Monday, November 07, 2016

How to introduce harmony to a group of novice singers

I’m often asked for examples of simple harmony songs that might work with a group of inexperienced singers or people who have not sung before.


Rather than recommending specific songs, I always suggest a particular path into harmony. I thought I’d share that with you.

a five step journey into harmony

If people have not had much (or any) singing experience in a group, then throwing harmony at them too soon can put them off.

I think that there is a progression that you can take which will ease you into harmony singing. There are roughly five steps.

1. unison

Unison singing is very underrated and can be of huge benefit to even experienced singers (see Sing something simple (and see if your singing is as good as you think it is) ).

Singing in unison (especially well-known songs) is a great way of getting people started singing as a group: everyone is singing exactly the same thing so singers can ‘disappear’ into the sound and not feel on the spot.

You can sing in a circle to start with. Move singers around frequently so people get used to standing next to different kinds of voices (especially if it’s a mixed gender group).

You can work on diction, blending vowels, rhythm, etc. all within a simple song.

You can move onto spacing singers out more or putting them into small groups dotted about the space. You can then get smaller groups to sing on their own.

2. polyphony

Once novice singers have begun to feel more comfortable singing in a group and have begun to explore their voices, you can move onto the next stage which is the introduction of harmony.

The easiest, least confusing way of doing this is to divide your group into smaller sections and give each section a different melody (and different words) to sing. Once each section is confident with their melody, you can begin to get two sections to sing at the same time. This is known as polyphony.

The melodies may have different rhythms, but there will be times when more than one note is being sounded at the same time which is where harmony comes in.

You can choose a quodlibet (i.e. two or more well-known songs that can be sung together at the same time). Famous examples are When the saints come marching in/ Swing low sweet chariot/ This train is bound for glory and Pack up your troubles/ It’s a long way to Tipperary. There are loads out there.

Or you could work out your own simply polyphony by taking a familiar song by, say, The Beatles, and figuring out short riffs that work together. I’ve done this for With a little help from my friends, but also with I heard it through the grapevine and You’re all I need to get by.

Just listen to the original lots of times and you’ll be able to extract bass lines or instrumental riffs. Then just split the lyrics up amongst the different parts.

I recommend starting with just two melodies at the same time, then progressing onto no more than three.

3. rounds

Some people use rounds as the way into harmony, but many rounds have few words so it’s really, really easy for your part to get lost! I reckon that rounds are quite advanced for a novice singer, especially since they usually involve block harmonies because, unlike polyphony, each part often has the same rhythmic structure.

The best way into rounds is to start with two part rounds and build up. Also, start with rounds that have different lyrics for each section (unlike, say Dona nobis pacem).

You can become quite sophisticated with rounds and canons, so don’t rush onto the next stage. Many rounds/ canons are challenging (and interesting) for even experienced singers, e.g. Da pacem domine by Melchior Franck).

4. two-part harmony

Having spent plenty of time on the early stages of harmony singing (unison, polyphony and rounds) it’s time to move onto to more familiar harmony singing where you have a melody and a harmony part either above or below it.

Find some simple examples with not too many lyrics. Experiment with the harmony below the melody, but also above it so the higher singers don’t always assume they have the tune. For some songs give singers the main tune, but then make sure they sing the harmony in others.

If you have a mixed group of men and women, mix the men equally amongst both parts. If you feel your group is confident enough, you can later try just the women singing or just the men.

5. three part harmony and beyond

When your group is ready, you can move onto songs in three- and four-part harmony.

If your group is all one gender, then stick with three parts. If you have a mixed group you have two options with three part harmony: spread the men equally amongst the three parts, or choose a SAB arrangement and have the men sing a part on their own. I recommend starting with the first option, then moving onto the second.

When you decide to move onto SATB harmonies (if you have a mixed group), then this is where you may run into difficulties, especially if you don’t have enough male tenors so have a mixed tenor section. You may end up having to give two starting notes.

If you’re a male choir leader, you’ll give a note low in your range to indicate to the women tenors that you want them to sing low in their range, but you’ll give the male tenors their note at pitch.

If you’re a female choir leader, you’ll give the women their note at pitch, but give the men their note an octave higher since you want them to sing high in their range.

other articles which might help

Here are some other posts that you might find useful:

Easy songs for your choir

Why do I end up singing the tune when I should be singing a harmony? (often a problem for the men!)

But I can’t sing that high! (finding the right part for you)

Singing the same note – differently! (men and women singing the same octave)

Singing in harmony 1 – how do they do that?

Helping singers learn to hold a harmony part on their own

let me know how it goes

I do hope you’ve found these ideas useful. I’d love to hear from you about your own experiences with beginner singers and harmony.

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Chris Rowbury



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