What I Learned from Singing A Cappella

I sing in a small a cappella group at our local university. And by “small” I mean, “If one of the other women doesn’t turn up for rehearsal, I probably have to change parts.”

I’ve been singing with this group for nearly six years, and we’ve got a repertoire of about… oh… 30 songs or so. Not all performance-ready, especially because we don’t have a completely stable core group, but we have been known to pull even the rusty ones out at an open mic night after a couple of beers.

Be on time. Warm up. Try to have some fun. And…

Know your part!

There is nowhere to hide in a group this small. If you are off, the whole group is off. Practice! Listen to it even when you are not at rehearsal. Sing along with the recording. Put in the counterpoint when you hear it on the radio.

There is a team depending on you, not to mention the audience you are someday going to perform for.

Listen. Then listen some more

The key to blending isn’t just singing what’s on the page (although that’s a great starting point.) It is more important to stay attuned to what’s going on around you. Make eye contact. Listen to where the edges aren’t meeting up. Some of it is in the notes, and some of it is in the overtones. It’s the little adjustments on the fly that make the difference between an acceptable performance and one that you can be really proud of.

Sometimes, you are just off key

This one took a while for me to get. I used to get defensive if somebody suggested that I was flat, or sharp, or perhaps had read the note completely wrong.  

What I have finally managed to realize is that when somebody points out a note and says, “I think you’re a bit flat here,” it is a statement of fact, not a moral judgement: You are not singing what is written on this page. It is making it harder for the rest of us.

Now I say, “Yup. I’ll have to work on that bit.”

You can improvise and still fit in

I played something on the piano the other day and discovered that I have been making up the harmony for about three years. In this case, it was still blending, but still… it is not what was written on the page.

I turned around and said, “I’ve been doing this wrong since 2015.” They said, “OK, but what you are doing sounds fine. Let’s move on.”

(Perhaps this one is actually, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”)

Just because you can hit a note doesn’t mean you should

Let’s be honest… we’re not all sopranos. Most of us can’t even play one on TV.

There are a couple of songs that we sing that hang out near the top of the soprano range. Speaking for myself, I know I can hit that A just above the treble clef once in a song, but I have to take a run at it. I should generally never be above a C/D for longer than a bar at a time.

Technically, I hit the notes pretty consistently, but they get thready and piercing. Not a pleasant singing or listening experience.

Play to your strengths

On the other hand, if most of my notes hang out between the A below middle C and that B♭just before I start getting piercing, sometimes, just sometimes, it is glorious. Full, emotionally meaningful, and a joy to do.

A Merely Technical Performance Misses the Point

You can hit all the notes, get all the harmonies, but music is more than just the notes on the page. The beauty lies in the overtones, the emotional content… sometimes we have a conversation that starts something like, “I feel like this piece needs to be a bit lighter.” We try a couple of different things… shorten the notes, swing it a bit… but those are not things you can exactly write down.

There’s an art to singing in a small choral group, and it comes from doing it over and over and over again until it sounds right… and then you say, “That was great! Let’s do it like that every time!” (ha ha ha ha ha…)

Not every performance can be your best

Of course, then we try to do it like that every time, and… sometimes it just doesn’t work. I remember our illustrious leader having to say in the middle of a performance, “And that was the first half of Happy Together.” Two of us had had to change parts in the previous week and we got confused with all the repeats. It fell apart. The sad part is, it’s one of our easiest songs. We use it for auditions with new members.

You roll with it. It’s live music. It’s on stage. There is nowhere to hide.

Keep a sense of humour about it and people will forgive you

One of my favourite recordings of all time is of Ella Fitzgerald forgetting the words to Mack the Knife. Fortunately, she’s was excellent at making up words: “Now Ella, Ella, and her fellas… we’re making a wreck… a wreck of… Mack the Knife.”

There’s a song on Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album where he forgets to take off (or put on) his capo, and he has to stop after the first line, fix it, and start over.

I love both of these recordings. I’m sure their audiences did, too.

Hard Things can become Easy Things. Or Not.

A lot of things that are hard will get easier with practice. Some of them are easier as long as somebody knows how to do them. Some things stay hard, and you need to figure out workarounds if you want to keep doing them anyway.

A couple of our favourite songs took us over two years to get right, with much mirth (or snarling, depending on the mood of the person who was struggling most that week.) Now that a bunch of us know them, though, we can usually integrate a new singer in a few weeks.

We have one song where the melody changes sections every few bars, so we always get one person to just sing “handrail.” Which is to say, “Keep singing the melody so that we have something to come back to if we get lost.” It’s actually a simple song, but the arrangement is difficult.

Also, every few weeks we pull out a terrifyingly difficult arrangement of Momentum to see whether we can all get to the last bar at the same time. That’s a win on that one. Here’s a link to the original, because you are never going to hear us sing this song.

And one more

I can also now sing a minor seventh chord. Go me.

P.S. This was a metaphor. And also, not.