This isn’t even a set of notes for a 101 class on harmony, but just some very simple tips to approach it. When you get on stage with another caller, or multiple callers, singing the same thing they do just makes the sound louder. It can also reduce clarity, muddying up the lyrics or commands since there is always a difference in phrasing. It’s best to try to blend, and that starts by reducing your volume and listening.

More or Less (A.K.A. Less is More)

• There’s no need to go overboard in presentation. Harmony is all about fitting in seamlessly.
• Just like the tips explained above, you want to find something that complements your partner.
• Allow the lead to sing alone when appropriate, join in for the end of the musical phrase.
• What’s a phrase? In square dance music, a phrase is usually a block of 16 beats. Some songs might be phrased on 32 beats, but the ending boundaries are the same. After Swing and Promenade, you being the end of the last phrase for the figure. Sing harmony there for sure!

Listen!

• Listening is the key to success and good sound.
• Listen to you partner(s), listen to yourself, and listen to the blend you are creating.
• If your partner doesn’t seem to want to follow, make eye contact and back way off on volume. Gesture with your hand or eyes or whatever seems right to you to reduce the volume and find that blend.
• Match Vowel Sounds. If you’re all singing the same vowel sounds, a chord will ring better. (I explain chords briefly below). If you have to sing On and On …. is your ‘O’ sound more of an “Ah” or an ‘A’ sound? There’s an extremely wide range of sounds for that ‘O’ – it has to do with the placement of your tongue, how open your mouth is and how many teeth you have in it etc. Changing the physical aspects of your face, mouth, jaw position, and the tightness in your muscles all contribute to changing the result. The challenge is matching what your lead is singing.

What Big Lips You Have, Grandma

• “The better for you to figure out how I’m going to phrase the verse, My Dear.”
• Listen with your eyes: watching how your cohort’s lips move gives you the biggest clues.
• The lips give you hints to the timing your cohort is using. They help you anticipate and sing together. If you haven’t worked with someone before, you’ll want to be glued to the lips. Your eyes I mean.

Dynamics

• Along with this idea of less is more, dynamics are the changes in volume that can create excitement or interest. Think Beautiful Noise. No doubt you’ve heard a caller start at one level, then drop continually softer until the big finish where he’s singing at the top of his power. Them R Dynamix!
• Getting your partner to follow your lead on dynamics can be a tricky thing, but if you lead with body language, you might get lucky.

Say Something

• Say Something! Try to say something with your music – something worth listening to. Jazz cats use the phrase say something to mean you should play something new or inventive – not rehash the same old chatter over and over again. Dynamics help you say whatever you want to say with style.
• Singing Call Cliches like Mt. Music, Tennesee River, Oh Lonesome Me … try to avoid them if you can. If you can’t, try to have something new to say.

Simple Harmony

• Singing a Harmony Line means singing something complementary to the melody – usually a chord tone.
• A chord is made up of at least three notes. An interval is a part of a chord, and it’s made up of two notes.
• A simple three note chord is called a triad. If you can remember Mr. Sandman, the Bum Bum Bum Bum Bum Bum Bum Bum … part arpegiates a chord, that is, it sings the notes of the chord. If you can remember Sound of Music: Do Re Me Fa So La Ti Do … (Do … Me .. So) are the notes of a major chord.
• You want to be singing a note in a chord most of the time, and your choice depends upon what others are singing and the chord being played at the time.
• Your choices are usually a third above: (if DO is the melody note, you sing ME), or a fifth above (you sing SO).
• Good third sounding harmony – Everly Brothers --
• Good fifth sounding harmony – The Judds --

Be Prepared in Advance

• It’s no shame to be unable to improvise good harmony on the fly. Some songs are killers, and some are simpler, but it never hurts to prepare in advance.
• When you get the opportunity to work with another caller, you can choose a song you have already prepared.
• Choose a handful of singing calls and work out a harmony line for each one. Learn the new harmony line as if it was a new tune.
• Practice by singing with the guy on the flipside of the record.
• Practice by recording the melody and singing your harmony line along with it. (Excellent method)

Where Do You Learn Harmony Lines?

• Listen to the original recording of a tune. Pay attention to the background singers or harmony singers. Steal the good stuff.
• Listen to the radio and strive to get a feel for how harmony is put together. Try to build the intuition to anticipate what they’re going to sing. You’ve heard it a million times already!
• Work out a harmony line on your own. Figure out what chords are being used, then choose a chord tone to start with.
• Sheet Music! Oh yeah, Baby. Actually, there are several programs available on the internet that will play sheet music for you. You can isolate a part and have only that part play. That way, you can learn a part. It won’t take much to translate that to a singing call. Pretty cool.

