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:

Chris Rowbury


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