MASTERING VOCAL & ENSEMBLE SKILLS
Barbershop is one of the most difficult yet most rewarding forms of a cappella singing. The distinctive characteristic of barbershop harmony is its expanded sound. This is created when the harmonics of the individually sung tones reinforce each other to produce audible overtones. Barber-shoppers call this “ringing a chord.” Singing in a quartet or chorus and creating a fifth voice is one of the most thrilling musical sensations you’ll ever experience. It’s the goal of every barbershop group, and it’s sure to bring on the goose bumps and the applause.
Barbershop is a style for “everyone” – not just an elite few. Anyone with the desire can learn to sing barbershop . . . and to sing / perform it well. Be patient, however, as the skills can take time to develop.
Great barbershop singing demands mastery of several vocal and ensemble skills to create this wonderful effect.
The following sections are presented to help you hone these skills.
Learning a New Song
Having to learn a new selection can be challenging – especially for those of us who do not read music. Luckily, a number of systems that rely on effective listening skills – more than musical background – have been developed. Two such approaches are this 13 Step System based on ideas by Duane Henry and Carolyn Sexton. Another approach was developed by the Delta Kings.
Pitch Pipe Panic (The pitch pipe and my note)
It kinda goes like this . . . someone blows what seems like a random note on the pitch pipe. You pitch your start note from the others in your voice-part. You know you’re probably supposed to find your start note from the pitch pipe, but have no idea how.
What is the relationship between your note and the note that’s blown? How do you get to your note from the pitch note? Well, it takes a little music theory . . . don’t panic . . . it is just a very little bit.
The condensed version is to first identify the key signature on the sheet music. You can then figure out the key the song is written in. (This is the note the pitch pipe sounds.) Next determine the name of your note and whether it is flat, sharp, or neither. Using the piano keyboard you then count the keys (both black and white) between the keynote and your note. Once you know the interval (distance) between the two, you can choose a song you know well that contains that interval.
If you do these things, when you hear the pitch pipe, you can start with that note then sing (in your head) your well-known song to get to your start note. This may sound complicated, but, actually, it’s pretty easy.
This process is described in more detail in Finding the Interval and Singing the Interval. Before reading these documents, you may want to print this list of Songs for the 12 Intervals. You can use this reference sheet to select your personal go-to songs. And here’s a piano keyboard to help you with the process.
The Ring's the "Thing"
Imagine this — you’re singing a song with three other guys, each hitting the perfect pitch when bam — you hear it. An overtone vibration, a resonant ring. It’s a pitch that no-one is singing but is there just the same.
Overtones are the result of getting everything right; your vowels are matched, the voice-balance and blend have been created across the quartet or chorus and, most importantly, the tuning is right. Only then you will create overtones. Without the basics being spot on, the overtone will be as elusive as ever.
To begin your pursuit of this incredible sound, check out this YouTube video: How to Sing Barbershop with Overtones, from the Sound of the Rockies Ready, Set, Sing Program, Lesson 4, and read How to Sing Barbershop Style from the Barbershop Harmony Society.
Then dive into the more in-depth look at how to achieve each of the necessary aspects of that barbershop sound in the sections that follow.
One of the more difficult aspects of producing an expanded sound is the perfect matching of vowels sung by the chorus. Don’t be confused by the way we say the words used to describe the vowels in the English language: “A,” “E,” “I,” “O,” “U.” We really say three of these vowels as diphthongs (i.e., two vowel sounds.) We pronounce “A” as “ay-ee”, “I” as “ah-ee” and “U” as “ee-oo.
Our chorus deals with 12 pure vowel sounds. Listen to our director explain and demonstrate the way to form these vowels on Vowel Sounds Track 1 and Vowel Sounds Track 2. You may want to print out Vowels Target Chart – Mouth Shapes as a visual aid while you listen to these two audio tracks. Scott refers to this document in Track 2.
Then watch the YouTube video, the Effect of Vowels on Overtone for a demonstration of the power of vowel formation.
PITCH (Singing the Right Note)
Singing out of tune is a recurring problem with any chorus. To make a song pleasing to the ear, we need to sing quality musical tones and intervals. There are numbers of reasons that someone will be off pitch as you will see when you read Secrets of In-Tune Singing.
Fortunately, there are many new digital aids to help you hit the note that’s written, as Aimee Nolte explains in this YouTube video. (Sorry about the ad before the video launches, but trust me the wait is worth it.)
TUNING A CHORD (Singing the Note Right)
We sing and tune by ear, so why do so many of us often sing out of tune? Perhaps a more pertinent question would be, “What does in tune actually mean?” Are we singing in tune with a piano? With our neighbor on the risers? With what we remember from the pitch pipe that was blown 45 seconds ago?
