Harmony beyond the music; the importance of tolerance

As I write you today, we just elected a new president. It was a historic event for a lot of reasons, and not all of them good I’m afraid. It amazes me sometimes how much hatred, intolerance and judgment those of us who call ourselves Christians can display. I won’t get into the details, rehash any of the negative things that were being said or give any more space to it here than absolutely necessary. Let me state a just a couple of things though, that should be obvious to most of us by now.

1. There is only one God. He is the only one with the power to decide anyone’s destination after they die.

2. I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about Him, His ways or how He thinks (some people claim to). But I think I can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that if I go to hell it won’t be because of who I voted for or didn’t vote for.

3. No matter how creative you get with scripture, God has not given anyone the power to condemn anyone to hell. You can use all the “fruit inspector” references you want to in order to justify judging people harshly, but the word of God is clear.

4. God kinda expects most of the hatred, bigotry and negativity happening in the world to come from other people, not His followers.

One of the saddest truths about Christianity is that pretty-much all of the hatred and disdain people feel towards it all over the world is largely due to the actions of Christians.

It’s important for us all to remember at all times that we are representatives of  Christ. People get their opinion of Christianity from watching Christians. It’s important we remember that in our day to day actions and conversations.  Let’s extend the harmony we put into our music to our fellow man. Let’s try to be more tolerant. More respectful of differences. Whether it be appearance, religion or how someone voted.

Image courtesy of Stuart MilesFreeDigitalPhotos.net

How to never forget your key again

Even for those of us who have been singing in the choir or on the praise team for years, remembering all these different parts for all these different songs can be a challenge. But don’t you ever wonder how the person who teaches all the songs can remember all that stuff? How can they remember every part for every section for 6 different songs, when you’re having trouble just remembering yours? (lol) . To tell you the truth, we don’t. It would be very, very difficult indeed if we were actually memorizing every note of every song for every section.

Choir directors, parts teachers and music ministers/directors have simply trained their ears to listen to and understand harmony in a different way than most people. In an average 3-part harmony song (which is typically how harmony is structured in most Gospel songs) the instructor can hear all 3 parts together and then listen again and hear all 3 parts separately, singling out soprano, alto and tenor at will. Sound pretty amazing?
Well what if I told you most people reading this blog could learn to do the same thing? In fact I’ve proven this with members of my own choir who have, over the years, learned how to almost anticipate what their part will be before I teach it to them. The secret to never forgetting your part is to stop trying to “memorize” it in the first place. Sounds crazy, I know. But that’s exactly how people like me can teach the soprano part, the alto part and the tenor part for 6-10 songs all in the same rehearsal with no sheet music.

The key to retaining your parts is moving from memorizing to understanding harmony. Listening to and understanding how your part works and moves with the other parts to form the harmony. It’s very hard, for example, to remember your part and only your part if you try to do so by blocking out everyone else’s. It’s kinda like being in the middle of the ocean and all you can see is water in every direction. You have no point of reference; nothing to guide you or give you direction. For the song teacher, every part we teach is a point of reference that tells us what the next part will be.

In every song we sing, there are tons of these little points of reference happening all the time. Little directional pointers that tell us exactly where to be, what note to sing, how to know what note is coming next. The average person hears them but just doesn’t pay attention to them. The difference in the average person and those who teach songs to them, is that the teachers have taught themselves to listen to all of those little things and make use of them to remember all those parts.

So how does this help you, and how can you use this to get super-good at learning and memorizing your keys? Very simple. You do it by training your ear to listen to everything that you hear. This is a technique I use to teach “tone-deaf” (I put that in quotation marks because very few people in the world are actually tone-deaf) people how to sing on pitch. The same technique works for teaching someone how to get really good at hearing, understanding and retaining their part in harmony arrangements. To understand it better, let’s take a brief look at the difference between listening and hearing.

Imagine for a minute that you’re watching tv. It’s a Spring day, the windows are up and there’s a nice breeze. Outside you can hear children playing, maybe dogs barking. You can hear them, but you aren’t listening to them. You’re listening to the tv. Now imagine one of the children yells out your name. Immediately your brain switches the tv to the background and the noise outside becomes your focus. You can still hear the tv, but now you’re not listening to it. You’re listening to the children outside.

Do you see the difference? The difference between hearing something and listening to it is the value that you assign to it. You can hear things happening all the time that you aren’t listening to. When you begin to focus your attention on something with the intent of assigning some kind of value to it, now you’re listening to it. Each of us has the ability to learn to do this very deliberately, any time we want. To do so you simply have to learn to “listen” to everything that you hear.

This is the key to really understanding and retaining your part once you’ve learned it. When you try to memorize your part by isolating it and blocking out everyone else’s so you can “focus” on yours, you’re basically putting yourself back in the middle of the ocean. It will always be hard for you to memorize a random series of notes when you have nothing to go on or no direction to help you know where to go.

