Efficient vocal rehearsals?
February 28, 2006 7:35 AM   Subscribe

The best way to work on vocal harmonies? Tip & tricks?

Our alt-country band has started focusing on getting harmonies (three and four-part) up to snuff. Our lead vocalist is incredible and our backup vocalists are no slouches either. The problem is trying to make best use of our somewhat limited rehearsal time. All the vocalists are relatively new and have to learn a lot of material quickly. On top of that, we have had to invent parts on the fly. Sometimes this mires rehearsals down in nit-picking and over-analysis. I'd like to hear from anyone familiar with this process, what is the most efficient way to run a vocal rehearsal and get maximum results? (apologies for sounding like Tony Robbins).
posted by KevinSkomsvold to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are you working from printed music, or by ear? I work best with the music in front of me, but not everyone does.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:47 AM on February 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks PinkSuperHero. We are working off lyric sheets (no printed music) and by ear.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:04 AM on February 28, 2006

Best answer: Ok, good to know.

For me, a basic understanding of music theory, specifically chord construction, helps me when I'm singing harmony. I picture in my mind a piano, hear the base, the third, the fifth, and so on. I don't know how familiar your members are with music theory, but it might be worthwhile to review chord construction, so that when someone is singing a melody, they can go, oh, I bet it'd sound great if I sang a third above that.

As for the nit-picking, does everyone have a part they usually sing- Joe sings melody, Amy sings harmony below, Fred sings harmony above- or is it just willy-nilly?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:09 AM on February 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Good point PSH. All the members of the band are pretty well versed in music theory.

Basically the process is this: We know the key of the song. Our lead vocalist picks out individual notes in the chord and those notes are assigned to each person to sing that part. That part works fine. It sounds incredible when everyone is on but then it seems the wheels fall off when people try to get too fancy ie., "I should sing the third/seventh!" etc... Maybe it's just a question of telling that individual "this is your part - learn it, live it and sing it - end of discussion."
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:18 AM on February 28, 2006

If I had to stop nitpicking and pick only one thing to concentrate on, it'd be matching vowel sounds/dipthongs. In my barbershop quartet, we've found we can get away with some sloppy pitch and wrong notes as long as we execute the lyrics as a unit.
posted by klarck at 8:19 AM on February 28, 2006

Dictatorship. Someone must be have the final say. Consider even bringing in an outsider with a trained ear if possible.

And what PS said. In my old band we would stop playing all our instruments and one person would pick up an acoustic, plucking out thirds and fifths that we needed to add to the melody and practice our vocals that way. And the lead singer was a dictator, and it worked.
posted by poppo at 8:25 AM on February 28, 2006

Maybe it's just a question of telling that individual "this is your part - learn it, live it and sing it - end of discussion."

posted by poppo at 8:28 AM on February 28, 2006

Best answer: Limit the problem.

1. Don't use harmonies throughout a song. If you rely on a strong solo lead voice most of the time and then use a few seconds of strong, tight harmony, and then go back to the strong solo voice, the contrasts will make the harmonies and leads sound that much better.

2. Don't use four-part harmonies just because you can; maybe two- or three-part is as good or better in some cases. If you need vocal power at certain points, maybe doubling up on parts will work (two people singing the same part).

3. Don't try to be too creative at first. Write simple harmonies. After playing out with this material for some time, you can elaborate on some of it.
posted by pracowity at 8:51 AM on February 28, 2006

A looped recording made all the difference in the world for us last night.
posted by jon_kill at 8:53 AM on February 28, 2006

something like harmonies have to be arranged, they can't be improvised ... it's fine to try out different things like 7ths and 9ths while the arrangements are hashed out, but they have to work ...

the background singers' job is to support the lead vocalist ... if the lead vocalist is uncomfortable with the notes others are singing, then it's not working ... unless it's someone else's job to come up with arrangements, the lead singer should have the final say ... and if you're not writing out the parts beforehand, then the background singers need to listen ... and need to remember what kind of harmonies the lead singer is most comfortable with and pick their notes with that in mind

the end result should be - "this is your part - learn it, live it and sing it - end of discussion." ... once it's settled, it's settled
posted by pyramid termite at 8:55 AM on February 28, 2006

Response by poster: Wow, some excellent feedback!

This is pretty new territory for us as a group. Vocals have not been a major focus for us but from what we've learned from industry people, vocals are probably the most important part of a group's presentation - above everything else.

