It’s an easy cop-out. Yes, the director is in charge, but the final result depends on every single individual in the choir. It’s no good thinking that your fellow singers will back you up and cover you through the bits you don’t know that well. If every singer in the choir thought that, there would be no choir!

    You have to take responsibility to attend regularly (and on time), to know your part, to stay aware of rehearsal schedules, to listen to the director’s instructions, and so on.
  • self-awareness
    Many people stumble through life not really paying attention. Or if they do pay attention, its often to the wrong thing! How many times have you been bumped into in the supermarket by someone whose focus is on the cereal packet they’re about to buy, and not the throng of people surrounding them?

    Often it’s simply a matter of being in the moment, being present and engaged with whatever is going on at that particular point. This can be helped by focusing on the warm up each session which assists in the transition between your busy daily life and the job of being in a choir.

    It’s by paying attention to what you’re doing that helps you to learn and improve. When the director points out that you’re tipping your head back, then check in with your own body and see what that feels like. When your fellow alto complains that you’re singing too loudly in their ear, check in with yourself and make a note of how it feels in that moment and what you can do next time.
  • trust
    Some people find it very uncomfortable to be in the middle of a learning process. When you first start to learn a new song it can feel frustrating that you can’t quite nail the tune. Even when you’ve been singing a song for a while, you might still keep tripping over some of the words.

    Try not to get frustrated, but give yourself up to the process and trust that it will come out right in the end. Similarly, if the director’s new structure for a song seems weird, trust that she knows what she’s doing and is not setting out to make you or the choir look forward.

    Throw yourself into these processes wholeheartedly and trust them. If you want to analyse or question, wait until the process is over (i.e. after the concert or at the end of term) to evaluate. If you find that your trust was misplaced, you can always leave and find a better choir!
  • attentiveness
    This is related to self-awareness and having a sense of the whole. Often an individual choir member forgets where they are and starts chatting to their neighbour for instance. After all, they’ve finished learning their part and are, in fact, talking about important singing matters after all. But what they don’t realise is that they’re missing what’s going on around them.

    You need to be attentive to the director (or you might miss your cue), the singers around you (you don’t want to breathe at the wrong time), the overall choir sound (make sure your part is not louder than all the others), and what your own responsibilities are (don’t miss your solo!).
  • consideration for others
    This is all to do with respect: respect for your fellow human beings and hence respect for what you and other choir members are doing and therefore respect for the choir as a whole.

    Don’t be a prima donna – choirs are all about team work. Remember what it was like when you first joined the choir – help out new members. If someone in your part is struggling, don’t feel superior because you’ve nailed it – stand next to them and help them out gently.
  • listening skills
    You may find it surprising that singing skills aren’t in this list of important things for being a good choir member. My belief is that everyone can sing and that, given time, everyone in the choir can get to the same high standard.

    However, to get to that point, instead of focusing on the production of the voice, you need to pay more attention to what you are hearing. Using your self-awareness, you can begin to hear when you are getting the notes right and when you are not. Listening to others in your part will help you stay in time, blend better and work as a unit. Reaching out to hear the other parts will help you stay in tune, enjoy and get a better understanding of how harmony works. And finally, listening to what the director has to say can only be a good thing!
  • sense of the whole
    It’s no good relying on the director to give you feedback all the time. It’s also no good to just focus on those singers around you. It’s much more pleasurable to reach out and try to get a sense of the whole choir. Hear the harmonies working, check the blend, get the volume balance of each part right, wait for the choir to take a single in-breath to start the next song, feel part of a creative team – a living organism.
  • sense of humour
    Maybe this is the most important aspect of all. Keep smiling when all around you are struggling. Laugh off the umpteenth time the director has pointed out that you’re getting a phrase wrong. Find the humour in the man standing next to you who constantly sings the wrong note – loudly! Relax, be playful, make it fun. After all, although you take the whole choir thing seriously, it’s only a bit of singing!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Do you need singing lessons in order to sing?

I often get enquiries from people looking for one-to-one singing lessons. I tell them that unfortunately I don’t offer them.

