by Mark Dvorak
Some people are born with the gift of harmony, the rest of us have to find a way to work at it. Over time though, our listening deepens. Over time our bodies learn to respond in a harmonic way, to the sounds happening around us.
Here's a thing you can try the next time you're singing with a group of people. When a song is chosen that you're already familiar with, sing along with the melody the first time the chorus comes around. Get familiar with the words again, and see if you can determine on which word the first strong beat falls.
The first strong beat of the chorus in the song, "Oh Susannah," falls on the first word, "Oh." The first strong beat of the chorus to "This Land Is Your Land," falls a little further in, on the word, "your" (this land is YOUR land).
In the song "I'll Fly Away," the beat we're looking for again falls on the first word of the chorus, "I'll."
So the next time your group is singing the chorus to "I'll Fly Away," look for that first word, "I'll." We already know it falls on the first strong beat and you already know which note it is. Don't go checking the note on your instrument, and don't look it up on the sheet music either. Instead, just sing it. Right now. Yep, that one.
Let's see then if we can break the work "I'll" into two parts, something like, "Eye - yull." Try singing the melody note you are already familiar with on the syllable "Eye," and on the syllable, "yull," jump up to the next note higher. This has to happen pretty quickly and there isn't much time to aim. Just take a crack at it when the chorus rolls around and see how it goes. This is as good a way as any to begin learning to hear a harmonic interval.
This sort of practice, of singing two notes on a single word, tends to annoy some people, but don't let that bother you. Sing again the melody note on the syllable "Eye," and then listen for the happy resonance when the sung syllable "yull" finds its fortunate place on the next note higher.
Here's the important part. Once you've made your leap from the melody note to the harmony note you've just discovered, stay there. Try holding that tone for as long as your breath, or the phrase will allow. At some point the phrase, or the next phrase will enter a new chord system and the tone you are holding may have to change. You can only know this by listening. Your tone will either resonate anew with the chord change, or it will gently pull you this way or that.
If you are singing around your mid-range, don't be afraid to jump up again to the next note higher. If you're already getting close to the top or your range, try dropping down to the next note lower. Keep listening as you try. Some singers like to cup one of their ears with their hand to better assess their intonation. You can too.
At first it is good to try this without the distraction of playing an instrument. There is already a lot going on that you want to try to be aware of, and everything you need to hear is already in the room, provided by the other singers and instrumentalists. If this all seems a little mystifying or difficult, that's okay. It is mystifying at first. And sometimes difficult. If you have trouble, keep trying. Without naming tones or keys, you have begun now, listening to your own voice resonating in a harmonic way with the other sounds in the room.
Try it with a friend. Sit close to one another with both of you aiming for the same harmony note at the same time. Watch your friend's lips at first, then look to their eyes. If you get lost, start again by singing the melody. Then look for the place to jump up to the next note higher.