All Things Vocal Blog & Podcast by Judy Rodman: January 2019

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Singing and Creating Harmony

 The Hall Sisters at our vocal lesson - working the breath control straw

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From the two-part harmony of Simon and Garfunkel, the multi-dimensional tapestry of a classical or gospel choir, to the experimental vocal arrangements of pop rock songs like Bohemian Rhapsody or Africa by the band Toto, singing a note that is different but complements another note is like... 1 plus 1 equals 117! Let's talk about...

The power of harmony...

Human voices can resonate and magnify each other like violins can. Singing harmony can be incredibly fulfilling as it emanates from you in the middle of a rich multi-layered, co-created sound and connects you to the people you're singing with.

If you are or are seeking to become a professional vocalist, being able to find and sing harmony can add a significant revenue stream to your career. Here are some instances...
  • When your lead career is on pause or not happening at the moment, you can get employment singing backgrounds for someone else's live show or studio project.
  • There can be significant networking and career-building possibilities if you can sing harmony with another artist, say on a TV show, a co-tour or a writer's round. 
  • Musicians who don't normally sing can learn to do so pretty quickly. I have taught touring players who never considered themselves singers to sing harmony confidently in live shows and in the studio. 
For all these reasons and more, learning to find, choose, match and create harmony is a worthy goal for anyone, so let's dig in.

How to pick a part...

Harmonizing is a bit tricky because there's more than one choice of notes you can make that work with the same melody.  For instance: 
  • You can simply sing an exact parallel distance above or below the melody (say thirds, fifths or sixths) or you can sing different intervals to different notes. 
  • Or you can do like Emmylou Harris and create a contrasting melody to be the harmony part. 
  • If the melody goes all over the place, you could cross voice in harmony without going too high or low. 
  • Or as a group you could create block harmony, inverting chords to move as little as you can while letting the melody do as it wishes. 
  • And of course when you create more than one part (three or four (or more) -part harmony), you have to take into consideration how each harmony note works with the other. 
Some choices just sound better than others, so experimentation is often needed to settle on the best harmony options. To make the best choices, you also have to take into account the musical genre in which you're singing. There are certain harmony choices that sound more true to specific genres; you must immerse yourself in that music and study it to chose parts wisely. How much vibrato you use matters, too. For instance:
  • Blues uses lots of flat 7ths, bluegrass does NOT. 
  • Jazz incorporates major 7ths, 4 sharps, diminished and augmented chords, etc and these more complicated chords are taken into account in harmonies. 
  • Western music is instantly recognizable with 4 part barbershop-like tight harmonies, often using 2s and 9s in note choices. 
  • For rock music, sometimes your harmony choice can be so 'wrong', disregarding the underlying chords and chord progressions in the track, that it's just right! 
  • Celtic music prefers 5ths and I really like to leave 3rd's out for some traditional mountain-country music that uses one harmony part. Bluegrass commonly fills choruses with full simple triads, strong progressions and sometimes momentary suspended notes leading into the next chord, mostly sung straight tone. Check out Alison Krauss and Union Station performing 'Down To The River To Pray':
  • As to multiple parts, there are some brilliantly complex arrangements in many pop as well as black gospel music that frequently change from unison to 4 or more parts, but are so masterfully arranged they sound like a sonic tapestry with no seams.   
  • Harmony choices can indicate generational eras. These days there are a whole lot less oohs and aahs in background vocals than there used to be, so if you use them you need to take care that it doesn't make the song sound 'dated'... unless you're going for retro! 
  • And then there's the fact that for every rule created for harmony, there is usually a hit song that broke that rule. Whew!

How to train for harmony singing...

You can see why creating good background vocal arrangements (harmony), takes experience. Most professional singers who do a lot of studio session  work or live background vocals have been harmonizing since they were children. Many times they have also worked for veteran producers who ask for certain harmony, and thus learn various strategies for arrangements that might not have occurred to them otherwise. That doesn't mean you can't learn to sing parts without this history; I've successfully trained many singers to do so. Here is my harmony training strategy:
  • First I create a cool harmony the singer or group likes, that fits the genre of the song.
  • Then I sing and/or play it on piano and record it so the singer can practice and memorize it. If it's a group I'm dealing with, I'll do this for each part so the singers can individually learn their harmony before putting it all together. 
  • Then I have the singer(s) practice. I use a plastic gadget called 'HearFones' to help singers zone into their own parts instead of being pulled into the melody or another part. It works great with groups of any number. After having the singer practice the harmony line a few times, I have them sing with the melody or other parts. If using them, I take the HearFones away and have them practice 'holding their own'.
  • And lastly, I have the singer work on controlling the volume of their voice while singing the harmony part. If the harmony is too loud, it will overtake the melody. If too soft, it will not create the sonic envelope that compliments the melody. Getting the volume just right is as much of an art as finding the right note! 
One way that you can become familiar and experiment with more harmony choices is to dissect recordings of songs with background parts in them. You may need headphones for this to discern distinct notes in softer blankets of harmony. Try to focus on listening to just one line of harmony at a time, writing it down either in manuscript on staff lines or using a shortcut method such as Nashville's number system. For instance, here is how I would write in numbers a three part version of three blind mice (the melody is in the middle). For those not familiar with the number system, '1' is 'do' or tonic of the key. 