But when you begin to really listen to not only your part but how your part sounds with the other two parts, you’ll begin to develop a completely different understanding of your part. Soon you’ll notice all kinds of little ques that tell you exactly where you should be and where to go next. The better you get at listening to all that you hear, your ears will even start to encompass the band in that process. You’ll start to hear places where the organist or the bass player plays the same note that you sing on a certain word or point in the song. Now you’re not only listening and focusing on your part alone, but your part as one small piece of the whole musical arrangement.

Give it a try right now. Put on your favorite song. Play it first, listening only to the lead vocalist. Then play it again, this time deliberately making the effort to listen only to the background singers. Over time if you listen to music this way all the time, you’ll get to the point where you can start to actually drill down to and pick out individual parts in the harmony.

Having a hard time figuring out the parts to a song you have to teach soon? Let’s team up! You can book coaching time with me by the hour or in packages. Let’s get on Skype and work through the song together. I’ll help you figure out the parts and give you pointers on how to get better at teaching songs  to your group. Book one-on-one coaching with me here.


The 4 Stages Of Breathing Explained, Pt. 2

Welcome back! In my last blog I gave you a detailed explaination of Inhalation and Suspension, the first 2 stages of proper breathing. Now I would like to break down the last two, Phonation and the Resting Period.

We discussed how important inhalation is to a singer. On the opposite hand we have exhalation, which is the usage of the air you inhaled. In normal breathing this process is called exhalation but in the singing world it should be referred to as Phonation. Phonation is simply the process by which the vocal folds vibrate and produce sound. To the average gospel singer we naturally have the gift to sing so we really do not focus on what is actually going on in our body when we sing. I believe that it is important for a singer to know how the body affects the sound we produce.
Continue reading

The 4 Stages Of Proper Breathing Explained

In my previous blog I started talking about the breathing process that a singer should go through. In that article I mentioned that there are four stages of proper breathing: Inhalation, Suspension, Phonation(exhalation) and the resting period. I thought it would be helpful to go into more detail about each one. Today I’ll cover the first two, Inhalation and Suspension.

First let’s talk about Inhalation.
During the inhalation stage of breathing it is critical for the singer to have a relaxed body so that the air can fill in where necessary. Referring back to a balloon analogy I used in the first blog , when air is blown into it the balloon expands all the way around. When inhaling air, as a singer the mid section of your body should expand just as that balloon does, freely allowing the air to fill the lungs from bottom to top. The average singer is prone to taking a shallow inhalation right before they sing. But I cannot tell you how imperative that intentional deep breath is every time you open your mouth to sing. The body should be erect in a natural stance. The shoulders are not in any way involved in the inhalation process. The only movement there should be is in the mid section of the body, from the air filling in.
Continue reading

The fine art of proper breathing

Breathing is something we all do naturally. But in the singing world- more precisely the classical singing world- there is an art/technique to breathing. Singing gospel most of my life I was stuck in my ways as far as singing was concerned. I lost my voice often and I always felt like I was screaming to get certain notes out. It was not until I began studying classical music that I began to understand the technique.

The way you breathe not only produces the sound but it also controls the quality of the sound and the volume. Have you ever heard a singer and you could hardly hear what they were singing? Or maybe a singer who always sounds like they are afraid when they sing. There are even singers who do not fully understand how to preserve the air that they take in while singing. Breath control is a great way to assist the average singer with such issues.

The average singer is drawn to just taking air in right before they sing their first word. But I want you to think about not just taking air in, but letting the air fill up from the bottom to the top. This process involves the entire body and takes some extra thinking. As the air fills the lungs the stomach section and the back section should expand. During this time the singer should be thinking about what has to be sung and how it should be sang.Once the singer knows what is about to happen then the actual singing begins.

In normal everyday breathing there are three stages: inhalation, exhalation and a resting period. In singing there should be four stages: inhalation, suspension, exhalation and a resting period. It is vitally important that a singer consciously do these four stages until it is natural. The exhalation or phonation stage is typically the stage where most singers lose control of their breath. Phonation involves several areas of the mid section the abdominal, internal intercostal and the lower pelvic muscles. These muscles control the amount of air that is released while singing. They also support the sound and tone quality of the notes.

The entire process can be a lot to think about while one is trying to remember the words to a song or fight through nerves. But if you want your singing to improve and become much easier, it’s definitely worth the effort. Try thinking about breathing in a different way when it is time to sing. Practice letting the air fill from the bottom of your lungs to the top, then stop and think about what all you want to sing with that breath. Imagine you have a full balloon and you squeeze the top so the air will seep out. That balloon is your lungs. Once they are filled you want to strategically release the air, rather than just pushing or blowing as hard as you can.

We’ll be talking more about breathing in future blogs.

Shena Crane,

The Music Ministry Coach.com

Shena Crane is a Classically trained professional vocal coach. She graduated from University Of Texas At Arlington. Shena holds a Bachelors Degree in Music Education as well as an Associates Degree in Music/Performance.

