Helping singers learn to hold a harmony part on their own

Listed on March 10, 2014 in Blogs!

If you’re in a choir you’ll be used to singing your harmony part surrounded by others singing the same thing. But it seems much harder to hold a part by yourself when you’re in a small group.

birds singing

photo by Eric Kilby

In this post I’ll show you how easy it is, how it’s your own head that gets in the way, and I’ll also outline a process that your choir can use to help train singers to hold a part on their own.

take stock

Here are a couple of things that will help you to not rely on the other singers around you.

  • stop depending on others – you almost certainly know your part really well. The trouble is that over time you start to assume that you need the others in your part to support you. This makes you very dependent on others.
  • you know more than you think – because you’re given the support of others in your part you might not realise how well you know your part. You can easily begin to believe that you couldn’t possibly sing it on your own. However, most of the time you know it perfectly well. 

the journey to holding a part on your own

Here are ten steps which will take your from being part of a large choir to being able to hold a part on your own in a trio or quartet.

  1. run through the song – standing in your usual choir formation. Then try it with moving people about within their part to add a bit of unfamiliarity. Get the choir to face in different directions. Put different parts next to each other.
  2. split the choir in two – divide the choir into two smaller choirs. Suddenly there are less people in your part, but you still have singers around you who are singing the same.
  3. take turns to sing to each other – you can spread the singers round in a circle or have two semi-circles facing each other. Start by everyone singing the song, then just choir 1, then just choir 2. This will allow singers to experience singing with a slightly smaller safety net.
  4. split into groups standing in a circle – get the choir to stand in a circle in groups of however many parts you usually have. So a SATB choir will have groups of four, whereas a SSA choir will have groups of three. There will be one from each part: e.g. SATBSATBSATB … or SSASSASSA …

    Point out that individual singers are no more than a few feet away from others in their part. Get each part to put their hands up in turn so singers can see where they are. Point out that it’s just a matter of geography: nothing has changed, it’s just that you’re a little further away from others in your part than usual. But they are still there supporting you. Watch their lips to keep in time (and tune!)

  5. get groups to focus inwards – still arranged in a large circle, ask each quartet or trio to turn slightly and focus more on the other singers in their group. They still have support not far away, though maybe they can’t see them easily. But they can hear them. Try changing the focus from within the smaller group to the overall choir sound and back again. Start to feel that you’re working as a three- or four-person team. Listen carefully how the parts fit and how each adds something to the other.
  6. increase the distance between groups – again it’s just a matter of geography: you still have the support of your fellow singers, it’s just that they are a little further away. You can hear them if you listen carefully. Use the whole room and spread the groups evenly throughout the space.
  7. ask only half the room to sing – get only the groups in one half of the room to sing, then get the other half to sing. This is exactly the same as when the choir was split in two, it’s just that you’re standing in slightly different places and are spread out across the room a bit more.
  8. ask just a few groups to sing – rather than half the choir, just pick a few groups to sing, preferably some distance away from each other.
  9. ask just one group to sing – finally get just one group to sing. If everyone’s up for it you could just point at random so no singer has a chance to get apprehensive. Move swiftly onto the next quartet without comment. You’re just allowing singers to have the experience of holding a part on your own. At this stage how well they do it is not an issue.
  10. get feedback from the singers – ask questions: “How can we make it easier?” “What was the hardest part?” “How is it different from singing from within the larger choir?”

a few things to note

Never put anyone on the spot or force them to do something they’re not comfortable with.

For most people it will be a challenge, but we don’t want to take singers too far outside their comfort zone. Do the whole exercise in a light-hearted way and don’t comment on quality or how well singers hold their part.

Congratulate everyone afterwards for agreeing to try the experiment. Most singers will feel that they’ve achieved something and will want to try it again (if only for the adrenaline rush!).

The more often you try this exercise, the more confident and comfortable the singers will become and when they go back to ‘normal’ choir formation you will notice a definite improvement. It also then gives you scope to organise the choir into small groups for performance which can make for a richer sound.

have you done this?

I’d love to hear from those of you who sing in, or lead a choir. Have you tried exercises like this? Do you have other ways of helping singers learn how to hold a part on their own? Do drop by and leave a comment.

Chris Rowbury