Monday, April 06, 2020

How to sing harmony on your own

I love harmony singing. But sometimes I don’t have the luxury of other people to sing with.

Here are some ways to sing harmony, even if you’re on your own.

If you’re stuck at home for any reason, but love singing harmony with others, what can you do?

It is possible to find ways to sing harmony on your own. Here are some suggestions.

1. use your choir’s teaching resources

If you’re in a choir, there’s a very good chance that you have some teaching resources lying around. Some of these may well be recordings of individual parts, but even if you don’t have those, you’ll almost certainly have recordings of your choir’s performances.

If you’ve got individual part recordings, you can practice singing your own part against each of the others. Then when you’re secure in your own part (of if your choir doesn’t provide individual parts), you can sing along with the full recording of your choir.

2. online teaching resources

Some of you aren’t in regular choirs or even if you are, you might like to widen your repertoire. In which case, look online. There are many examples of people teaching songs part by part, often publicly accessible on YouTube. Simply learn an appropriate part (or all of them) and sing along against the other parts.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, many people offered ‘virtual choir’ experiences where they taught each song part online, then singers sent in recordings of them singing their part. These were then edited together to make a ‘virtual choir’. These recordings and teaching resources are almost certainly still online.

There are also various live sing-along opportunities online where you at least get to sing a harmony with the person leading the session (see How to sing together in times of isolation).

3. record a melody and sing against it

Most of us have phones that can record sound. Or perhaps you have an old cassette recorder or dictaphone stuck in the back of a cupboard. Just grab something that can record your voice and sing the tune of a song you know well from your choir.

Pick a song where your vocal part does not sing the tune. Then just sing your part against the recording you made as you play it back. If your part always sings the tune, then learn one of the harmony parts and try singing along with the melody.

If you can’t access individual parts using suggestions 1 and 2, or you want to branch out, see suggestion 8 below.

4. sing against an instrument

If you play an instrument, you can do something similar to suggestion 3, but without needing a recorder. This might be useful if you sight read and don’t have access to recordings of separate parts, but do have sheet music of song arrangements.

Simply play one line on your instrument of choice and sing your part against it. You can practice singing against all the other parts in turn, but also try learning different parts.

5. use a multi-track recorder

Some of you may have a dedicated recording device at home which can record several different vocal parts in parallel. But even if you don’t have such professional equipment, most people have smartphones these days and it turns out “there’s an app for that.”

Just Google something like “app for multi-track recording” and add the operating system that your phone uses (usually either Android of iOS). Then download from the app store.

If you use your desktop regularly, then you can download Audacity for free (works on Windows and Mac OS), and if you’re on an Apple computer, try GarageBand.

This is a step up from suggestion 3, but similar. It’s easiest if you have access to a harmony arrangement of a song (for example, from  your own choir). Using your harmony arrangement, sing each part in turn and record it. You can then try singing your own part against each of the other parts in turn. Or have all parts playing back except yours and just join in.

If you already know a part in a particular arrangement, this is a great way of trying the other parts out and getting a sense of how they all fit together.

If you can’t access individual parts using suggestions 1 and 2, or you want to branch out, see suggestion 8 below.

6. create a home-based choir

If you don’t live on your own, then why not rope in the other voices in your house? If they think they can’t ‘sing’ (even though everyone can), you could try singing simple rounds together. If your housemates are more musical, then teach them some of the song arrangements you know well. At least it will create a lot of laughter!

7. phone a friend (on landline!)

Phone a friend who knows the same song arrangement as you and sing together on the phone. Make sure you use a landline to ensure a good quality connection, but more importantly, to make sure there is no delay between your voices. You’ll need to pick a friend who sings a different part to you.

If you’re feeling ambitious, you can organise a conference call (again, it must be on landline) and have several of you singing together at once.

8. make up harmonies to recordings

If you’ve been in a choir for a while or if you love singing harmonies along to the radio, you will have a huge amount of innate understanding of harmony. You don’t need to understand music theory or be able to read music to be able to make up harmonies.

If you’ve not done it before, start with something simple that you know well. Evergreen pop songs from the 50s and 60s often use a similar musical structure that will be familiar. Find a recording of the full song (or use suggestions 3 or 4), and try singing a harmony against the main tune. You won’t get it right the first time, but with enough practice you’ll end up with something workable. If you’re struggling to find a harmony above the tune, then try one below the tune (or vice versa).

You can get really ambitious and try finding more harmonies. Using suggestion 5, you can end up with a whole new song arrangement!

You will find that some songs don’t immediately offer up obvious harmonies. Some folk songs for example are in rather unusual ‘modes’ that mean finding a harmony is not straightforward. You can learn from this and keep persisting until something pops out. But if you find it frustrating, abandon that particular song and find one that works more easily.

improving your own harmony singing

Even if you do have the opportunity to sing with others, singing harmony in isolation can have many benefits. You will end up with a deeper understanding of your own voice, and also learn your own harmony part much better.

  • tuning into your own voice – when I first started making parts recordings for my choir, I found it very hard to stay in tune with my own voice. If you’re singing with somebody else, because of the different quality and timbre of the other voices, you don’t need to be 100% accurate in order to blend. But if you’re singing against your own voice, any small differences and inaccuracies will immediately become noticeable.

    You will also notice any habits you have. For example, I’ve noticed that I always scoop upwards onto the first note I sing rather than nailing it perfectly.
  • holding a part on your own – you might think you know your part really well, but when the other singers in your part are no longer there it will be very exposing. You may well find that you don’t know your part as well as you thought, or you haven’t been singing it perfectly in tune. You will also discover how much you’ve been relying on your fellow singers.
  • understanding how the parts work – if you’re in a choir, you will usually be surrounded by others singing the same part as you. If it’s a learn-by-ear choir, there will be a focus on each part in turn. If you use sheet music, then much of the time all parts will be singing at the same time.

    By singing on your own and singing your part against the others in turn, you will develop a much greater understanding of how all the parts fit together. Even if this is on an intuitive level, it will mean that when you get back to singing with your choir, you will find it much easier to hold your own part and listen to the others at the same time.
You might also find these other posts interesting:

Singing in harmony 1 – how do they do that?

Singing in harmony 2 – small group skills

What is harmony singing?

Why do I end up singing the tune when I should be singing a harmony?

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Chris Rowbury




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