Why it’s better to sing in unison than with bad harmony

Schola Cantorum de Caracas (Venezuela) led by Maria GuinandDown through the more than 30 years I’ve been teaching vocal harmony for various choirs and groups I’ve developed a reputation as a “perfectionist”. Unfortunately I don’t think everyone who says this about me means it in the most positive way. In fact I’ve been accused of nothing short of dictatorship, although not in so many words. I suspect the same is true for many choir directors, music ministers and musicians around the world who are charged with teaching the songs their various choirs and praise teams bring before the congregation week after week.

As we discussed in another blog, some of the hardest, most frustrating rehearsals in fact have been those where the harmony didn’t come together quite so easily, but I continued to push until we got it right. In fact sometimes we didn’t get it right, and we decided to simply come back to it in another rehearsal rather than perform it before we had it perfected. And it’s times like these when people really wonder why it’s such a big deal to have everything so “perfect”. It’s most frustrating too, when it’s a really small thing that we just can’t get our heads around, you know what I mean? Like one note in one section that is being sung a half-step off, making this really unpleasant clashing of  harmony between the musicians and the singers. Often it’s hard for the choir members and praise team members to understand why it’s such a must that things like that be fixed.
Well, I can really sum it up for you with one sentence. it’s something God dropped in my spirit when I was very young, and it’s been one of the driving forces behind my style of teaching and ministry. He said this:

“The harmony is right when it’ becomes transparent.”

Looking back I think I knew everything that sentence meant the minute it came to me. And I knew that if I could help my choir understand this it would change the way they felt about the work involved with perfecting the harmony. Instead of resenting it they would come to embrace, understand it’s necessity and even prefer it. So God started to not only reveal this to me, but to admonish me to teach it to others so they really had a whole new understanding of why it’s so important to do this work.

So to explain it in a nutshell, God showed me that when harmony is right, nobody is paying attention to it. They’re only paying attention to the message. Beautiful harmony just makes the message that much more powerful. But when it’s right, the harmony is NOT the main attraction. The message is. Ironic, isn’t it? That we put so much work into the sound for the express reason of getting it to the point where nobody pays attention to it? But that’s the real reason we do it. The reason we MUST do it.

Because you see, when it’s wrong, everybody’s paying attention to it. But nobody for the right reason. When someone or some section is off-key, even if everything is going great up until that point, it will immediately draw everybody- and I mean every member of the group AND every member of the audience- OUT of worship and praise and focused solely on trying to figure out what’s wrong; “something doesn’t sound right”. Choir or praise team members start looking around at each other, the musicians, the director- ANYBODY that can help them find where they’re supposed to be. So again; NOBODY’s thinking about the message. There is no praise or worship going on at this point. Just uncertainty, confusion, embarrassment. Now everybody’s out of the Spirit and in self. So the negative effects are even worse on the choir or praise team than they are on the audience.

Case in point.

Our choir was doing a particular song one Sunday morning. It was a beautiful, powerful worship song. As we began to move through it the Holy Spirit started to move through the members and the audience as well. People were starting to lift their hands and just worship God through the song. But then we came to a place in the song where there has always been some uncertainty. It was a rather complicated movement, and not everyone really understood what was happening there.

The minute we reached that part in the song, it was as the Holy Spirit hit a brick wall. We immediately came out of worship as the members realized they didn’t know what part to do or where to do it. We didn’t understand it. We hadn’t perfected it until we really, really knew it. We went on and struggled through the whole movement to end the song. The embarrassment and utter disappointment was palpable enough to cut with a knife. Not having been the original teacher of the song, I vowed then that we wouldn’t sing it again until I could make every member understand exactly what was happening in this movement, to the point where it was almost instinctive.

And that is the most clear illustration I can give you for why song teachers, choir directors and music ministers all over the country drive and push their music ministries to excellence. I know what it looks like. But it’s really not about us at all. It’s about removing all distractions, hindrances and uncertainty that would take the focus away from our true mission; to deliver the word of God in song, and to do it in such a way that it’s effective and reaching the hearts of His people.

For that reason alone it is almost better to just sing in unison than to sing with bad harmony. But I feel the need to also make sure everyone understands that it isn’t about harmony. You don’t have to have harmony at all to have a powerful, anointed performance. A group of people singing in unison has the same effect as a group of people singing in perfect harmony. The sound becomes transparent vessel that delivers the message without distraction. Hezekiah Walker’s “I Need You To Survive” is a great example of a very powerful choir song that has no harmony.

The real point is to never allow yourself to be ok with putting something before God’s people that doesn’t sound good and you know it doesn’t. Not, at least, when He’s blessed you with the talent and resources to give Him better. There is a reason why the most disciplined, hard-working choirs and praise teams are usually the most anointed. God honors your music ministry when you’re giving Him your best. Once you really understand that you’ll slowly see your attitude go from “why does it have to be so perfect, we ain’t no professionals!!”- to ” can we go over our part one more time?” And that’s when God takes your ministry to another level.