      5       4       3                                                                                                     G       F       E
      3       2       1        In the key of C, these numbers would correspond to    E      D       C
      1       6       5                                                                                                     C      A       G
"Three blind mice"

Just for fun and to see how it changes the feel and genre placement of the phrase, you might try out a few different harmony strategies for that melody, such as:

  5    4   3                      5   4   3b                  5   5   3                4#  4n   3
  3    2   1       ...or...     3  2    1     ...or...     3   2   1    ...or...   3    2     1
  7b  6   5                      1  7b   6                  1   1   5                 1    7     7
Which sounds Dissonant? Modal? In what genre does it seem to belong? There are many more choices you could make. Go on, try another! Then try to sing the melody while each of these chord progressions play (or while listening to them on the podcast audio). Good luck!

What I find is that with time and experience memorizing harmony, singers start being able to create their own harmony lines. Sometimes they use their favorite harmony strategy to create their unique artistic definition. The country duo 'the Judds' comes to mind, where Naomi typically sang a haunting bluegrass-style part or two to Wynonna's lead melody. You'll hear that she didn't always trace the melody in parallel fashion in their early hit 'Grandpa'. When Wynonna went solo, her first single was "She Is His Only Need". I sang backgrounds with the writer Dave Loggins as Wynonna doubled her own melody to create three part harmony including the male voice. It was, on purpose, a different sound.

Some examples of great harmony...

Now check out some of my favorite harmony examples. We of course, have to include Pentatonix doing 'Havana'. The vocal arrangement is incredibly creative and tight and includes the voice as trumpet and beat box!

 The Washington Performing Arts choir illustrates the power, complexity and resonance of Black Gospel:

I would be completely remiss not to mention the incredible harmonies of Vox Grata... a women's choir whose members include some friends of mine:

And let me finish with the vocal group pictured in this post's header that I've been thrilled to work with (thank you, Diane Kimbrough, for putting us together!) The Hall Sisters really do sing this precisely - even live with no electronic tuning!

Harmony is everywhere, weaving through the melodies creating the music of the spheres. Oh, I know I've left out some other incredible examples, so please... feel free to add a link to your own favorite harmony performances in the comments!  

As always, I'm here if you need some help... just write me at my contact link.

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Saturday, January 5, 2019

What I Learned About Creative Courage In New Zealand

Me in the fantastic village of Hobbiton

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Do you ever get afraid to step out of your safe but boring artistic boundaries? Let me take you to a place where today (in Nashville) is already tomorrow, where tropical forests are just a few hundred feet from glaciers, where there are more sheep than people, more ways to fix coffee than anywhere else and where the arts they have created are powerfully unique and courageous. Let me take you to New Zealand!

New Zealand's strengths include multicultural communities who are willing to go beyond the usual, the expected, the safe clone of what's been done before. My husband John and I recently returned from our bucket-list vacation there and came back incredibly inspired by the fresh, brave, breathtaking land and people that we got to immerse ourselves in for a couple of weeks. Let me share some of what we experienced... and may it enlarge your own list of possibilities!

Earthquake? Do Art On The Healing

In February 2011 Christchurch, New Zealand experienced an earthquake that caused 30 million tons of ice to shear away from its largest (Tasman) glacier, damaged 100,000 homes, injured several thousand people and killed 185. Needless to say, it was catastrophically devastating financially, physically and emotionally. Some empathetic and courageous street artists got to work drawing beautiful pictures all over the city, to make people feel better and more hopeful during the continuing cleanup and rebuilding. Art for the heart!