Then I say that I don’t recommend singing lessons in any case, but recommend they join a choir instead. Do singing lessons help people sing better?

why do you want singing lessons any way?

The vast majority of people who contact me for singing lessons don’t give much background information! There’s none of this: “I’ve been singing in a choir for years and would like to increase my range” or this: “I’m just starting out and don’t know whether I can sing or not.” But on closer examination (and a few emails or phone calls later) it almost always turns out that people are in the last category.

She has been “meaning to start singing for years” but just “hasn’t got around to it”. In many cases it’s very similar to those people who’ve been “meaning to write a novel for years” but never quite got around to it. Will they ever get around to it? Will it simply be a flash in the pan? How much do they really want to sing? They only need to open their mouths and let the sound out!

singing with others is different

To be fair though, there is a huge group of people who love singing, maybe sing around the house or in the car, who maybe were even in a choir at school, but have not sung with a group before (or at least, not in a long time). They may feel comfortable and confident when singing alone, but are nervous about singing in front of, or with others.

That’s when all the doubts crowd in: maybe my voice isn’t as good as the others; perhaps I’ve been kidding myself and I can’t really ‘sing’ after all; it would be terrible if I inflicted my voice on other people and it turns out to be awful; maybe I can only sing along with my CDs and am not able to learn ‘proper’ songs with other people; I don’t know anything about music, so I’ll be a fish out of water.

We’ve met these people before. They’re often the people who think they can’t sing (Why people think they can’t sing, But I can’t sing that high!) or who love singing but never actually get it together to join a group (I love to sing, but I’m not leaving the house!).

singing lessons will turn you into a proper singer

Many people in this situation (i.e. choral ‘beginners’, those with not much experience of singing with others) are drawn to the idea of having singing lessons. They think the lessons will improve their voice, teach them to sing ‘properly’, give them feedback on whether they sound OK or not, introduce them to music theory, turn a ‘singing at home’ voice into a beautiful choral voice.

In many situations though, this is simply putting off the inevitable. It’s rather like people who want to write that novel and keep buying “How to write novels” books, but never actually get round to picking up a pen! There is no easy way to walk into a room of strangers and sing with them. There is no preparation that can help this step into the unknown. In fact, having a singing lesson is probably even harder than joining a choir!

singing solo with an audience

OK, so you’re feeling a little under-confident about singing with others. You’re not sure whether your voice sounds nice or not and you don’t know if you can hit the high notes. You’ve been singing round the house for years, but nobody (except the kids and the dog) has actually heard you. What’s the next step?

Why not pay an experienced professional singer (who knows much more about music than you do, who can probably sing much better than you, and who has years of experience of performing in front of vast audiences) to give you some of their time so you can stand in front of them and sing solo for the first time? No problem! Easy as falling off a log.

In my opinion this would scare any beginning singer to death! It’s not even as scary as singing in front of your friends since they don’t know much about music any way. This is an expert who will be able to hear all the little things you do wrong, who’s sung with some of the best voices in the business. Even if they’re the kindest, most sensitive, caring teacher in the world and really want to help you, what can they do?

If you’ve not sung much before, you won’t be that familiar with your own voice or how it connects with your body and breath. You also probably won’t know much about music theory. The singing teacher might start to say things like “lower your larynx”, “make sure your diaphragm is engaged”, “sing me a minor scale”. These won’t mean much to you, and even if they do, you won’t have had the experience to put them into practice in a way that means something to you and can help you improve.

join a choir!

But if you join a choir, you are just one of many. You are not put on the spot or asked to sing solo (unless you want to). You can spend many happy months or years singing with others and slowly learning to feel your away around your own voice. You will feel supported (you’re not the only one singing your part, nor are you the only one lacking in experience or confidence) whilst you gradually extend your range and the possible comfortable sounds you can make. You can be playful in the warm ups and discover more about how your voice works, how it feels, and how it connects with your breath and body. By singing a variety of songs, you will slowly start to pick up some musical jargon (minor and major, scale, interval, legato, 4/4). They might not mean much to start with, and it’s not necessary to know this stuff, but by experiencing the music and then connecting it with some of these new terms, it will slowly begin to make sense and add to your musical vocabulary.

time for a singing lesson?

