Illustration: Kitty Meek
Video of a country-rock band playing in a small club flickers in my voice 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 of the group attempts a three-part harmony backup. I see lots of mouths moving, but it takes a while for the soundman to catch up. When he does, they sound like a different band — nervous and uncoordinated, with muffled lyrics and an unfocused sound. I scribble notes for our next coaching session, sympathetic to the problems faced by instrumentalists who want to sing but are having trouble getting their harmonies to sound as good as they'd like.
The most crucial skill for band vocals 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 6 to the Jackson Five, group vocals sung brilliantly in tune are guaranteed to please.
Figure 1: Hunching over a guitar strains your larynx and squashes your breathing.
During early rehearsals, turn down the monitors and lay off the drums to let everyone hear all the voices. Determine the pitch cues needed in each section of the song and which instruments are highlighted each time, so that every singer knows where to listen for his or her note.
Even experienced instrumental musicians might 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 on to a harmony, give him or her a turn singing lead or find places where the melody can be doubled effectively. And if someone consistently has trouble singing on key, offer that person an alternative showcase, such as introducing the songs or band members.
For those who can hit their notes pretty well but then have trouble sustaining them, the problem is usually one of breath support. Good breathing depends on good posture — the second-biggest problem for the untrained singer.
Figure 2: Raising the keyboard stand can put you in a better position for singing.
Have you ever rehearsed in a mirrored studio or seen your band on video? Most instrumental players tend to slump forward around their axe or lean intently over their keyboard. (Drummers might be more conscious of posture than the rest of us, because they reach for toys in every direction.) Unfortunately, a body position that's tolerable for playing your main instrument can restrict your breathing, misalign your neck, and 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 and aim for an open feeling in your chest and upper back. A physical therapist I know offers this quick posture rule: Keep your ears, shoulders, and hips in a straight vertical line. This might mean shortening your guitar strap, changing the height of your keyboard, or otherwise adjusting the standard setup to support your vocal performance. The goal is to have a long neck, relaxed shoulders, and as much freedom around your rib cage and midsection as possible (see Figs. 1 and 2).
Another problem for multitasking singer-musicians is microphone placement. If the mic is at the wrong height or too far away, you'll end up hunching forward or straining to reach it, which also puts your voice mechanism in an awkward position. Headset mics solve this problem very well but tend to be more expensive than other types, and wireless models can be a hassle for group use.
Figure 3: Use a boom stand to bring the vocal mic into the best position.
The next-best solution is to always use a boom stand, so the mic can be placed close to your mouth without interfering with the instrument you play. First get into position to play and sing, then have someone else position your vocal mic (see Fig. 3); after a while you'll get used to the visual and physical coordination required. All this preparation will pay off in a better sound and a healthier voice.
Bone Thugs 'N' Harmony
Now that you've got everything set up, it's time to rehearse some real music. The vocal arrangement depends on the musical style. Close harmonies in a high register work well for bluegrass or the Bee Gees; staggered rhythms, open voicings, and complex harmonies are great for gospel, doo-wop, and R&B; and minimal vibrato and open fifths or octave doublings are best for spacey or avant-garde effects.
If the band members aren't sure who should sing what part, use the relative pitch levels of your speaking voices as a rough guide, or choose the lines that seem easiest for each member to hear. (For instance, a bass player might have the quickest ear for singing roots and fifths.) Don't be afraid to mix up the parts — say, using a female voice in the middle of the stack, and putting a male voice on top — if it feels comfortable and sounds good.
It's important, though, to respect the built-in limitations of each person's voice (see “At Home in Your Range” in the Jam supplement section of the February 1999 issue of Electronic Musician). If a note that you really want someone to hit is at the rock bottom or screaming top of his or her vocal range, trade parts for a better fit. Or consider transposing the whole song so that no members have to strain their voices gig after gig.
Spend some serious practice time nailing down your vocals. And don't just listen for pitch. Learn to match one another's vowels, phrasings, and even 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 emotional lyrics without being completely predictable.
Keep the amps turned down during these “sectional” rehearsals so that you can get the parts in tune and the timings clean without shredding everyone's vocal cords. Run the vocals a cappella once in a while to increase your focus. You might even find one or two spots in your performance set to showcase some a cappella vocals for a truly dramatic effect. (Think of “Carry On” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.) If possible, invite a friend with some choral experience to give you feedback and rehearsal tips.
When the band cranks back up to full strength, stay coordinated by watching one another as you sing. Visual cues are especially important when singing backup to an individual 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 smooth and controlled, while his is rough, thin, and idiosyncratic. But it's Dylan's gig, and as they share the center mic Baez looks sideways, carefully watching his mouth to match every nuance, every vowel. It's a great technique, especially when you're performing a live show and the band has little time to rehearse.
As you add more vocals, you may need to tweak the instrumental arrangements so the parts stay separated and clean. For instance, that great new high-ranging vocal trio might step on the keyboard player's favorite treble riff or need to be balanced by a stronger low end in the rhythm guitar.
In musical practice, beefing up the vocals can make a song shine — or it can turn the midrange to mud. So be ready to thin out the instrumentation as needed, and back off on distortion or other broadband effects to keep your new sound in balance.
Don't forget that if you belong to a musicians' union, singing while playing an instrument entitles you to be paid as a “double.”
Tighter pitch control, better breathing and mic positioning, and more skillful arrangements would all benefit the group whose video I critiqued. When I mentioned these points to my student, she doubted that the rest of the band would be 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 at arm's length. So if singing in harmony is a new and possibly nerve-wracking area of expression for the members of your band, give yourselves time to get used to it.
My student finally decided that mic placement would be a safe topic to raise with her bandmates, along with watching one another more closely during entrances and harmony choruses. Making a stronger effort to hear and see their fellow band members could lead them to further improvements in their vocal technique.
The singing or chanting of multiple voices has held an honored place since the earliest days of human history. A solo voice carries the power of the individual, but group singing carries the power of a tribe, giving people a strong sense of inspiration and belonging.
So if you want to try singing with your band, spend some 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 is a singer-songwriter and voice specialist in Southern California. Visit her on the Web at www.voiceofyourlife.com.