Many barbershoppers are very good musicians and do great things in helping those who are new to the hobby. As you all know, we take all types from those who were in collegiate groups to those who just started singing in the shower the day before they showed up for rehearsal – and both are great! We need all of that experience to make us what we are, to make our choruses have the fellowship that it needs that gives each group that special flare that keeps the guys coming back. We teach the guys how to sing and how to sing better through our coaches, directors, and judges at contest. We teach them how to perform by having singouts and prepping for shows. But we never really teach them how to be musicians. There are several guys who come to rehearsal who sing their parts, know every note, and know all the choreo but then say that they cant read the music and this is where we can do a better job for our members and for ourselves.
Learn To Read Music (Better)
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Start with the basics. If you use the music to just follow the words or even if you have studied music, its always good to review the basics. Two of the most important things you can learn to start are note values, note names, and key signatures. The value, or length of the notes, is one of the first things to learn and review to make you a better musician. Knowing how long to hold your note, when to change within the phrase, and if you are holding while others are moving can help you understand the piece and perform it better.
The pneumonic devices for note names are things that we should remember from elementary and playing the recorder and there are several different ones I have heard over the years. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if you remember it as “Every Good Boy Does Fine” or “Elvis’ Guitar Broke Down Friday” whichever one works for you and helps you know what you need to know.
Learning what note you are on at the beginning and end of the song will help you start to get a memory for how it feels and relate that to the page. This will help more once you know the key of the songs. Understanding how your note fits into the key will help you sing it more consistently the correct way because singing a C in the key of C sounds and feels a whole lot different than singing a C in the key of Ab.
Scales and Knowing How Your Note Fits (Better)
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In our choruses, we use many different methods for warmups and singing scales. Some use the numbers and some use solfege, both are fine to use but you need to understand how they work together and what knowing those can do for your ability. Learning how your note fits into the key, chord, and song is your next step in becoming a better musician and better singer in your chorus or quartet. There are a few points to keep mind while doing this…
- Leads – you will normally sing the melody, so you need to follow that precisely – even the tricky intervals
- Tenors – you normally sing lots of thirds and sevenths in the chords
- Basses – you sing lots of octaves and fifths, very conventional harmonies if you have sung in church
- Baris – you will get lots of fifths, thirds, sevenths and whatever else is leftover… sorry
Knowing these points can lead you to a few other specific things that can help you o your way…
Knowing Where You Are In the Chord And How To Tune It (Better)
Dave Stevens has a great video on the BHS Youtube page called “What we are trying to Preserve” that details the barbershop chord in all its glory. He talks about singing the “Coney Island” chord, which is that “Oh” chord you sing at the beginning of the song. That chord is the V chord since it is built o n the fifth of that key. The Lead is on the tonic, Bass on the fifth but below the lead, Bari on the third just above the lead, and tenor on the 7th. He goes through how to hear and recognize the steps away from the tonic chord and how to work your way back “home”. While learning the structure of the chords, remember these points…
- sing sing thirds and fifths a bit sharp
- sing sevenths a bit flat
- keep the tonic, or do, internalized so you reference all your pitches to that – if you are a lead
- make sure to tune to the lead if you are a bass, bari, or tenor
- always find your way back home
Work on reading music and your musicianship to become a batter musician and the best barbershopper you can be.
Joe is an Elementary Music teacher, Jacobs School of music graduate, a private voice and instrument instructor, Assistant Director of the Sounds of Indiana, Cardinal District Director of Music Education, Cardinal District Harmony Foundation Director, MAD Quartet Quarterfinalist, Cardinal District Novice Quartet Champion, Youth Chorus Contest competitor with Capital Force, performer with No Borders Chorus at Carnegie Hall, AHSOW member, arranger, and Lifetime Member of the Barbershop Harmony Society.