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Basic skills for singers: Singing Harmony independently

Sorry for the lateness of this compilation, but I've been .... well, I
guess we've ALL busy, so I have no real excuse. ;-)

I received LOTS of replies, most within 24 hours of my original post. I've
done my best to make this compilation short, but I'm afraid I didn't
succeed. I only included the same suggestion once, even if three or four
people suggested it. I also edited most responses, but I think I retained
the basic ideas of them.

I apologize if this compilation is too long, but I really DID cut it as
short as I could! :-)

Here is my original request, followed by the EDITED responses I received.
Thanks to all who offered help!

I have a high school choir of 65. This problem applies to members of all
sections, but MAINLY to my tenors. I'd appreciate any suggestions you could

In the proverbial nutshell, they don't want to sing their own part. They
can sing it fine when they are alone, but let them hear the melody, and
they sing right along with it. If I play their part with them on the piano,
they can sing it, but when I drop out, they rejoin that darn melody! (As I
said earlier, I have a few singers do this in each section, but it's more
pronounced in the tenors.) I don't usually work behind the piano, but I do
move back there to help them out occasionally.

Does anyone have any ideas how to help these guys sing a harmony part
independently? It's not that they don't know the notes, it's almost as if
they prefer singing the melody. I THINK it's just easier for them, but I
may be wrong. Any warm-ups or drills to specifically address this issue?
From: Jerry Westerman

I would suggest that you incorporate part singing exercises in your warm-up
time. Try using Solfege (preferably movable Do) and tell your singers that
this part of the warm-up time is for their ears. Take the through a series
of chord progression beginning with I, IV, V, I moving through different
keys. Then expand the progression to include minor chords (I, vi, IV, V, I
and I, vi, IV, ii, V, I). Then eventually included secondary dominants for
the purpose of modulation sequences. Be sure to write these progression out
on music staff so they can understand how their part relates to the others.
It is just as important to train the ear as it is the voice.
From: Susan Marrier

These guys need to get used to hearing themselves at the same time as
hearing another part. Try rounds and partner songs. Then try having them
hold one note while you (or some other choir members) sing a melody. Have
them sing scales in thirds, etc.: anything to get them singing a
recognizable part against (or rather with) another recognizable part. You
could also try tuning chords, where each person or group moves a different
interval at a different time, on cue. If you can teach them to use the
Curwen hand signs as they read the music, that will also keep them focussed
on what their own voices are doing. Often it is a problem of not really
listening to or concentrating on their own voices.
From: Robert Bullwinkel

Part independence won't really happen until each singer can hold his/her
part in a quartet. Try testing them this way. It won't solve the problem,
but it will certainly identify the source(s)! As a general rule,
encouragement and praise work better than assigning blame and creating
anxiety, but each singer must also be responsible for his/her own work.
Also, I really like rounds and canons, especially at the beginning of the
year. They seem simple, but really promote the independence you're seeking.
I like to start with singing rounds in quartets, trios, etc. Then it's
natural to move into singing parts the same way.
From: Dubravko Pajalic

What is the name of the piece you are trying to teach them? Maybe too
difficult? What I usually do is to find the voice which has the melody of
tenors repeated in terzas or sextas and ask them to sing together i.e. T+B
or T+S first and then all voices together. Another practice is to introduce
simple canon or round and exercise it as a warm-up. This will develop
individual voices to be more independent and not to be led by "melody"
From: George Roberts

Something you might consider is "weaning" the offenders off the melody line
by choosing some "weaning" type repertoire. Canons and rounds are very
useful for this kind of thing - they get used to having other music in
their ears, but they are still singing the melody. My novice adults seem to
benefit by being asked to sing all four parts once in a while (it is quite
ear-opening for the sopranos to have to sing a bass line on occasion, gives
them a whole new respect for non-melody singers). Another option might be
to do a "guys only" piece in two or three voices, which would give your
tenors the melody but make them sing it in close proximity to other voice
parts. As always when dealing with human beings, there is going to be at
least one in the crowd who is resistant to all attempts to "reeducate." I'm
still trying to figure out an "inclusive" option for those people.
From: Mari Eleanor