Once you have sung with others for a considerable time, you may come across a limitation in your own singing. Despite all the warm ups and voice training that the musical director weaves into each choir session, it is not possible for them to give everybody individual attention. So even though your breath control and range have improved since you first joined the choir, you feel that there’s still room for more improvement.

Now if you decide to go for one-to-one singing lessons, you are in much better position to learn something. You will be more familiar with your own voice so will be able to make more sense of the subtle instructions that the singing teacher will give about posture, alignment, diaphragm, etc. You will be able to feel and appreciate the difference these small changes can make.

You will feel much more comfortable singing solo in front of the teacher and you will also not be phased if she uses any musical jargon. If there’s something you don’t understand, you will feel confident to ask for an explanation. In short, you are now in a much better position to learn more about your own singing voice.

developing choral and harmony skills

Whatever you might learn from one-to-one singing lessons, there is a whole set of skills that you need that can only be learnt in a group. For example, it’s not possible to sing three part harmony if there are only two of you!

My next post will be on the subject of how to be a good choir member, and the week after that I’ll be looking at the skills that I believe are necessary when singing harmony with a group of singers, whether it be in a large community choir or a small ensemble.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Performing outdoors – tips and tricks

I really, really don’t like performing outdoors (I’ll come to why in a moment)! But sometimes it’s unavoidable, so what can we do to make it work?

Since I haven’t performed outdoors that often, I would love to hear any advice from those of you who do it more often, or who perhaps even like it! Do drop by and leave a comment.

why I don’t like performing outdoors

  • it might rain
    You can never rely on the British weather! There’s a big danger that there will be a downpour in the middle of your performance and the audience will either run away or disappear under a sea of umbrellas. On the other hand, it may be so hot and sunny that you end up with heatstroke!
  • the wind carries the sound in the wrong direction
    Sod’s law is that the wind will be blowing the wrong way and will carry your beautiful sounds away from the audience. Even if it doesn’t manage to do that, you can bet it will suck the sound right out of your neighbour’s mouth so you can’t hear her harmonies.
  • the audience are often too scattered
    No matter what you try to do, there will be audience members who will try to sit as far away from where you’re performing as is physically possible. The rest will scatter themselves about so it is impossible to sing to them in any direct way without constantly rotating on the spot. Then at the end, the audience who were furthest away will complain that they couldn’t see or hear you!
  • people might just wander off
    I hate busking! The audience can just bugger off if they don’t like you. I’d much rather get punters to pay and chain them to their seats. Similarly at a festival, if someone doesn’t like you in the first 5 seconds, they can just wander off leaving your heart to sink into your stomach: “They don’t like me!”
  • the singers can’t hear each other well enough
    There you are, singing your heart out, when you realise that you can’t hear anybody else. There is no acoustic, the wind is blowing hard, and the audience are chatting away. You can’t hear the other harmonies so go out of tune easily, and the timing is rubbish ’cause you can’t hear the other singers.
  • there is a tendency to shout instead of sing
    It’s the big outside world and it needs to be filled with sound, plus the audience are miles away. You can’t hear your fellow singers so figure they can’t hear you either. So you end up singing LOUDLY. Actually, it’s not really singing at all. Since you can’t even hear yourself outdoors, you end up SHOUTING.
  • trying to amplify a group of singers is very hard
    You roll up at the gig and the sound man convinces you he knows what he’s doing. He sticks a couple of mics up, there’s no time for a proper sound check, and off we go. The monitors (if you have any!) are too quiet and pointing in the wrong direction. The mics are all directional and only pick up two singers (who sing the same part). If there does happen to be a mic each, then that’s an awful lot of cable to trip over! It’s a fine art setting up microphones for acappella singing, and there aren’t that many sound people out there who have the experience!
  • using microphones is a new skill to learn
    You’ve spent years honing your acappella skills and work really well as a group. You lean in to hear your fellow singers, you look them in the eye, you stay close, you are aware of their every nuance. Suddenly you are at an outdoor gig and have a microphone shoved up your nose. Your fellow singers seem to be miles away, your voice sounds weird through the monitors (and you can’t hear the others either) and you can’t see anyone over the top of the mic stand.
  • the venue might not be suited to performance
    It seemed a nice idea when the local village fete booked you, but when you turn up there is no obvious place to stand, the field (which is still wet and muddy from last week’s rain) is a strange L-shape and full of trees, there is no fixed place for the audience, and even if there was, the huge marquee in the middle makes it difficult for them to see you wherever you stand.
  • competing with background noise and attention
    It’s outside. There are cows, planes, passing cars, trees rustling, fireworks, audiences talking, overspill from the reggae tent next door, much more interesting things to look at, crying babies, people selling shiny things, tannoy announcements – why would anyone want to listen to you?
  • no control over the situation
    No matter what the organisers say, don’t believe them. They will lay it on thick about what a wonderful venue it is, how the audience always sit along that bank at the back (honest!), that the PA system is state of the art, that there will be lights (it’s just that the truck hasn’t arrived yet) so the audience can see you in the dusk, that the ice cream van won’t be there on the day. They are lying!

