I remember when we were working on our Mainstage Musical Theatre production of Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida with the grade 9 through 12 students at the school where I teach.
There’s a gospel style song that closes the first act. It starts out quiet, grows and grows, and then has an all-out, impassioned A Capella section near the end.
We somehow got the idea in rehearsal to go into the hallway outside the theatre (one of those echo chamber type spaces where voices resonate), turn off all the lights, and sing that song.
Four-part harmony echoing through the pitch black hallways of the school – goose bumps!
We did it whenever we got the chance and ended up making that part of our pre-show vocal warm-up to help get everyone pumped for the show.
Harmony: More than Magic
There are many reasons to develop your skill with harmony:
It Enhances your Pitch. Learning to hold a harmony part is one of the best ways to enhance your ear & pitch in general. It forces you to really listen to the note you are singing and make sure it “fits” not only with other voices but with the musical accompaniment (ie. if you’re singing a solo, improvising, or whatever).
You Get Sharp Ears. Through practice holding a harmony part from written music, individuals, over time, also develop the ability to pick out a harmony part by ear. This is a very useful skill since there are obviously many situations where you can put it to use, from a rock band to an open mic performance to a campfire sing-a-long.
You Develop an Edge. From my experience both as a director in high school musical theatre and acting in community musical theatre, musical directors will remember someone who is strong on their part and it gives them an edge in auditions & casting (“So and so may not be a soloist, but she’s a really strong alto in the ensemble so we should find a spot for her.”)
Knowing your part give you an edge in auditions & casting.
You Pass the Test. Some community choral groups (and certainly professional or semi-professional ones) have an audition which would definitely involve testing your ability to hold a part.
You Get Opportunities. For instance, I have run a Victorian caroling quartet for over 20 years. We dress up in Victorian costume, sing four part harmony, and are hired (for money!) by local malls, businesses, Christmas parties & events, etc.
Some ways you can start developing your harmony skills:
1. Sing lots! Particularly with groups that intentionally commit time and energy to working on the harmony parts
(as opposed, say, to a musical production where the director just has everyone sing in unison because they’re focused on other things…any kind of singing is good, obviously, but unison karaoke won’t help the cast improve their harmony abilities much).
2. Find a mentor. Find somebody in the group (cast, choir, whatever it is you’re involved with) who IS strong on their part and stick close to them. Sit with them in rehearsals. Listen to them. Follow them. Ask them for help. Ask to sing the part for them and have them confirm if you got it right or not.
3. Practice, practice, practice. Ask members of your section to sing through parts together before or after rehearsals or during breaks. Often if there is a rehearsal pianist around they are more than happy to run your parts with your section in spare moments. Or perhaps somebody in the cast/choir has enough piano to plunk out the part for you all as you sing along.
4. Hum along. During rehearsals after you have learned your part, as the vocal director is teaching or going over another section’s part, sing yours quietly along with them.
5. Make it stick. Sing your part all the time! At the bus stop, in the shower, in your car. When you know it’s not right don’t let it slide. Figure it out.
Final words – Some Harmony Tips & Tricks
Here are some things I have seen singers do to develop harmonies:
1. Record your part. Have the rehearsal pianist (or someone) record your part on the piano and/or your section singing the part (provided they have it right!) while you record with your phone. Practice with the recording.
2. Test Yourself. Learn where the first and last note of a tricky section are on the piano. Give yourself the first note, sing through the part, and make sure you end on the right last note. Similarly, with any specific tricky intervals in the music you’re having trouble with, learn where the two notes are on the piano. Play the first note and practice the jump to see if you get it right.
3. Play A Game. This may sound dumb, but friends of mine (a brother and sister) who are both very strong harmony singers attribute their ability, in part, to a game they played as teenagers. They would try to sing a song together starting in different keys (which of course would sound terrible!) and check at the end that they had stayed true to their starting key. As they got older, they made it even more challenging. Instead of both singing the melody in their own key, they would also practice singing their harmony part but each in a different key.
4. Take some piano lessons. Formal lessons at a young age is obviously fantastic….but even just having a friend show you a bit of simple chording. Hearing (and seeing) the separate notes, how they sound individually, and then how they combine in a chord helps you hear and understand where your harmony notes fits in.
5. Pick up an Instrument. Some of my best harmony singers are often also in the band program. I don’t think this is because they are more innately “musical”. I think it’s because when you’re playing an instrument in a band you are constantly hearing the combination of your individual instrument’s part (which you play by holding down the right combination of valves or keys) and how it fits in the whole – exactly what harmony singing requires.
6. Learn all the Parts. Perhaps not for the beginners but those who have developed a certain level of skill MAY find it useful to learn all the parts, not just your own. This might help you hear where your part fits in. Having said this, some may find this just throws them off. Particularly when first starting out and/or if you find you tend to drift to a different part. In that case, as in the above section, focus on your part and your part alone!
Stuff like the trick above used by my friends (singing it two different keys) helps train the ability to tune OUT the other sounds around and focus solely on the notes you are producing, which is important. I would note however that that’s only PART of the equation of singing harmony. The other part is not only being true to your part but then ALSO hearing it in the context of the entire group for balance, resonance, etc. I have definitely known some singers (not my friends mentioned above!) who are strong on their part but stick out distractingly in the ensemble as a whole because they do not blend.
Tim Barss has taught Musical Theatre, Stagecraft, and Math in Victoria, BC since 1996 during which time he has been director and/or vocal director for 34 high school productions. He is also active on stage in local community theatre with both Victoria Operatic Society and Langham Court Theatre.