I think that's it's partly because the tenor part is the hardest to hear.
The alto is usually right under the melody, if you know what I mean. The
tenor is more remote from the melody but often still connected - it seems
easier for them to slip into the melody (particularly with a homophonic
structure). The tenor is also surrounded by an alto line above it and a
bass below it. I tend to teach the tenors their line and then get them to
sing with another part - the one that is the most closely related to them.
I do this so that they have a stronger point of reference in all that's
going on around them. I will then add the other parts, often one at a time.
From: Rebecca Renee Winnie

Program more polyphony. Renaissance music works very well.... everyone has
a "melody." Rounds and catches used in warm-ups (some are nice in
performance as well) are also helpful.... everyone learns the melody in
unison and then the canon helps them to develop independence. The MOST
DIFFICULT thing for inexperienced singers is to sing in harmony
From: Jane


Seriously, young singers do have some difficulty holding a part. They may
need extra drill or singing with the altos or bases, or put them in back of
the soprani so they won't be tempted.
From: Gary Fisher

I know it would not be an immediate fix, but what about trying to get the
tenors to identify with the other guys by singing some or one TTBB
repertoire? Would this help to identify their importance as a part? Could
you have part contests where each section is rewarded by extra marks or
some sort of prize at the end of the school week for learning their SATB
part first and best? How about some quartet singing? Either put the entire
group in quartet seating or try some quartet "quizzing," non-threatening,
but important to the learning process. Quartet singing always improves the
choir's ears and the ensemble blend.
From: Tim Howard

A couple of ideas, and maybe more if this fits your needs. Try doing things
in warmups that establish independence of parts:

1. Sing plenty of rounds (Music Alone Shall Live, etc. There are many books
with fun and serious warmups). Challenge the sections to do better than the
others (boys always want to do better than girls, etc.).

2. I am doing a song right now that employs a lot of parallel 4ths, so we
sing "America" in parallel 4ths. We started with Basses and Altos in the
key of C and Tenors and Sopranos in the key of F. Then we expanded to :
Basses on D, tenors on G, Altos on C and Sopranos on F. Realize that this
is with my top choir, but they've caught on well. This can also be done
with "Happy Birthday" or other songs.

3. Include polyphonic songs in your repertoire. Sometimes I have made the
mistake of thinking that homophonic harmony is easier than polyphony,
however, it the pieces are chosen right, polyphony (even 2 pt. or 3 pt.)
can be a great tool for teaching part singing.

4. Use warmups that teach independence. Sing 4-part chord progressions
(start with 2 pt. and work to 4 if necessary) and exercises that use lots
of parallel thirds.
From: Karen DeBack

You may wish to try this. Have them sing a section by themselves first,
then have another of the harmony lines sing with them, then add the third
harmony line, then add the melody. I use this with my church choir and it
works well.
From: Steve Myer

I teach elementary choir grades 4-6 (Mostly 2-part). Upon occasion, I teach
the harmony line to the section without letting them hear the melody. When
we later combine the 2 lines the harmony part usually holds up.
From: Matthew P. Fritz

I would try having all sections sing their part and only introduce the
"melody" after everyone else is secure with their own parts. You may even
try seating your choir in quartets... I know this sounds crazy, but it may
help for them to hear all of the other parts as they relate to their own.
If your guys aren't great readers, maybe you could have them "follow the
notes (no text) with your finger" singing on "doo". This will cover the
text and require them to actually look at the notes.

I think your willingness to stay away from the piano as much as possible is
great! I would even go so far as to eliminating the piano from rehearsal
entirely by using a pitch-pipe or tuning fork to get pitches. A capella
rehearsal always helped my high school students.
From: John Drotleff

It's easy. Teach them to read music.
Start a program of Solfege and they will learn to read rather than sing by
From: Ann Buchanan

