Singing with the Band
True Harmony comes from Group Dynamics
Onstage, February 2001
Video of a country-rock group playing in a small club flickers in my studio. One of my students is the lead singer, and she projects surprisingly well over the noise of the bar. The fiddler sounds a bit screechy and the bass player looks bored, but the crowd claps enthusiastically between numbers.Then the guitarist takes a turn singing lead while the rest attempt a three-part harmony backup.
That is, I see lots of mouths moving, but I'm not exactly hearing the singers. It takes awhile for the soundman to catch up, and when he does, it sounds like a different band! Suddenly everyone's nervous and uncoordinated, with muffled lyrics and an unfocused sound, like the Grateful Dead singing underwater.
I scribble notes for my next coaching session with the leader. I'm sympathetic to the plight of instrumentalists who want to sing but may not know how to get started, but for now my suggestions will have to go through their designated singer, the one who is less afraid.
The most important skill for singing in a band is the ability to sing in tune. Staying on pitch doesn't come naturally to everyone, but in a group performance it is ultimately more important than the quality of your voice. From Take Six to the Jackson Five, group vocals sung brilliantly in tune are guaranteed to please.
How to get there? Turn down the monitors during early rehearsals and lay off the drums, so that everyone can hear all the voices. For each section of the song (each time several singers need to start together), figure out what pitch cues are needed and which instruments are out front. Every singer should be clear on where to listen for their note, and write a reminder on the lyric sheet if necessary.
Even experienced instrumental musicians may sing easily in a solo or unison setting but stumble on a harmony line. So be realistic as you work out multiple parts. If one band member can't hold onto a harmony, give them a turn singing lead or find places where the melody can be doubled effectively. And if someone consistently has trouble singing on key, offer him or her an alternate showcase such as verbally introducing the songs or band members.
For those who can hit your note pretty well but then have trouble sustaining it, the problem is usually one of breath support. Good breathing depends on good posture - the second biggest problem for the typical gig-hog.
Have you ever rehearsed in a mirrored studio, or seen your band on video? Most instrumental players tend to hunch forward around their axe or lean intently over their keyboard. (Drummers may be more conscious of posture than the rest of us, as they reach for toys in every direction.) Unfortunately, a body position that's tolerable for your main instrument can restrict your breathing, misalign your neck, and generally set you up for a wimpy, rough, or easily strained singing voice. You're playing two instruments now, and a compromise is required.
To give yourself more breathing space, you need to sit or stand tall, with an open feeling in your chest and upper back. A physical therapist I know suggests this quick posture rule: keep your ears, shoulders, and hips in a straight line. This might mean shortening your guitar strap, changing the height of your keyboard, or otherwise adjusting your standard set-up to give your voice the support it needs. The goal is to have as much freedom around your ribcage and mid-section as possible, with a long neck and relaxed shoulders.
Another problem for multi-tasking singers can be mic placement. If the mic is at the wrong height, or too far away, you'll end up hunching forward or straining to reach it, again putting your voice mechanism in an awkward position. Headset mics can solve this problem. But they tend to be more expensive than others, and if wireless, they can be a hassle for group use.
The next best solution is to always use a boom stand so that the mic can come in close to your mouth without interfering with your instrument. At first, get into position to play and sing, then have someone else position your vocal mic. After awhile you'll get used to the visual and physical coordination required. All of this preparation will pay off in a better sound and a healthier voice. [see "Mic technique" article in this section for more tips.]
So now you've got everything set up, ready to rehearse some real music. The vocal arrangement will depend on what style you're in: close harmonies in a high register for Bluegrass or the BeeGees; staggered rhythms and more choral voicings for gospel, doo-wop or R&B; minimal vibrato and open fifths or octave doublings for spacey and avant-garde effects.
If the band members aren't sure who should sing what, use the relative pitch levels of your speaking voices as a rough guide. Or choose the lines that seem easiest for each person to hear. For instance, a bass player may have the quickest ear for singing roots and fifths. Don't be afraid to mix up the parts, for instance using a female voice in the middle of the stack and a male voice on top, if it feels comfortable and sounds good.
But do respect the built-in limits of each person's voice [see "At Home in Your Range"]. If there's a note that you really want someone to hit and it's at the rock bottom or screaming top of their range, trade parts for a better fit. Or consider transposing the whole song so that no one has to strain their voice gig after gig.
Spend some serious practice time nailing down your vocals. And don't just listen for pitch. Learn to match each others' vowels, phrasings, and even your vibrato.
Pay attention to the ends of words, where consonants can get sloppy. Try a variety of textures, using backup vocals to emphasize the most important or most emotional lyrics without being completely predictable.
Keep the amps turned down for these "sectional" rehearsals, so that you can get the parts in tune and the timings clean without shredding everyone's vocal cords. If possible, run the vocals a capella once in a while, to increase your focus. If possible, invite in a friend with some choral experience to give you feedback and rehearsal tips. Then when you crank the band back up to full strength, stay coordinated by watching each other as you sing.
Visual cues are especially important when singing backup to an individualistic lead. There's a great scene in the film of Bob Dylan's "Rolling Thunder" tour, when singer Joan Baez harmonizes with the star. Her voice is as smooth and controlled as his is rough, thin, and idiosyncratic. But it's his gig, and as they share the center mic she looks sideways, carefully watching his mouth to match every nuance, every vowel. It's a great technique, especially for a live show with little time to rehearse.
As you add more vocals to your overall sound, you may need to tweak the instrumental arrangements so that the parts stay separated and clean. For instance, that great new high-ranging trio might step on the keyboard player's favorite treble riff, or might need to be balanced by a stronger low-end in the rhythm guitar.
In the musician's union, singing while playing an instrument entitles you to be paid as a "double." In musical practice, beefing up the vocals can make the song jump into focus—but it can also turn the midrange to mud. So be ready to thin out your instrumentation if necessary, and back off on distortion or other broadband effects, to keep your new sound in balance.
Tighter pitch control, better breathing and mic positioning, and more skillful arrangements - all of these would be of benefit to the group whose video I critiqued. When I mentioned them to my student, she doubted whether the rest of the band was interested. "They think that singing just comes naturally," she said. "I'm the main vocalist, so they're cool that I take lessons. But they don't want to practice singing, they just want to play through stuff."
Singing doesn't always come naturally, but it does usually feel more instinctive, more private somehow, than playing an instrument out in front of you. So if this is a new and possibly nerve-wracking area of expression for your band, give yourselves time to get used to it.
My student decided that mic placement would be a safe topic to raise with her pals, along with watching each other more closely during harmony choruses. She's hoping that hearing and seeing each other better might lead to some other upgrades.
From the earliest days of human history, the singing or chanting of multiple voices has held an honored place. A solo voice carries the power of the individual, but group singing carries the power of a tribe, giving people a strong dose of inspiration and belonging.
So if you want to try singing with your band, spend a little time to make it right. Your efforts will be rewarded, and your audience will sing your praises - or at least, they'll sing along.
© Joanna Cazden 2001