Sing Like A Sandwich

Featuring Sandy Hoffman Posted on March 7, 2009

WARNING:  Reading the following could make you ravenous! That’s right. The key to strong, satisfying vocal harmonies is to “sing like a sandwich.” Yes sir, two delicious pieces of harmonic whole wheat with a luscious slab of Grade A melodic roast beef in the middle. Mmmm. Mmmm. Now that’s the way to harmonize! [Open mouth, insert snack here.]

To understand tight, contemporary vocal harmonies, let’s visualize this way:  the beef represents the melody line, usually sung by the lead worshiper, and doubled by one or more back ground vocalists. The first (whole wheat) harmony sits a third above the beef and is the tenor note. The alto note (whole wheat too) is actually a fifth above the melody. In order to sing like a sandwich, we must drop the alto note an octave. This creates a first inversion of the triad, and gives us the tight harmonic sandwich effect we’re listening for. Now the notes are stacked alto, melody, tenor (5, 1, 3); the secret recipe for vocal harmonic success!     

Sometimes it’s just nice to have all the vocalists sing the melody line in “three part unison.” The old saying, “less is more,” really applies here. If the “BGVs” (back ground vocals) are always singing harmony, we begin to take that wonderfully pleasing sound for granted. In order to add variety, let’s first work on a unified vocal blend for our worship team. Breaths, warm tones and phrasing should all rise and fall as one beautiful, heavenly sound. Properly blended, BGVs in unison can take the listeners to worship places they’ve never been before. Then, when that well worked three part harmony finally kicks in, God uses it to inspire an even higher level of worship expression.

Remember what happened in II Chronicles 5:7-14? After what must have been a spectacular rehearsal, the Levites who were the singers (they also played cymbals, stringed instruments and harps) joined together with one hundred and twenty priests sounding trumpets. The scripture says that when they were one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord, that the house of the Lord was filled with a cloud. Then the glory of the Lord filled the house of God! Not sure I’ve seen it happen that way just lately, but isn’t it one of the highest goals of the worship team to see God’s glory revealed among and upon His people? The unity of their hearts, voices and instruments invoked the palpable presence of God. Unison is a very good thing!

Once we’ve achieved an angelic blend of unified voices, it’s time to diversify into that harmonic cacophony of auditory delights known as three part harmony. Time for a sandwich! Here a few things to consider before we dive headlong into that sea of vocal possibilities.

1)  Verify Vocal Range
Many sweet hearted worship singers with divinely inspired motives have no idea what their own vocal range is. It is imperative to establish this in order to properly place worship team singers within the ensemble. A tenor singing alto is like trying to squeeze sub woofer frequencies through a tweeter. It is physiologically impossible, and results in strain and frustration, perhaps even blown vocal cords. Here’s the rule of thumb for determining who sings which notes.

Speaking from the sandwich paradigm, the melody singers (beef) generally have a range from C to C. This is the standard comfortable “tessitura” or pitch range for congregational singing, and since that’s who we’re ultimately leading into worship, we must be ever mindful of those in the proverbial pews.
Tenors and sopranos (upper whole wheat slice) are able to exceed the average congregational range and reach from C up an octave all the way through G. Conversely, altos (lower whole wheat slice), like basses, have a pitch range which resides on the bottom end of the vocal frequency spectrum. Test for altos with a range from F up an octave through C or D. Establishing the vocal range of the singers on your team will avoid much frustration, and not a few purple faces.

2)  Practice Vocal Blend
Vocal blend happens in real time, adjusted moment by moment. It is vital that the worship team vocalists listen closely to one another, gauging their volume, pitch and tone from note to note and section to section. The sound man can give them a head start by providing an evenly distributed monitor mix. The truer the monitor, the more easily the individual can adjust their volume to achieve optimum blend.

Exercises in dynamics during rehearsals also help to condition individuals to be honest with themselves concerning their true volume in the mix. The vocalists should spend some time standing in a circle and facing inward. Singing without microphones, they will be able to listen closely to their blend with one another. During subsequent worship times, this heightened awareness of natural blending will translate into a more professional, polished presentation.

3)  Learn To Listen    
Once we’ve established who is singing which part, and arrived at a warm, pleasant vocal blend, it’s time to train the ear to listen for the correct notes which define tenor and alto harmonies. These should consistently reflect the intervalic movement of the lead vocal or melody line.

Learning to listen closely is probably the best way to maintain a harmonic interval relative to the melodic line of a song. As a kid, I used to love to listen to the Everly Brothers. It was so very kind of them to sing in two part harmony, and by default, invite me to join in with the third part. During my worship life, God has redeemed the harmonies in songs like “Wake Up Little Susie” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream” in order to bring glory to Himself. Listening closely really pays off!

A favorite worship song for helping tenors and altos get comfortable with hearing and singing their harmony parts is “Come, Now Is The Time To Worship.” For a nice variation, try singing three part harmony during the chorus, then switch to unison vocals for the bridge. Other standards like “Here I Am To Worship,” “You Are So Good To Me” (bridge) and the chorus on “Hallelujah (Your Love Is Amazing)” lend themselves easily to harmonic instruction and implementation.

Finally, take some time with the team to develop a harmonic comfort zone, vocally moving from one familiar chord voicing to another. Starting with an A Major chord, have everyone sing and hold “La.” Alto sings E, melody sings A and tenor sings C#. Now move from A Major to A minor by having the tenors drop their C# one half-step to C. After moving back up to A Major, create an A2 chord by dropping the tenor note again, this time to B. Try this same exercise using “4” chords, Major 7ths, add9s and so on; occasionally even breaking into four part harmony. By practicing chordal movement, worship team altos and tenors learn to sing their parts consistently above and below the melodic line, and that is singing like a sandwich. Speaking of fine food, maybe next time I’ll share Julia’s recipe for fantastic chocolate chip cookies. (Just don’t eat ‘em right before you sing!)

How ‘bout lunch?

This article first appeared in Worship Musician Magazine, July/August 2007.  Copyright © 2007 Sandy Hoffman