One thought--if you are working on a selection in which the melody is
familiar such as a current popular song, everybody wants to join the group
who has the familiar melody, usually the sopranos. Also, you said it just
seemed a little easier for them. That is true when you think in terms of
tessitura. The melody is frequently around the third or fourth tone of the
scale, while the tenor part when singing in thirds is around five or six of
the same scale and is consequently higher than the melody. For
inexperienced tenors it just is easier to sing a lower note. Have you
taught your groups a sight reading system? My system of choice is tonic
solfa/moveable do, and I used to teach my junior high and high school
choirs all of their repertoire using syllables before we ever added the
text. It is harder to fall off the track if you are using a music reading
system which differentiates your part from the others. Also, don't let
everybody oversing! They need to learn that an important part of good
singing is careful listening. You might try singing only the harmony parts
together a capella and then adding the melody a few voices at a time so all
of the harmony singers can still hear themselves well. Finally, I think a
good falsetto/head tone is a very useful device. One of my favorite warmup
exercises starts in the key of G. Have all men sing the G above middle C in
their falsetto/head tone. They sing down the scale from high do to low do
and back up again. The altos begin a third behind them and go from do to
low mi and back up to high mi. Sopranos start a third behind the altos and
go from do to low sol and back up to high sol. Have the men stay in a
falsetto or light head tone all the way, and you should get nice three part
harmony. As they get more skilled, move up by half steps, maybe to the key
of Bflat or so. Your men should with time develop their high notes, and the
altos will have a little challenge avoiding jumping off to the soprano part.
From: Terry Sanford

The best solution I have found is an old tried and true one. I have them
write solfege syllables into their parts and sing the parts on the
syllables. They concentrate so hard on singing the right syllable that they
don't listen to the sopranos and sing their own line. Usually it doesn't
take much of that until they hold their own line independently.

Another thing I've tried that sometimes work is having the section with the
problem sing in a circle to each other with the other parts in the
background. By having them reinforcing each other in the circle, they don't
get pulled off as easily.

Do you have a strong voice in the tenor section that leads them astray? If
they're all leaning on one voice and that voice sings the melody, that
could cause the problem.
From: David W. McCormick

We do a fair amount with our junior choir to help them get ready for part
singing: half hold a single note while other half sings a scale (both
directions); sing scales in canon after two notes, add a third part after
two more; sing scales in contrary motion.
From: Craig Hawkins

I suggest trying some canons with the whole choir as part of your warm-up.
You can teach them in unison and when they are ready break into 2 parts
(girls vs. boys), then three (Sops vs Altos vs Boys) then 4 parts. Start
with something they already know like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," "Ah, Poor
Bird," or "The Ghost of John" and then introduce others. Santa Barbara
Music Press publishes a set edited by Charlene Archibeque which includes a
rather long canon by WA Mozart.

Another piece that might work is "Da Pacem Domine" edited by John Leavitt.
It is basically a double canon. The S & T's have the melody (which is only
8 bars long) starting on G and the A's and B's have it starting on D. It is
the only music they sing for the entire piece but it sounds impressive.
From: Lou Ann Wimberly

You are right in thinking that the melody is easier for them! Especially if
they are not concentrating and thinking their own part as they sing with
others. Try a simple polyphonic piece, a canon, or a piece where they are
the melody part. This is a very frustrating problem to deal with, but their
thinking is of the utmost importance.
From: Susan Hinrichs

At my high school I make all my choirs learn their music on solfege.
Exceptions would include music that is definitely not diatonic or so fast
or rhythmic that syllables get in the way instead of help. The students
know that we will stay on syllables until they can sing their part
independently. They pretty much hate it, but they do learn their part and
in the long run, they learn to read faster, and I can get out from behind
the piano because we work so much a capella I also make them stand around
the room in tenor circles, alto circles, etc. and work on the piece. That
way I can get around to each circle and listen to what is going on, and
they can hear each other better. If you have a lot of hard wall space, you
can have them stand around the room facing the wall. They can hear
themselves as their voice bounces back to them from the hard surface of the
wall. You can play from the piano while they sing to the wall. You might
rehearse your tenors with the part has the melody, so they can hear the
relationship of their part to the melody. Barbershoppers do this a lot.
From: Jon Erik Schreiber

-Teach the tenor part as if it were the melody. If you're doing music that
the student will not have sung before, the singers may not know the
difference until you start to put all the parts together. Just as most
singers hear their part in relation to the melody (or the bass), have the
choir learn its parts in relation to the tenor; your tenors will begin to
take the lead.