Dance O-Mat In The Street 

The Dance-O-Mat was created by a company called Gap Filler in 2012 to bring 'people, life and energy back to the central city' in Christchurch after the loss of dance spaces due to the quake of 2011. To use it, people just bring any device that has a headphone jack, plug it in to the converted washing machine, and pop in $2 (NZ) to power it up ... and then start dancing! I saw it used by several people, right in the street in the heart of the city, between buildings being worked on. This is yet another example of the power of music to heal.

Create a new form of coffee

When you order coffee in New Zealand the next words out of your server's mouth is "What kind?" The list usually includes long black, Americano, latte, cappuccino, macchiato, espresso, and my favorite... flat white. My friend keyboardist Catherine Styron Marx told me she became addicted to flat white coffee while on tour in NZ, drinking 5 cups one morning! We commiserated on not finding it in the US so far, so if you know of a shop that serves it, please let me know! Without coffee, my first student in the morning would note a bit of brain fog from their coach:) (Yes, vocal health enthusiasts... I do have a glass of water along with that coffee!)

Grow your own sweet potato

I also became addicted to Kumara... New Zealand's unique sweet potato. I ate it in bread and as fries. I'm now trying to replicate the taste in recipes with our sweet potatoes... which have close but not quite that kumara flavor. This reminds me how lyrics and music have unique markers that make them seem to belong in certain countries, and we need to understand those nuances as we write for a certain market.

Create Shopping Malls out of Shipping Containers

'Start City Mall' was built out of shipping containers in the center of the Christchurch devastation. It was so successful and beloved it may turn from temporary into a permanent fixture. Think about it... how many lasting, beloved songs have been written in the middle of pain? It's an interesting parallel.

Eye language at work in a sheep dog

Creative eye language is used by dogs to herd sheep. New Zealand has more sheep than people, and they all need direction! Watching a sheep herding event reminded me of how creative a singer or speaker's eyes need to be in order to capture and corral our own audiences.

Sing In the Glow Worm Caves

The Waitomo glow worm caves in North island contains a glow worm unique to New Zealand. We took a bus trip there and met girl who is legally blind named Rachael Leahcar, who was a finalist 'The Voice' in Australia. Guided by her friend into the caves with us, our tour guide asked her to sing in the tallest section of the cave. As I listened to this brave angel sing "La Vie En Rose" in this beautiful echo chamber, I thought about the many opportunities we don't take as artists and performers because we're afraid. Oh, and then we got to see the glow worms, which for all the world looked like something out of the movie 'Avatar'! Breathtaking.

Celebrate Authentic Maori Culture

The Maori are the indigenous people who immigrated to Aotearoa (New Zealand) from Polynesia well before the Europeans. We were invited into their village to witness some of their rituals, dances and music. The Maori culture, art and language are highly respected and revered throughout the country, North and South islands. Their cultural symbol, the silver fern, has been adopted throughout New Zealand, including being painted on the tails of all the planes in New Zealand Airlines. Most public building names, instructions, restaurant menus and bathrooms include Maori language translation right beside the English words. I enjoyed learning and saying 'Kia Ora' to smiling strangers I met along the way. It reminds me... when we're performing, there are no strangers.

You know, musical genres are a lot like languages. Different people express the same emotion with different kinds of music. While we all have our own languages, we should respect all others - even possibly consider bravely listening and creating outside our musical norm!

Turn a beloved movie set into a permanent site

If you watched the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings movies, you may recognize this sign, which was in one of the scenes in a site they named 'the Shire'. In a lightbulb of creativity, Peter Jackson and company decided to turn the temporary hobbit hole houses into "Hobbiton"... a permanent site. They have a contract with the landowner there in New Zealand to keep the site groomed and guided and expanded for tourists that come from all over the globe. On the bus trip there, they of course played a song from the soundtrack. Between the music, the flower and vegetable gardens, the detail around the hole houses and the green dragon tavern we drank in, it really was a magical experience. It would be a good thing to turn our performances into experiences worthy of permanent memories!

Never take it for granted

The mountains, valleys, glaciers, forests, coasts and fiords of New Zealand are ever changing. Between earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and wildfires, the land is always making itself over. Therefore, part of the creative courage I see in New Zealand comes from not being able to take tomorrow for granted. One must learn to ride the roller skates and turn broken treasures into new dreams. So must we all.

I hope you've enjoyed this wider take on 'All Things Vocal'. If you'd like to see pictures from my vacation, you can check them out on my Facebook profile here.

Kia ora, dear readers and listeners... and don't forget if you are in New Zealand or anywhere else too far to get to Nashville, I teach online students across the globe! For more information on my lessons and courses, just leave me a message at my contact link.

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