Beyond Singing Solo

Once you’ve had a course of singing lessons, you probably feel a lot more confident about singing solo. You know how to carry a tune and sound OK. But what about when you’re not singing solo?

Group singing has some slightly different demands to singing solo. While it is true that you are not the only focus of the audience’s attention, you still need to be able to sing well and confidently. You need to be able to sing your part without running out of breath, going out of tune or forgetting the words. You can’t really hide behind other people – after all, even the biggest choir is made up of individual singers and if they all try to hide, you’re going to end up with a gigantic mess.

Group singing comes in different forms. Massed choirs performing at music festivals are at one end of the group singing spectrum. The other end of the spectrum is singing duets: you and one other person singing together. In between these two extremes, you have other types of group singing such as barbershop quartets, small choirs, singing rounds and singing back-up behind a lead singer. Each of these puts slightly different demands on the singer. And you get combinations of these types.

Massed choirs: This is the easiest type of group singing. If you do forget the words, there are plenty of others who will be able to cover for you, as long as you don’t all forget the words at once. The important thing to do is to sing your part in tune and to get your timing right. There is nothing more embarrassing as getting the timing wrong and stopping (or starting) when everyone else has finished with an unintended solo. If you are lucky or if you are singing in a choir festival, you will probably have a conductor. The conductor will show you when to stop and start, so watch him or her.

Small choirs: In a small choir, you have less chance of others covering for you, so it does matter if you forget the words (but you are more likely to have a song sheet in a small choir). You are also less likely to have a conductor. The important thing to do is to make sure that you sound like a blended unit rather than a ragged bunch of individuals. Making sure that you stop and start at the same time as everyone else is just the start. You also need to make sure that you phrase the song in the same way as everyone else. For example, if you are singing carols and you get to one of those lines that could be sung in two ways (there’s at least one in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”), make sure that you all do it in the same way. Also check your pronunciation if the members of the choir have different accents – it sounds atrocious if a word gets sung with half of you sing it one way and the other half sing it the other way.

Some small choirs, especially those who sing gospel style, have a leader who will have some lines to sing solo over the top of the rest of the choir. If you are that leader, you can use what you’ve learned through singing lessons for solo singing to make sure that you sound good. If you are not that leader, remember to drop back slightly and not compete with the leader. You’re there to support him or her, so don’t sing so loudly that you drown him/her out.

Singing in harmony in groups is a little harder. Here, you have to be able to learn your part and carry it no matter what people are singing around you. If you have a good ear, then you should find it straightforward to listen to other people singing at the same time as you and use what you hear to blend in. If you are less confident, then the important thing to do is to practise, practise, practise your part so it just comes naturally when it comes to performance time.

When you sing in harmony in a group, the first thing you will have to work out is which part suits you best. Most singing groups that sing harmonies are divided into four parts: bass (the lowest part, usually sung by a male voice), tenor (the next-lowest), alto and soprano (the highest voice, usually sung by a woman or by a boy whose voice hasn’t broken yet). Just as an aside here, in days gone by, men and boys who had particularly fine soprano voices and who sung in monastery choirs or the like used to have a particularly personal and painful operation to make sure that they kept that lovely singing voice. Yes, they used to castrate good male singers, and most guys who take singing lessons are probably very glad that this is not longer done. A man can always learn how to sing in a falsetto (gospel) voice to get those high notes, although this technique is usually part of advanced singing lessons rather than basic singing lessons. Some groups will have more divisions or slightly different names – you sometimes hear of mezzo-sopranos (halfway between an alto and a soprano), trebles (boy sopranos rather than female sopranos), baritones (half-way between a tenor and a bass) and counter-tenors (men singing in a falsetto voice gospel-style). If you find the group that suits your natural vocal range, you will make a much better job and will be able to sing with more confidence.

Singing in rounds is similar to singing harmonies but it a bit trickier. Even though you are all singing the same melody, you come in at different times. “Row, row, row your boat” and “Three Blind Mice” are the best-known rounds but there are hundreds more. If you’re not confident about singing rounds when you start singing them, one very old singing tip is to put one finger in your ear so you can’t hear the others and you can concentrate on your part.

You can think of a duet as a solo for two people, so you will have to use the singing techniques of a soloist. Practise with your duet partner. When it comes to performance time, remember to interact with the person you’re singing with to help you interpret the song – keep eye contact at the very least.

Have fun when you’re singing in a group, no matter how you do it.
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