Great food for thought. I'll be sharing this with our group so please know that your advice is not falling on deaf ears.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:12 AM on February 28, 2006

Maybe it's just a question of telling that individual "this is your part - learn it, live it and sing it - end of discussion."'


something like harmonies have to be arranged, they can't be improvised

Right as well. Bring manuscript paper to rehearsal. If you can get good at notating parts quickly by hand, which really shouldn't be that difficult, it can make a world of difference.

But complex vocal harmony is a lot less likely to work if anyone isn't completely sure of his part. It all depends on the singers, but "ok, I'll sing the 5th" is tough if you don't have super ears. Learning a harmony part as a line is generally a lot easier.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:46 AM on February 28, 2006

Writing it down is actually superior to recording, I think, in that it gives the arranger (someone's arranging, yes?) an opportunity to review each line more easily.

But there's a lot to be said for recording all the time. Then when you do the one verse where it was PERFECT someone can transcribe it.

And yeah, I would definitely limit four-part to a few places. Apart from the cheesiness and boringness of continual barbershop, it makes it easier to screw up. By all means practise four part harmonising a lot, but don't perform like that.

One thing about improvised four part where it often used to come unstuck in my (limited) experience: obviously, in most places someone will be doubling someone else, because in old time country stuff you don't get a lot of added sevenths/ninths/whatever. It can be very hard after you've just sung a note where you're doubling someone not to keep following them and lose your line. Which comes back to learning your harmonies, and practising them alone, as separate lines. Just doing it by ear and never practising alone is a recipe for being unable to recreate the magic of that one time in rehearsal where you all got it right.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:56 AM on February 28, 2006

Best answer: As far as rehearsal techniques go: I can't overstate the importance of rehearsing the parts a cappella. If you can get the harmonies sounding consistently clean and in-tune without instruments, they'll work better live. You will listen differently when not simultaneously playing your instruments, and you won't be fighting the inherent out-of-tuneness of instruments tuned to equal temperament.

As far as a rehearsal process goes, I'd suggest the following (I'm a choir director/voice teacher, and found this to be an effective way of rehearsing when I sang backup and played piano for an indie band with some Beach Boys-esque harmony parts):

1. Start out by rehearsing the harmonies a cappella without amplification, perhaps while sitting in a circle. Listen for intonation, balance, dipthongs (as klarck suggested above) and so on. If you have harmony parts in most of your songs, you might consider devoting at least one entire rehearsal to this step, and maybe more depending on how strong people's ears are. You mention that the vocal stuff breaks down when people start getting fancy... this would be a good place to experiment with some harmony parts that aren't strictly 1-3-5 (that often gets stale faster than you might think, although it might be OK in the country idiom; I'm not familiar enough with the style to say).

2. Add amplification next, but still without instruments.

3. Add instruments (personally I'd start with just the bass, then bass and guitar, then everything). If the parts clash horribly with the instrumental music, you may have to go back to step one, but you'll be better prepared to fix the little things.

Good luck!
posted by the_bone at 8:34 PM on February 28, 2006

And yeah, I would definitely limit four-part to a few places.

I don't get this. If a whole song sounds good with 4 part harmony, that's how you should do it. Bach did it, The Beatles did it, The Beach Boys did it, Elliott Smith did it.

Of course, some songs might have no vocal harmony as well. I just don't see the point of placing that kind of compositional restriction on yourself.

But to me, vocal harmonies are a part of writing a song, no different from lyrics or chords or melody. So if you're saving them until rehearsal time, things might be different, but as has been noted, that might be one of the reasons things are difficult.

the_bone's tips for rehearsing sound good, though. I like to do things the same way, but when rehearsing vocals "a capella" I don't have any qualms about hitting a chord on the piano now and then before an entrance when everyone is still learning. There's little point in beating yourself up over trying to sing things without accompaniment if that's not how you're actually going to perform it.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:46 AM on March 1, 2006

Bach did it, The Beatles did it, The Beach Boys did it, Elliott Smith did it.

Not really. Bach did it, but with choirs singing church music, which you can't compare to a modern alt-country band. And I don't recall the Beatles, for example, using four-part harmonies throughout their songs.

Also, as i_am_joe's_spleen points out, too much harmonizing and you get "the cheesiness and boringness of continual barbershop," not the alt-country sound he wants.
posted by pracowity at 2:29 PM on March 2, 2006

Sorry, Because from Abbey Road is actually three-part throughout. Regardless, The Beach Boys used 4 parts or more very often consistently.

The point was that writing vocal arrangements is part of writing a song, and I don't see why we should be telling him how he should or shouldn't write his songs. Four part harmony obviously =/= barbershop, and there's nothing necessarily cheesy or boring about it.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:34 AM on March 3, 2006

Also, most of Here There and Everywhere is in 4 parts.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:03 PM on March 3, 2006

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