Some Help in Harmonising...

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I recently received an email with the subject line 'Please help me to harmonise', and I thought: well, yes, that's what I do! I'll let my correspondent say in her own words what in particular she'd like help with:

In January I took up singing in an A Cappella group. I find singing in a harmony group difficult at present and I am sure that it is all in my head.

I am singing baritone and have no problem at all learning my part, I sing well when I am grouped with the other baris in my group and we sound great as a unit. It's when we are split up and I end up having the lead part sung loudly in my ear, I just can't cope because all I can hear is the lead part... I would love to be able to hear the chord that all the parts make up to help me gel in this chorus.

Now my first thought is: don't be down-hearted, this is a perfectly normal experience in the first few months of singing a cappella harmony. One of the reasons I wanted to respond publicly was because there will be loads of other people saying either, 'Yes, that's me too!' or 'Yes, that was me when I first started!' So message number 1: hang on in there, this is something you do get better at over time.

My next thought is: it's quite a perspicacious question. Something you see quite often from adult learners who are beating themselves up over being slower picking up a skill than they would like is that they are really quite insightful in their analysis of the process and of their own experience. It's one of the things I like about working with adult learners - they're so much more on the case than they give themselves credit for.

The key points here are that, 'I am sure that it is all in my head' and 'I would love to be able to hear the chord that all the parts make up.' These are wonderfully succinct ways of articulating the way that a musical whole is something that exists not in the sounds, but in how we piece the sounds together in our brains.

Now, when you first start singing in harmony, you haven't yet built up the complete mental categories to hold all the music in your head at once. So you tend to do one of two things. Either you shut out the rest of the world to keep your focus on your own part or you keep finding yourself wandering off your own part onto other people's notes (often the tune). The first category of people will be diagnosed as 'a strong singer but doesn't blend', the second as, 'blendy, but inaccurate'.

Both categories of singers are en route to the state of rounded skills whereby they can keep both musical self and other in their heads simultaneously, but they are getting there by different routes. (Anybody else find this line of discussion starting to feel eerily like Carol Gilligan's book, In a Different Voice?) To my mind, the most important thing in both cases is to avoid labelling people as 'inherently' one kind of singer or the other - since that will tend to arrest musical development at that stage - but to use the observations to support their continued acquisition of skill.

So, onto practical suggestions of what singers can do to help develop the more rounded and balanced relationship between self and other. Interestingly, the kinds of exercises that come to mind will be helpful for both routes through the learning process.

Things you can do by yourself

It is clearly more useful, in learning to sing harmony, to have other people about, but there are things you can do in private practice to help beyond simply practising your own part. Start by singing through a song to its melody, followed by your harmony part. Then sing through hopping between your part and the tune as you go. This will strengthen your concept of the two parts and give the confidence that you can pick one of them to sing at will.

Things you can do with just a few friends to help

Duetting is the most direct route to building up a deep understanding of a harmonic texture. For a baritone who is getting tangled up by strong leads, I'd suggest spending time duetting with a bass to get that relationship set up in your head. But really, duet with whoever is available and willing! And if you can get a quartet together, then duet all combinations of parts - and you'll find that it's listening to the pairings that don't involve you that really build up your mental map of the music.

Things that can help in chorus rehearsal

Duetting is a great rehearsal tool for a full chorus too. It also helps to move around and sing in as many different positions as possible. For sure, this is part of the current problem, but it's also part of the solution. (Remember, it's by doing things that you can't quite do yet that you grow as a musician.) Another useful exercise is to split a chorus in two and alternate between the two smaller groups - not only does each group have to work harder in taking responsibility for the musical thread, but they each also get to hear the full texture while each other perform.

I realise that as a relatively new chorus member, you might not feel in a position to make this last category of things happen, but I do know that singers quite often send directors links from this blog as a way to make suggestions. Speaking as a director, I'm always rather grateful when someone drops a hint as to what they'd like some help with - makes my rehearsal planning all the more purposeful.

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