Monday, May 07, 2018

How do you know if you’re singing the right thing?

Often, at the end of a singing workshop, someone will tell me that they didn’t think they were singing the right thing and ask if there is anything they can do about it.

do the right thing
photo by Xavier Vergés

It’s often people who have only recently started to sing with others, but this doubt can hit at any time. How can you tell if you’re getting it ‘right’?

what is ‘right’ when you’re singing?

There are different types of “singing the right thing”.It partly depends on how much singing experience you have.

Here are some of them:
  • am I going up and down at the right time? – often beginners doubt whether they’re able to follow the part they’re being taught. They’re not sure if they’re singing a monotone or going up and down as required. And if they are going up and down, are they doing it in the right pattern?
  • am I singing the same as the others in my part? – suddenly you sense that maybe everyone around you is singing something different from you. That may well be the case. It may also be that you have it right and they’ve all got it wrong!
  • am I singing a harmony or the tune? – if you’re supposed to be singing a harmony are you actually doing that or being dragged off onto the tune? Sometimes the harmony fits so well that – even if you’re singing it perfectly – it might seem like you’re singing the tune. At other times you might be singing the tune by mistake as that is the strongest (and possibly most familiar) melody around.
  • am I being 100% accurate? – singing together is a creative art, not a science. It’s also not school so you’re not going to be told off or marked down if you’re not 100% correct all the time. We all get the occasional note wrong, or maybe drift off with the tune for a few bars before coming back to the harmony. It’s because we’re human!

how to work towards “singing the right thing”

Depending on which of the questions above are relevant to you, there are different solutions to your situation.

Here are some of them:
  • get feedback – to find out exactly what it is you’re singing (and how it may or may not fit in with those around you), you need feedback. If you’re learning to play football or tennis, for example, the feedback is obvious: the ball goes where you want it to, or it doesn’t. Feedback for singing is not as direct. There are two ways to get it: ask somebody else (ideally your choir or workshop leader and not somebody else in your section!); listen to yourself (the best way to do this is to cup your hand over your good ear – you can then adjust the angle which will alter the balance between your voice and everybody else’s).
  • change parts – sometimes the reason why you find it hard to know if you’re singing the right thing is that your part is pitched too high or too low for your voice. Try changing to one of the other parts and see if things improve.
  • change your focus of attention – this works well if you feel that you’ve drifted onto the tune (or the harmony – it works both ways) by mistake. First of all focus on your own voice and those of the singers in your part. Then change your focus to the other part or tune. See if there’s a difference. You might have to switch back and forth several times. Doubting what you’re singing is often a case of sticking to just one focus (your own voice).
  • fit in with the others – sometimes you can only hear your own voice so will have no reference to whether you’re singing your part correctly or not. Or vice versa, you can only hear the singers around you and can’t hear what you’re singing. The solution is to blend your voice with those nearest to you. It involves a bit of self-awareness (which will improve the more that you sing) and it’s all about balance. Try to “fit in” with the other voices by matching the volume of your voice, its quality (harsh or rounded, warm or squeaky), the vowel sounds, etc.
  • does it really matter? – often individual singers agonise over whether they’re singing the right thing or not. And singers will even report others in their part if they think they’re getting even one note wrong (shame on you!). The reality is, that in most choirs with more than, say, 20 singers, the occasional ‘wrong’ note won’t notice. There’s a good chance the note you’re singing is one of the harmonies in any case! So lighten up, stop giving yourself a hard time and enjoy the song.

I hope you find some of these ideas useful. Do leave a comment and let us know about your own experiences or maybe you have other suggestions to add.

You might find these other posts useful too:

How do I know if I’m singing in tune?

How do you know how loud you should sing in choir?

6 facts about singing to help first-time singers

Singing in a group is a learnt skill – if you find it hard, it doesn’t mean you can’t sing

Your job as a singer it to get out of your own way and be in the moment

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Chris Rowbury



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