Counter Melody

• You do not always have to sing along with the lead. A counter melody works wonders, and at times if far superior to ordinary harmony.
• It’s a great an interesting alternative! What it is? It’s a completely different melody that fits along seamlessly with the standard melody.
• Some songs have a counter melody built in: It’s a Sin To Tell A Lie, Play Me Some Rag, Baby It’s Cold Outside (a great jazz standard). Even It’s a Small World has a counter melody built in – sort of.
• It’s a Small World has an ‘A’ part and a ‘B’ part, or a verse and a chorus. If you sing the verse at the same time you’re singing the chorus, your singing a counter melody. Which one of you is singing the counter melody and which is singing the standard melody is up for grabs.
• This works because both parts use the same chords!

Rhythmic Chasing

• Sometimes you might not want to sing harmony, or a counter melody. Perhaps you have difficulty hearing it. You don’t want to sing the same thing your partner is singing, so what can you do? Chase your partner Rhythmically!
• Say you’re calling with Phil, and Phil’s opening the song with a standard break. You want to echo him softly. Anticipate the beat. You’re trying to add excitement and interest, not step on his toes. So, be respectful. Here’s an example:

4 ladies promenade go inside the ring (inside the ring)
Get on home and Swing there with that man (everybody swing)
Join (join -) Up Hands (join ‘em there) and circle left awhile (you circle left)
Left Allemande (allemande left) and WEAVE … (weave the ring)

• In the example above the words in the parentheses are the words you sing. You should mostly start ahead of the beat just at the end of the last word Phil is singing. Keep your volume low, and your words crisp! What should follow next are the few beats of lyrics, which you orta sing some harmony with.

Alternating Figures

• Typical Strategy: One guy opens, then alternate from there. This is great when the lead knows the song well, but you’re a little shaky on it. My first choice would be to avoid it all together, but sometimes you can’t. Having the lead open it up give you the chance to listen and refresh your memory.
• Another Strategy: Lead takes breaks, other guys trade figures and sing backup during the breaks. If you have multi callers on stage, having some kind of plan is a good plan. Winging it totally makes it obvious to everybody that you’re winging it.
• Take you cue from the lead, switch harmony and melody. When it’s your turn to call a figure (or break), sing the melody! If your cohort also sings harmony, stay on the melody for the ending phrase and allow that cohort to harmonize.

The More the Merrier ... Not So Much

• Three’s Company – Four or More is a Crowd. The general rule is, the more voices you have to work with, the harder it’s going to be.
• Everyone has their own phrasing, their own style, their own presentation. Impromptu collaborations are very tough to get everyone on the same musical page. Working all of the phrasing, places to breathe, seamless transitions between handoffs and a host of other little subtleties takes practice.
• Impromptu sessions, by definition, are not practiced, so you have to use your instincts and fly by the seat of your pants. One can get away with it more easily that two. Two more easily than three and so on.
• In a Duet, the harmonizer has all options available! You’ll never step on the other harmonizer’s line, and as long as you avoid the melody, you’ll be safe with your partner – unless he has no clue what the real melody is either. Don’t laugh – it happens.
• When you have multi voices and no plan of attack it’s easy to double notes … which just makes them louder.

Gang Sang

 • If you must Sang in a Gang, try to get your homies together ahead of time and figure out who’s going to do what. You can attack a song in smaller groups.
• Say you have six in your posse. Three can take the opener and first to figures, while the other three dance and hum, or do-wap in the background. Then the next three take the middle break while the original three sha-na-na and la la in the background. Everyone joins in on the closer, but say three take the first half, and the next three take the last half with those on deck singing backup in the way-background. A strategy like this can keep a tune from being a dog howl. The dancers will thank you for it!

Finalé

Working well with others is not very difficult. You may need to develop skill, but a little common sense goes an awful long way. If it sounds bad, back out – don’t continue. There’s no reason to prolong the agony for the dancers. Figure out something else to do that sounds better.

If you can’t sing with the other guy for whatever reason, take turns. Each sing a solo for each break or figure you take. What’s wrong with that? The dancers will appreciate that far better than listening to a pair of cats howl on the back fence. Listen closely to the professionals. Listen with an ear to picking apart what they’re doing. Try to duplicate it, and don’t get discouraged if it’s out of your league. Sometimes it will be. That’s why they’re pros.

You can use them for inspiration and instruction. Find something you can be comfortable with, and you’ll be confident.

Ciao!

Mike Haworth

 

 

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