Wow, 35 people at our first rehearsal. Singing really is alive and the sound from the vocal harmonies from the outset was fantastic. More than one person mentioned how the sensation of singing together made them feel like a real team and how satisfying it felt.
It was great to start with a little posture. We started by softening our knees so that they weren’t locked. Next, simply placing the feet parallel, straight and forward under the shoulders, instead of ‘penguin’ opens up the coccyx which allows deeper breathing from the tummy and lower back.
Taking a “Ya” breath means that the tongue comes down at the back of the throat and creates a very big space. This is great for singing in general but also brilliant for Gospel vocal tone in that a lot of Gospel and Soul “resonance” is “rear resonance”.
Singing in harmony (we used high, mid and low groups) very much creates a Gospel vocal sound, particularly when the chords move in parallel. We started using “solfege” (the Do-Re-Mi) system with specific hand signs to help us hear pitches and harmonies, allowing each group to put a “label” to the sound/note that they were producing and to know where they were at.
We started with notes above Do: Do, Do-Re(“ray”), Do-Re-Mi, Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So.
We then moved to pitches below Do to lead to “low So”: Do-Ti-La-So.
Finally we produced two chords:
(1) A “root position major chord” with the low group singing Do, mids singing Mi, highs singing So.
(2) what is termed in theory lessons a “second inversion major chord” with the low group singing low So, mids singing Do, highs singing Mi.
Here’s some extra tracks if you would like to further develop your ‘inner ear’, the ability to hear the pitches in your head.
Swing Low Harmony Vocals
There are many great Gospel Choir versions of this song. Whilst traditionally being classed as a Gospel Spiritual, it is particularly associated with rugby these days. Perhaps the most famous rugby version of this, related to the World Cup, was that by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The version that I chose to adapt is by LCGC (London Community Gospel Choir) and arranged by my wonderful friend Rev Bazil Meade MBE who co-founded and directs the choir. It was great to have Nigel on bass and Keith on rhythm to create more of a lively band support to this song. Here’s Bazil’s arrangement. If you can find your harmony part, do sing along with it!
Chorus Harmony Vocals
Here are the harmony parts as I taught them.
Low and Mid Singers
Tune (initial by the higher voices, later by the mid)
High Singers (which we added later in the rehearsal)
Verses 1 and 2
We added two verses – see below under “Gospel Vowels”.
We talked a little bit about pronunciation. The way we pronounce our vowels is important for two reasons:
(1) If the whole choir sings the same vowel sounds then we are unified. Different accents from different regions produce different sounds.
(2) In classical music there are ‘proper ways’ to sing vowels. Equally, in Soul and Gospel there are certain pronunciations that help “make the style”.
Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Coming for to Carry Me Home becomes something a bit like this:
Swing lerrw Swayt Chair-ay-errt, Calmin’ ferr to carray may herm”
Verse 1 Vowels
I looked over Jordan and what did I see, a band of angels coming after me becomes a little like this:
Ah (as in “cat”) lerked over Jord-air-n un what did a sayee
Verse 2 Vowels
If you get there before I do, tell all my friends that I’m coming too:
If you get there bay ferr ah do, tairl orll ma friends that am calmin’ too
Bends and ‘licks’ or patterns help make certain styles of popular music. We added a few touches in the verses. We added licks at the ends of each line in the verses using low La, Low So and Do.
Licks and Riffs Final Section
We then built the final section up with the “doo doo doo” lyrics in the high parts. Have a listen to the London Community Gospel Recording above and feel free to pick out any of the other improvised vocals to give them a go next time.
Here’s a track for you to put it all together.
Walk with Me Joss Stone
Walk With Me Harmony Vocals
We set up a simple pattern at the beginning with low and high vocals using “Walk With Me” (pronounced “Wok With Mee-ay”).
Walk with me through every fire in the land, walk with me, tell me love is close at hand
Wok with may through ev’ry far-yuh in the land (slight “e” in land as in “egg”), wok with meay tell me lurve (bend up) is close at hand (slight e)
Let’s come together, united we stand, side by side, step by step, walk with me.
Let’s calm tuh-ge-ther, nasal: unarrted way stand (slight e), breathy: sarde bah sarde, nasal: stape bah stape, change to breathy: wok with maye
Verse 1 Lyrics
When our brothers and sisters cannot breathe, let it be known we won’t back down we won’t leave
When ah brothers und sisters cannot braythe, lairt it be known, way won’t back darn we won’t (bend up:) layve
When we’re facin any kind of struggle, oh, there’s a hero there, trying to wash away all of your troubles
When way’re nasal: fay breathy: in nasal: airnay karnd a struggle oh-o-o, there’s a hayro therehhh (aspirate breathy release)
try-na wash uhway orll uh yuh troubles
A few Gospel Backing Vocals
We added a few backing vocals for the upper voices when the lows and mids were singing the verse.
Here’s a sample rehearsal track.
Things to develop
Biggest thing for me as director is to look at how we stand to unite us as a group and yet feel sufficiently socially distanced as well. I have some ideas but thoughts are very welcome.
Support with lyrics – I am hoping that this will all help you above.
Some heads up of what is to come – I will try to let you know in advnace as to where we are going next.
Movement – we need to start moving and engaging our bodies with our souls.
Improvised harmonies – if you want to improvise or sing something over the top, simply go for it! Practise with the tracks here.
Gospel Choir Feedback
Please talk to me too and send me emails with your thoughts, feelings and ideas. The ideas is to create a huge community choir.
Dr Robin Harrison
www.the-maestro-online.com, singing/vocal coach, piano teacher, organ teacher, aural trainer published by Routledge