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Thread: Close harmony with a mixture of male/female voices- strategies?

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    Registered User SincereCorgi's Avatar
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    Default Close harmony with a mixture of male/female voices- strategies?

    Hi all, this is only peripheral to mandolin but I know there are a ton of good bluegrassers here who sing:

    How do you approach improvised close harmony when you have men and women singing together?

    I took a vocal workshop taught by two very good lady singers this weekend and, to get the 'real' pitch for close harmony (rather than an octave down) I was either singing falsetto or at the top of my real range all afternoon, even on baritone parts. (I felt like Tiny Tim after a while.) Is this pretty normal? Do harmony singers with mixed genders usually adopt a different way of stacking voices?

  2. #2

    Default Re: Close harmony with a mixture of male/female voices- strategie

    Key selection is real critical to get close harmony for normal male/female combos to avoid this problem, although I’m curious why you didn’t grab the tenor above the melody. You also have the choice to put the lead on top and have the tenor and baritone both below or flip that to have tenor and high baritone.

    In duets it’s not uncommon to switch keys in verse/chorus to accommodate the voices, like ‘Going to the West’ by Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum.
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  3. #3

    Default Re: Close harmony with a mixture of male/female voices- strategie

    Have you defined where your range tops out? If you haven't sing along to some scales to see where you top out. Then identify where your partners are singing. If it is too high for you to harmonize that is something you should talk about. This would be a great discussion topic for the workshop as I am sure the instructors could give guidance, as well. If you are talking about long term stuff it is important to know where you fit in based on your range and then if you need to shift things around or just not sing certain songs.

  4. #4

    Default Re: Close harmony with a mixture of male/female voices- strategie

    Some women I can harmonize with and others who may sing equally well do not work out. My vocal range is not huge and that limits me. It depends a lot on how my voice is that day. Usually I do the best on baritone parts. One lady I have performed the best with has kind of a lower mid alto voice, very rich and warm and a fair amount of power. Depending on the song I usually sing baritone harmony with her. A few songs I can reach the tenor. On By The Mark we stumbled on kind of a crossed harmony for the chorus where I start under her and in the middle she drops down as I go above her then drop down again. We stumbled on it accidentally and it has been very effective. Her voice is enough stronger than mine that we kind of naturally fall into the right volumes with me a little behind her volume level.

    It takes time to develop and does not always work out. A mandolin player who I jam with regularly has a really nice voice but not as strong and pitched a little higher. I have had a difficult time making harmonies work with her despite trying quite a bit.

    With one other lady who I have sung nice harmonies with I put the total credit on her. She has quite a bit of range and a tremendous ear for it. Usually she will do the harmony though occasionally I have sung harmony to her lead or dual harmonies with someone else's lead. She always makes it work, going above or below, echoing back, counter melodies, it is amazing.

    A couple of others I had difficulty with but the problem was their voices, things like not singing on pitch and missing or adding beats, not singing the same melody from verse to verse. That is when it is time to walk away.

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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Close harmony with a mixture of male/female voices- strategie

    Many men can and do sing very high, including many bluegrass singers -- as in "high, lonesome sound." I don't sing all that high (baritone normally), though I can go high, but when I sing with a particular woman, I'm comfortable singing higher than her, and my masculinity hasn't been damaged. Learning to expand your range is great for any singer. Falsetto, according to my sweetheart who's a singer, is a misleading term. She prefers "singing at the top end of your range." She says there's nothing false about it. Many can't go that high. If you can, great.
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    Default Re: Close harmony with a mixture of male/female voices- strategie

    I think it starts with who's singing lead. If it's female solo you might try female singing the 3 and a male sing the 5 and octave down just underneath soloist. If it's the male soloist you might have females sing the 3 and 5 parts respectively. It's all about key and vocal range imo

    In our group I can sing the 3 harmony above the solo (natural way to harmonize imo) in some keys, in other keys, the 5 down below ala Mama Judd. Depends

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    Default Re: Close harmony with a mixture of male/female voices- strategie

    Practice.