Tuning a chord requires matching the notes to naturally occurring frequencies created by the voice and not necessarily to a standardized instrument like a piano. As explained in the video, What Does It Mean to Sing in Tune from the Barbershop Harmony Society, and the document, Tuning a Barbershop Chord which explains overtones, it is the flexibility of the human voice and the training of the human ear that make the expanded sound so unique to barbershop possible.
For a demonstration of overtones, watch this YouTube video of the great composer Leonard Bernstein.
The YouTube video, Beat Frequency, explains why you sometimes hear a pulsing sound, i.e., “beat.” Best of all this video explains how to adjust your voice to get the “ring” instead.
And for a fun look at the effects of overtone, watch the YouTube video Ringing Chords.
By the time you have reviewed this material, you will understand why barbershop must be performed a cappella. Any accompaniment introduces the distraction of equal-tempered intonation, and listening to anything but the other voice parts interferes with a performer’s ability to tune with the precision required.
Barbershop harmonies have certain characteristics that distinguish it from other styles of vocal music. Church or glee club music is balanced cylindrically, all voices singing with equal weight and intensity. Progressive jazz (when sung in harmony) and modern harmony are sung with inverted-cone balance, i.e., the top voices sing with more weight and intensity and the lower voices sing with less weight and intensity. A barbershop chord is the opposite, i.e., the lower voices sing with more weight and intensity than the higher voices. The Sound Cone Diagram illustrates this relationship.
It should be understood that balance is not merely a question of volume. To achieve optimum vocal balance, the voices to be balanced must first be blended. Read Common Balance Problems for details regarding some unique balance issues by voice-part.
A flute sounds different than a violin, even when they are playing the same note. And you can recognize someones voice on the end of the phone, out of all your friends, with them just saying the word, “Hello.”
Not only do we perceive differences in pitch in the sounds that we hear, but we also hear differences in timbre. Timbre is just the fancy word that describes a note’s color or tone quality – the thing that allows us to work out that we are listening to a violin and not a flute.
So how on earth does comparing violins with flutes have anything to do with the way we sing barbershop?
Well, it’s all about the blend!
Listen to a flute and a violin and you hear two instruments. Listen to a well blended quartet, and you hear just one voice. Tell me . . . can you ever pick out the baritone in the top flight quartets? I know I can’t! That’s because all the voices have a similar tone quality that allows them to blend. Although they may be singing four different notes, every voice is as mechanically and acoustically identical as is possible – literally one voice. Check out Barbershop Blend for some explanations and exercises.
Resonance (Freedom of Sound)
When you hear coaches and directors asking for “more resonance,” it’s easy to get the idea that they just want you to sing LOUDER. This is not what they want. They want you to make the overtones in your voice louder in relation to the fundamental. This is accomplished by changing the shape of the space within your throat and mouth and moving the placement of the sound within that cavity.
Read this explanation of resonance written by BHS Competition Judge, Tim Marron, to learn some of the specific ways to effect resonance. Tim makes two references you can access from here: Lowering Your Larynx and the YouTube video: Sing with Forward Placement. (NOTE: This video is preceded by an ad.)
Performance (The Formula for Success)
Confidence + Mastery + Energy + Emotional Connection = Wow!
This is the formula Vocal Coach Juliette Russell teaches to all of her performers. And it applies to Barbershop Chorus singing as well.
Confidence: You’ve heard the phrase “Fake it, ’til you make it?” It works. Did you know that even standing in an expansive posture (feet apart, standing straight, wide arm gestures) can boost testosterone levels, which in turn triggers feelings of confidence?
Mastery: We don’t start out as a master, but excellence is worth aiming for. At the heart of mastery is the very unglamorous concept of putting the hours in. Fortunately, there is a big link between practice and enjoyment.
Energy: When you perform, what you give out is usually what you get back. Increase you intake of oxygen and heart rate by doing a small amount of physical activity before going on stage. It releases some nervous energy and leads to feeling lively before you perform. Don’t use the first song to get in the zone, be ready to blow the audience away as soon as you hit the stage.
Emotional Connection: Inhabit the songs that you sing. Sing like the experience set out in the lyrics is yours. Working with the lyrics in your body is one way to achieve this. Essentially the lyrics are like an actor’s text. They contain all of the information you need to know.
When all is said and done, barbershop is judged on music, performing and singing. The Barbershop Harmony Society provides detailed guidelines for their highly qualified judges. For the Cliff Notes version of judging criteria, read The Art of Barbershop Scoring.