-Lead the choir through difficult passages "note-by-note," focussing on
intonation and harmony. Take time to let the tenors (and the others) hear
how each chord is constructed as opposed to memorizing a vocal line; learn
parts vertically instead of learning horizontally.

-Do drills in which the tenors sing either in thirds, sixths, or tenths
above or below the tune.
From: Terry Cordery

The only way I have managed to deal with it is to play both parts for them,
with them listening and joining in with their lower part. Then play the
melody only with them joining in with their part - and to repeat this
process ad nauseam.
From: Sean Berg

Most importantly is the placement of the tenors, or any section. Get the
tenors away from the Sopranos for a while. Place them on the other side of
the choir. Also try seating the entire choir in a circle around the room
STBA and try other arrangements. Also try sectionals with two parts at a
time. Once SA and TB then try AT and SB then ST and AB. It is easier to
sing your own part against one other part to see how it fits rather then in
a full 4-6 part music. Do quartet checks - have 1-2 people per voice stand
in front of the class and sing a section of the piece you're rehearsing.
Make them take responsibility. This also gives you something to grade which
looks good to administrators.
From: Eric Anthony

I have found that singing in circles separated by voice parts helps
everyone solidify notes and allows parts to "stick" better. Place weaker
singers between strong ones. When you have time, have the students sing in
pairs. Because I try to keep everyone on task as much as possible, have
other section members softly hum while the pair is singing.
From: Geneva Powers

Do these guys learn their parts on solfege or numbers? All of your singers
can benefit from learning to read on numbers and practicing on numbers
faithfully. They are using only their ears and have not got literacy skills
to let them know that their ears are failing them.
From: Christine Jordanoff

The problem your tenors are encountering is one of aural skills, rather
than a vocal one.

It can be solved over a significant period of time by incorporating ear
training into every choir rehearsal. The Kodaly approach, using hand
signals in one and two parts, singing one part while tapping the rhythm to
the other, inner hearing exercises (audiating the part silently and
entering audibly on a given signal) are but a few ways to begin this
undertaking. It is much more complex than this, but you might want to look
into the Kodaly concept for great assistance.
From: Carla

1) The whole choir sings their part and learns it. The choir has to know
what to listen for in order to help this section fill their part. Slowly
signal your weaker singers first to return to their part. Slowly the choir
returns to its own part.

2)The best method that has worked for me has been to have them stand to the
side in front in a circle and sing with the choir. You have to find a
leader. Maybe even from an other section to sing with them.

3) Warm-up chords. I, IV, V7, I. (From Bass up) Do, Mi, Sol, Do for the I
chord; Do, Fa, La, Do for the IV chord; Ti, Fa, So, Ti for the V7 chord and
back to the I chord. This then can be modulated up and down. Explain how
fragile the 3rd is.
From: Wendi Bogard

Have you tried any songs that feature tenors or have tenor melody through
at least part of the piece? One that is not too hard is "Blow, Blow Thou
Winter Wind" by John Rutter. I am having this same problem with some of my
baritones who were tenors last year. Especially if they are sitting
anywhere near the sopranos.
From: Nancy Fontana

Borrow some hymnals (easy reading). Have the altos and tenors sing tenor
line. (Roger Wagner used to have altos double the tenor line whenever
possible especially if the altos have bars of rest.) Then have these two
sections sing the tenor line with sopranos singing their line. Then have
the doubled tenor section sing their part with the basses singing their
line. After some repetition tenors should be able to sing their part in the
fabric of all parts. Also, use simple canons as an exercise in staying on
your own part as a daily exercise. When doing the 4-part hymn repertoire
have them sing on loo loo loo so they can concentrate on pitches and
eliminate the extra distraction of reading text. Add text when you think
they've got it.
From: Nelson Kwei

I normally start with making them sing alone, then add another part (say
bass). Slowly work my way up to 3 parts and finally with all parts in (Sops
last). If it still doesn't work, I'll give them extra sectional training
until they can hold the parts well. After some extra training the guys will
normally try their best to sing correctly so that they don't have to come
for more sectionals. ;-)
From: Marjorie Drysdale

- Have them sing their part alone, nice and loud.
- Have the other parts sing together (SAB)
- Tell the SAB section to do the same thing, but softly on "oo" while
tenors blast out their part with words. Do this several times.
- Sing SATB, all parts with words, but tell SAB's to sing very softly
- Sing SATB in proper balance.