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Close harmony with a mixture of male/female voices- strategie

    Quote Originally Posted by SincereCorgi View Post
    ...I took a vocal workshop taught by two very good lady singers this weekend and, to get the 'real' pitch for close harmony (rather than an octave down) I was either singing falsetto or at the top of my real range all afternoon, even on baritone parts....
    Singers have to sing in their natural vocal range -- for the most part. If your voice is naturally significantly lower than that of the lead singer, which is generally the case in "mixed company," you need to select a harmony line below the lead. If you want to make that harmony as close to the lead as possible, you need to select the highest note in the chord, that suits your range. You may end up doubling a higher harmony part, but an octave lower; that's not necessarily a bad thing.

    Think of all those SATB, soprano/alto/tenor/bass, choral arrangements. The male vocal lines are, with very few exceptions, placed lower than the female lines. Choral harmonies may often be more "open" than the improvised vocal lines of bluegrass, but listen to a few gospel quartet songs, and identify where the various male parts fall.

    The closest of "close harmonies" are found when the harmony singers are basically in the same range as the lead: two tenors, two sopranos, whatever, like the famous "brother duets" of the past. Two women teaching vocal harmonies, will in many cases have to lay out a harmony for the men, by singing it an octave above where the men are. That may be what you meant by getting the "real pitch" from one of the women, and having to sing it in a lower octave.

    I happen to work sometimes with a woman who basically sings in a tenor range, one of the lowest alto singers I've sung with. There are actually times I'm singing a harmony above her, at the highest part of my range. That's unusual, and you'll probably find, working with woman singers, that you're adding a low harmony, as close to their range as your voice and their voices allow.
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    Oval holes are cool David Lewis's Avatar
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    Default Re: Close harmony with a mixture of male/female voices- strategie

    Make sure there’s a good tonal blend. This is arcane and highly subjective. Four average voices can sound glorious and four gifted voices can sound empty. If you listen to Fleetwood Mac with Lindsey, Christine and Stevie, it’s a glorious mix. Lindsay leaves and Neil Finn steps in. Neil is a world class vocalist. But something’s missing. Work on the blend. That’s my only advice.
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    Default Re: Close harmony with a mixture of male/female voices- strategie

    If you are thinking "close harmony" like Flatt and Monroe, Reno and Smiley,Waller and Lauson it takes a certain female voice to make it work. That's not saying that a good harmony can't be done with any female voice, but it may not be the typical bluegrass close harmony. Early Monroe brothers was not "close" due to the difference in Bill and Charlie's voice. The classic Country Gentlemen swapped parts often either for effect or to kelp the vocals close or both. If 2or3 people are dedicated and work on blending some beautiful harmonies can result that may or may not be bluegrass traditional but will work great with the music. Who knows maybe a new style of harmony will result. The Stanley brothers recorded several "different" harmonies with Pee Wee Lambert that later became a common variety in bluegrass harmony.

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    Registered User Jon Hall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Close harmony with a mixture of male/female voices- strategie

    I sing with two ladies. The closest blend I can achieve is to sing the low tenor with lowest of their two voice singing the lead.

  13. #12

    Default Re: Close harmony with a mixture of male/female voices- strategie

    We have a group, 2 women and 2 men. We spend a lot of time shifting keys and changing who will sing the root until we find a mix that sounds right where everyone is comfortable. Four part harmony, in my experience takes some work. It takes a lot of flexibility and maybe a sense of humor and perhaps a capo to keep it working. As time goes on we seem to find our parts quicker but sometimes we work on something and decide it’s not working and toss it out all together. Both of us (women) are altos so we trade off on who has to get on top but both of the men can do a mean falsetto and sometimes if the higher part is weak we will double it. I love that magic when the 4 part clicks in, it’s worth every bit of work. Experiment a lot.

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