Learning to sing harmony

I’ve been asked many times to teach a person to sing harmony. Actually, I think you have to teach someone to hear and create harmony. Singing a counter line to a solo line isn’t really harmony in rock and roll (i.e.a canon such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat.) Harmony stacks up vertically — usually in three parts — and then moves along in a linear fashion. I believe it’s repetitively training your ear that allows you to hear those chords to stack up.

How did I learn to do it? You practice, practice, practice. I call it — The East Texas Rock and Roll method.

Here are the roots: my parents weren’t musical, for the most part. They liked music — mostly Johnny Mathis, Elvis Presley, and Ferrante and Teitscher. I had singers in my family but I wasn’t one.

THE thing that my parents did was let me buy any album I wanted and bring it home. Rock, blues, country, comedy — it didn’t matter. Any one I wanted. And so I did.

I combed garage sales. The first album I ever bought was The Beatles compilation blue album. I bought it for 50 cents. Every song was a hit. As soon as I had I bought it, I went straight home, put it on the record player and played it over and over and over for the next four hours. Sang the songs again and again — probably to the annoyance of my parents and my sister.

That was the beginning of a long and expensive journey of learning to hear and sing harmony and devouring resources to practice it.

I bought every country or rock and roll album, eight-track and cassette that I liked and I that could find. I purchased and listened to Glen Campbell’s Live album. Discovered Kenny Rogers and John Denver had great backing groups who had wonderful harmonies. Queen’s Fat-bottomed Girls was a favorite song to work out my ear. I owned almost every Journey cassette there was — and used them to sing very high like Steve Perry. Kansas was a favorite — Carry on was a challenge to work into my ear and head. Def Leppard had high harmonies with the guitar edge that I craved. Alabama, too. Yes, I even owned Shaun Cassidy, as well.

Over and over I listened, until I could sing every note of every song on each album. And, not in the ways you think. My voiced hadn’t changed, so I was singing parts in different octaves, changing the around and thereby putting harmony parts into ranges I could sing it. I’d replay the recordings over and over until I had every line in my ear and my head.

Then, I purchased the Hotel California eight track and the Eagles Greatest Hits, Volume I. I wore them both out. I knew every line of vocal track on Hotel California. I’d learn and sing the guitar solos, creating a series of scats and oohs so I’d have it in my ear. It was a challenge but it was so much fun to learn them.

As I grew older and drove, singing harmony was a constant game in the car. With no one in the car, I’d listen to my radio and sing to the sounds of that time. I’d challenge my ear by listening to the constantly moving chord structures and sing them out loud. (Yes, I’m was guy in the VW commercial singing Rush and doing the drum solo.) Song after song — I’d work until I mastered the sounds of the music I loved.

Cars were my studios. I could make mistakes and fix them with another hearing via the rewind button. Over and over songs emanated from my car — loudly. If a band in need of a backup singer would have driven by and heard me, I’m sure I would have been hired on the spot.

But, alas, DonHenley never came and asked me to sing backup and I ended up in college studying music.

In school, having rock and roll chops wasn’t seen as a positive thing. I had to learn to read actual music notes — use my eyes for something other than reading the liner notes on the cover of an album. That took work. but, I excelled in sight-singing and ear training. As a music student in Mrs. Rye’s sight singing class, I was an excellent student. She would start class, listen to us warble through some line, and then turn to me and Todd Walker and dismiss us from class, leaving others there to wrestle and struggle with hearing the notes she would play.

I worked hard at my studies. I learn music form and structure, which helped me in visualize harmonic structures. This continued into masters work at SMU. Being able to hear and see the harmonic structures of things helped me be a better choir director, conductor and overall musician. Again, it all goes back to the hard work of singing to those records.

Practical application of all of this came when I was charged with the creation and execution of a new contemporary worship service. It was while serving in Texarkana, Texas that I was charged with creating this new service — X-perience. Of course, this would mean forming a band, which I had never done. We announced what we were doing this new worship service but quickly fell behind in creating it. Originally, we wanted to hire a specific musician to handle the preparation of the music for this new service. However, we had trouble finding a qualified, thoughtful musician to lead it. No one we interviewed or talked with fit the bill.

With the deadline looming, I was forced to step in. I talked with a church guitar player, James Herrington, who contacted some local friends and former bandmates to work with us. These guys played in bars every night for the Robert St. John Band. They knew everything about being in a band, whereas I knew almost nothing. After some conversations and a money agreement, they agreed to help out. But with no leader, it fell to me to organize the singing and worship leadership.

Recruiting a series of choir members — Stefanie Laird, Renay Turner, Lacy McMillen and my wife — we began to work out songs. I used people who were confident singers. I had learned that you have to have 1) people with a heart for ministry and 2) strong singers for great upfront leadership.

In rehearsals, the instrumentalists would work together and we’d be off in another room figuring out our parts. Here are the conversations, “. . . you sing high . . . Wait your doubling me . . . Just hum here . . . I’ll carry lead . . . can we do that again because I really messed that up . . ” and then we’d sing it over and over until we got it. Then, we’d get together and run it. Some days it was Chris Tomlin. Some days it was Creed or Beatles tunes. Many, many hymns and worship songs were sung. It was such a fun time to learn and sing with those folks. And, we had a great band that taught me great deal about what it means to lead a group.

When we moved to our current church in Missouri City, TX, we worked hard doing the same things we’d done at Williams — creating another worship service. Many more tools were in place this time — a great teacher of instruments in Mike Whitebread, for example and a great partner in worship creation in Melissa Burnham. But the essentials of learning to hear and sing harmony were the same — practice it and sing it over and over until you made it work.

Again, singing harmony takes work and training. Mostly, it is you alone in a room or car listening to a recording. Listen to good groups and match pitch with them. Place your voice in the midst of theirs. Do it over and over again. Listen to the Eagles over and over until you wear the mp3 out and can cover each part. Listen to Chris Tomlin and his excellent band and do what they do. Find the people who are good models and learn from them.

That’s how to learn the art of singing harmony — sing every note over and over. Work hard — every day at it. Just get your mp3 player humming and practice until you can sing EVERY part on the recording. And, sing hymns. Sing them often and work on hearing the parts. Do it over and over until you can’t stand it. Then, move to the next song.

It’s the way all great guitar players learn — repetition. It’s practice. It’s the way geat singers learn, too. So, grab the Eagles album and get started.


Published by Matt

Creative Arts developer, planner, husband, and father. I direct choirs, make graphic art, and film, photograph and work daily to foster an experience with the Holy.

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