I love a harmony! I can hear them where there are none – my head is like a radio station. Sometimes I believe the harmony exists in the original song because the sound in my head is so strong! So I love arranging songs for my singers.
How is it done? I usually record all of my arrangements in an organic style – in other words, they harmonies pop up in my head and I sing them straight into my studio mic recording into a programme called Ableton Live. I start with the tune, then usually a high harmony, then the low then something else if the mood takes me. I then teach from these recordings.
Why? I can’t remember what I’ve sung is the short answer. I’ve arranged about 400 songs and there’s a limit to how much my little head can take. So, if I teach from the same audio recordings and make these available to my singers – we are literally singing from the same (auditory) sheet. Right!?
I work hard to make the parts work together. They mesh together creating moments of beauty. I could add more harmonies which would go with the tune, but would those harmonies go with the other harmonies? Possibly…. Possibly not….. And this is why it’s really important for singers to get their harmony parts right.
Let’s imagine that the tune is still lovely (well done yellows!) and the red harmony sits a nice distance from it – let’s say it’s a third above. But someone in the reds slips and sings something a fifth above. That would sound OK, but not if the green part had been written a third below. There will be a clash. Not a nice intentional one, a weird one. The singers will hear this, then they will compensate probably slipping to octave singing which is all well and good but loses the colour that the original arrangement had. The singers might feel resolved. The audience will be none the wiser so what’s the problem?!
I will know. And I have arranged the song to give the singers the very best opportunity to sound amazing. I have high standards for my singers and why wouldn’t I!? They are all perfectly capable of singing my arrangements, they are tailored to them. Some are trickier than others of course but the challenge of the harder arrangements (Creep, Vienna, Yellow Brick Road) are always all the more sweeter when we get them right. And we do. Over and over again.
So how can singers learn these harmonies effectively? By listening. Carefully. More than once. If singers join in and sing along, they risk getting it wrong right from the start and then it’s harder to unlearn it. The other danger of this is that a singer might sing the wrong bit but know that it was wrong and be able to alter it… but the singers surrounding them have heard conflicting harmonies….. so now they’re confused and uncertainty brings chaos!
Rehearsals are the time and place to get things wrong and learn them well. We don’t always get these harmonies right straight away but we will get them right given time. And how we will celebrate when we do!