what you can do to make the best of a bad situation

  • don’t shout!
    Resist the temptation to try to sing loudly and fill the space. Focus on your breathing and resonance and make sure you listen carefully. You don’t have to be big just because the space and the audience are big. Being small and subtle can draw an audience in.
  • focus on each other
    Forget the audience (well, not totally – you might like to face in their direction at least). Make sure you focus on the other singers. Stay close, listen carefully, look at each other often.
  • do it for yourselves
    Imagine that the gig is just for you, an intimate experience that will be so excellent that it will draw the audience in. This will make the space seem smaller and the occasion not so intimidating.
  • take the songs to the audience
    If you’re not restricted to a stage, you can wander around and really use the space to literally take the songs to the audience. Move the group around and within the spectators. They will feel more involved, the people being focused on will feel special, and the rest will feel that they’re missing out so will pay more attention.
  • it’s a completely different gig to the indoor version
    Don’t try to replicate the experience you had the last time you did the gig indoors. Outdoor gigs are a completely different experience, each one being totally unique. Go into it well-prepared, but try not to have expectations. There is much more scope in an outdoor gig for improvisation and playing it be ear.
  • have a dry run
    If at all possible, have at least one rehearsal in the space. Get used to any acoustics (if there are any!), figure out where the audience will be, try out different groupings, etc.
  • be in control
    Take as much control as you can. If you need PA and/ or lighting, then bring your own if at all possible, or at least have your own sound person. Find the best place to perform and insist upon it. It might be a good idea to have a wall behind you to help with the acoustics. See if there’s any way you can help the audience to gather in a tighter group as near to your performing space as possible (e.g. tape an area off, set chairs out in advance).
  • see what else is on
    Check to see if any other acts are due on at the same time and if they’re going to be loud, see if you can negotiate different timings for your set.
  • don’t take the audience reaction to heart
    They might look bored, they might just walk away, but don’t take it to heart. They may just have a naturally looking miserable face, or they might have to get home to feed the baby and wished they could stay longer. I’ve written on this subject in an earlier post (How audiences affect us)
  • stay close!
    Make sure you are physically close to the other singers. You will probably need to be even closer than usual. And I mean close! If you’re using microphones, try to set these up so you can stand as close together as possible.
  • always have a back-up plan
    However carefully you’ve planned, something will go wrong, that’s guaranteed. So consider all eventualities (weather, lack of audience, tuning going out, PA system breaking down) and think of an alternative to get you out of the fix.
  • don’t do it!
    I’ve saved the best piece of advice for last: if you have the choice, just DON’T EVER PERFORM OUTDOORS!


Chris Rowbury's website: