The Standard Skill Set for Barbershop Singing: PART I

In my previous article, Two Philosophies About Barbershop Singing—And Their Outcomes, I promised to follow up with this present article.  Well, here it is, even if it is nearly three years late!

The goal of this article is to efficiently enumerate some skills that are frequently overlooked in deference to those most fundamental basics of “getting the words and notes right”.  As a choral director, I believe that the following skills should “come standard” in a choral singer—and that goes for Barbershop choruses, too.

The following list is in no particular order, except for the first item on it.  That one is first on purpose, and I’ll talk about that one shortly.  But regarding all the rest, it’s very important to note that all these skills are learnable by people of normal brain health.  They may or may not be easy to learn to mastery, but they are indeed learnable by anyone who cares to invest the time and effort necessary to learn them.

VOCAL SKILLS

  1. Differentiating between pitches.  The ability to know one pitch (frequency) from another, knowing whether one note is higher, lower, or the same as another.  This is a mental process that must occur before we even begin to sing.  It’s akin to Steven Covey’s famous “habit”:  Start with the end in mind.  Here are some articles to read if you’re interested in whether this is strictly a matter of genetics, or of learning.
  2. Matching pitch.  The ability to sing and to maintain an intended pitch accurately.
  3. Matching pitch quickly.  The ability to arrive at an intended pitch very quickly, without “scooping” or searching for the pitch.  Some have humorously compared the lack of this skill to altering the standard “Ready.  Aim.  Fire.” formula into “Ready.  Fire.  Aim.”
  4. Reading the lyrics.  The standard singer can read lyrics.  This relieves the ensemble of the burden of having to learn them by rote, which process is very time-consuming.
  5. Speaking.  The ability to formulate words and sentences using conventional syntax and pronunciations.
  6. Differentiating between vowel sounds.  The ability to tell one vowel sound from another (ah from ooh, for example), as well as to distinguish between a “bright” ah and a “dark” ah.  This is a cognitive skill that makes use of the sense of hearing.  It can also make use of vision, as one learns about how the shaping of the mouth and tongue are related to the qualities of the various vowel sounds.
  7. Matching specific vowel sounds.  The standard singer can make any vowel sound that the director can model for the ensemble–and can do it consistently throughout a song.  (The failure of a chorus or quartet to match vowel sounds, by the way, is one of the most common ways to make a song not sound so great.  Matching vowels plays a much bigger roll in “ringing” a chord than most understand.)
  8. Differentiating between and matching consonant sounds.  Similar to numbers 6 and 7 above, the importance of consonant skills is frequently overlooked.  These skills are often referred to more generally under the terms, diction or enunciation, where the goal is to speak or sing such that the words can be clearly understood.  Where these skills seem to matter the most is in singing words with a final consonant.  A good chorus agrees on how that consonant is to be executed.
  9. Keeping a steady beat.  The ability to regulate in one’s mind a steady time interval, such as the tempo of a song.  This skill is practically universal, and is much practiced in other things, such as walking and running, or even hammering or clapping hands in applause.  Learning to apply it in music is just a matter of practice for most.
  10. Dynamics–Loud and Soft.  The standard singer can differentiate between loud and soft sounds, and can consistently execute the difference on demand while singing.  This would also include transitions from one dynamic level to another, whether gradual or sudden.  Further, the standard singer knows how to regulate his or her volume in order to blend his or her part properly with the rest of the ensemble.
  11. Timbre.  (This is a French word, properly pronounced TAM-ber.)  Timbre refers to the quality of the vocal tone that is produced.  That is, what does it “sound like”—other than with regard to its pitch and intensity or loudness.  The standard singer can produce the characteristic human sound for his or her sex, which is a resonant tone with minimal “airy-ness” and strain.  In Barbershop singing, particularly, good resonance is crucial to “ringing” chords, and an airy or strained sound just won’t cut it.
  12. Regulating vibrato.  Vibrato is a natural phenomenon of the relaxed human voice in which a sustained pitch varies slightly in a stead up-and-down repeating pattern.  The standard singer can produce several typical vibrato patterns, and can even remove (partially or fully) the vibrato effect on demand.  In Barbershop, vibrato is counterproductive when trying to “ring” a chord.
  13. Breathing and posture.  We could spend all day on the various sub-skills that go into producing that characteristic human sound, but for now, let’s just package it all under this one heading.  The standard singer already knows how to breathe as needed to produce the desired vocal sound–and he or she knows the proper carriage of the body that facilities that sound, as well.
  14. Understanding and executing style.  The standard singer can sing in multiple styles, and well recognizes the difference between a hymn and a march, a rock tune and a waltz, and between a ballad and a toe-tapper.  Singing in the style most appropriate to the intent of the song is a crucial skill.
  15. Shape of the line.  An artist does not merely aim to get the words and the notes correct, but may also “shape” a line in a song by use of various techniques, including dynamics (loud and soft), intensity, breath placement, and so forth.  The standard singer should have a basic grasp of this concept, and should be able to imitate line shaping modeled by the director.
  16. Part Independence.  The standard singer can sing his or her part independently of what others nearby are singing.  Those not skilled in this are often called “leaners” because they need to be surrounded by others singing their same part, such that they can “lean” on them for support.
  17. Reading music.  The standard singer can read music, just like the standard news announcer can read the news copy, and like the standard carpenter can read a blueprint.  This saves the chorus a tremendous amount of time and stress, as the standard singer can teach him- or herself the notes, and does not require rote teaching during rehearsal time.
  18. Following the director.  The standard singer has learned to interpret the standard hand signals of the choral director, and can follow them in real-time.  This requires some skill in decoupling (see below) from his or her own immediate experience in singing, and executing the music, not merely by his or her own internal will, but by the will of the director.  It is this skill, of course, that unifies the various singers of an ensemble into a cogent musical unit.
  19. decouplingDecoupling.  Decoupling is a general cognitive skill that is crucial, not only for following the director, but for many other musical and non-musical tasks involved in being a chorus member.  For a brief definition, so the graphic inserted here.  And for a longer discussion of the importance of decoupling, see Part II of this article–which, hopefully, will be posted soon.