If this doesn't work, perhaps you can isolate the "leader." There is
usually one singer in each section that the others depend on. Perhaps he is
lustily singing the melody. Have them try it without him a few times and
see if they do better. Then plug him back in.

Make a tape. Get a tenor you know to sing the part correctly into the tape.
If you have access to a four-track or multi-track and you have the friends
and the resources, put all four parts on the tape, but make the tenor line
much louder.

Last resort: Let them sing the darn tune and put the sopranos on the tenor
part an octave higher, in descant. (What, me, a purist?)
From: David Douglas

Canons and rounds are excellent exercises in independence of parts. In your
music, try having sopranos sing their part softly on a neutral syllable.
This will encourage tenors (and others) to hear their part in relation to
remaining parts.
From: Robert King

I could well be wrong, but I suspect that they are not "reading" the music,
but rather learning by rote. It is difficult for me to take the time at the
beginning of each school year to deal with fundamentals of sight reading
with my high school choirs. So many are veteran members that it is tempting
to assume they are all good readers. But this skill must be constantly
developed. Do you work with them on singing numbers or syllables? In one
choir last year that was having particular difficulty we took time to write
the scale degree number under every note in a piece. Then each section sang
their part separately on the numbers, followed by the entire ensemble
singing on their own numbers. This is the same principle as solfege
singing. If a section is singing with the melody, they can hear that the
numbers they are singing are different, even though the pitches are the
same. It is tedious, but if they get the concept of independent singing and
associating the visual high-low/pitch high-low relationship, they should
From: Judith Higbee

Try doing some rounds so that the choir can learn to hang on to their own
part while hearing something else. Also one thing that works for me is to
wander about the room jumping from voice part to voice part (sort of like a
section leader) to help keep all of the parts on track. Initially I sat the
boys by my male accompanist who would sing their part with them. The timbre
of the voice is so different than the piano that I really think singing
with them helps. Then as you go you can wean them off your vocal support.
From: Martha Springstead

I'm sure that you do tuning of chords. Give the tenors a chance to move
around in those chords. Have the SAB's hold their notes, and the tenors
move up or down at your direction. Also, try tenors alone on their part,
gradually adding each part.
From: Meg Papadolias

I teach the tenor first. That way it seems more like the melody to them,
since it's the first sounds of the song we have performed. I'm female, so I
sing the tenor at an octave, moving near them. I sing very softly, but
enough to help them hear their part a bit in isolation.

As a reward, sometimes give them some true Sacred Harp to sing. The melody
is always in the tenor. They'll find the fuging tunes to be a fun challenge.

As much as I like to have kids be independent, one thing that will help is
to have one tenor take the reigns and lead the others. A leader will
eventually arise.
END OF EXTREMELY LONG COMPILATION! I'm impressed that you read this far!
LOL ;-)

on November 19, 2002 10:00pm
This is a test to see if this forum is still active....
on November 19, 2002 10:00pm
Properly speaking, this never was a forum, but it was a compilation of responses received to a Choralist post. It can be turned into a forum if people wish to discuss it further, but if you want responses, it might be better to use the Chat forum or ChoralTalk.
on March 10, 2005 10:00pm

Have the tenors sing their part solo and then sing it against or with the soprano part being played on an instrument or sung by a soprano(s) singer. Make sure to include a metranome with this
rehearsal technique.
on October 20, 2009 3:04am
Just stumbled across this via Twitter! If anyone's still following this thread, you might be interested in some posts on my blog which dealt with this issue. I'd be interested to hear your responses.

Chris Rowbury
Coventry, UK