CONCLUSION

There are certainly some other technical skills that could be added to the list above.  In fact, it’s very likely that the 19 items above may be amended as I give further consideration to this list in the days to come.  This enumerated list, however, is plenty adequate to demonstrate that the standard singer is a well-equipped person who shows up with many skills already learned.  In my opinion, far too many choruses try to survive with singers who do not have these prerequisite skills.  And even worse, they never seem to take the time to teach these skills once those singers arrive.

This may seem understandable in the initial rush to get a song together for some special event, but after a singer has been in a chorus for a decade or two and still doesn’t have all the standard skills, it becomes exceedingly obvious that the chorus lacks a plan for teaching such skills.  And in this, it sells itself short, in my opinion.  This, of course, generally goes back to the philosophical differences I presented in my previous article.  But in some cases, it comes down to a lack of information.

I have seen far too many choruses whose directors, for whatever reason, let the details of good performance slide, apparently in pursuit of some goal that is considered to be more valuable than making excellent music.  Often, this is because the director him- or herself is unskilled in these things.  Or in other cases, the director is simply unwilling to engage the singers in order to correct and to teach as necessary to build a standard chorus of standard singers.

Whatever the cause, it’s understandably difficult to build a standard house without the standard supplies, and the same goes for choruses.  Without a roster of standard singers who have these standard skills, you’ll never have a chorus that can produce the characteristic Barbershop sound and the “ringing” chords.  You may well build a super-fun singalong chorus, but you’ll never put one on the stage that will thrill an audience of skilled musicians.

Yes, it takes work, but in my opinion, just about every skill on this list is indeed learnable.  And the old axiom is certainly true in this arena:  “You have not because you ask not.”  If a chorus wants to be great, then it simply needs to require that its singers have the standard skill set laid out in this article (and the next one), and to teach them how to attain those skills.

In Part II, I will address the various non-musical skills held by the standard singer–things that facilitate a successful choral organization, such as knowing how to work well with others, and so forth.  And I trust at this point, that it’s even clearer than before—the difference between the philosophies of those interested in learning these skills and those who are not.  It’s not my intent in this article to brand those who are disinterested as bad people–because not wanting these skills simply does not make a person bad.  Rather, it’s my intent to facilitate those who value the more excellent path by showing them how to get there.  Singing has been a part of human culture throughout history, and there has always been a wide span between those with the least skill at it and those with the most.

I, for one, believe that it’s possible to have a choral organization in which there is room for people of both philosophies.  That is, a larger sing-along group that has loads of fun and that learns to sing a few songs well enough that a typical audience finds them entertaining, along with one or more smaller ensembles as a subset of the larger group—where those smaller groups invest more in order to sing at a higher level of excellence.  That’s my goal as I’m building my fledgling ensemble, Sing, Montana! Men’s Chorus and Harmonic Fraternity.

 

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