The importance of having a good ear and excellent rhythm is of utmost importance in any style of music but in my experience, the depth of harmonic and rhythmic understanding required to sing commercial music has proven more intense than in my classical studies. Therefore, I feel it is imperative that the teacher of commercial voice train vocalists to take a deep dive into harmony and rhythm so the student will be able to hold their own in the recording studio and onstage. It is beyond the scope of this writing to cover ideas for harmony and rhythm so I will stick with harmony for now.
Coming from a classical background, this type of work was not dealt with in my lessons but I began to incorporate this work after students came to my studio asking how to add harmonies to songs and/or needed help holding a harmony line. So, we began to do exercises in the lesson to train and challenge their ears, expand their musical minds, and get their creativity flowing.
1. Free Improvisation / Spontaneous Composition
Yes, that’s right. Just start singing. I stole this idea from the incomparable Bobby McFerrin after listening to an interview with him.
Here’s how I do it: I set a timer and have the student make up a tune for 2 minutes (no lyrics required.) I start with 2 minutes and over time work up to 5 minutes. As Bobby alluded to in the interview, you may initially be met with questioning, and perhaps worried looks, but press on. (I found this exercise tends to not be as shocking to the singer/songwriter but sometimes it can be). It’s “stream of conscious” music making, not unlike journaling first thing in the morning.
The most frequent comments I get from students when asked to do this exercise are “ I don’t know what to sing” or “I don’t have any ideas” to which I respond, “yes you do.” I also remind them that it is IMPOSSIBLE TO DO THIS “WRONG”. Whatever comes out, comes out. It might start out sounding like a little child making random “sing song-y” sounds. Fine. It might stay childlike for the full two minutes or it might turn into a little melody….or melodies. Fine. It might start off sounding like a folk song and end up a funk tune. Fine. If the student stops before time is up, encourage them to keep going until the timer goes off.
When we’ve finished the exercise my students have responded with comments such as “that was fun” or “I didn’t know I could do that.” It ends up being very positive and freeing… but I do have one suggestion: be sure to record it. You’ll be surprised at how many song ideas/melodies can come from this simple exercise once you convince a student to do it!
When we finish with this exercise, I make certain to tell the student all the things I heard and enjoyed and with students of all ages. Try it yourself. Try to do it every day for say, two weeks, and see what starts happening with your ears and brain. And whether or not you plan to write songs, everyone should tap into their own soul’s music for the day, every day, right?
2. Adapt Your Favorite Vocalises to Different Modalities
How many of your vocalises are built on the following?
Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So/ 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Do, Mi, So, Mi, Do/ 1, 3, 5, 3, 1
Do, Mi, So, Do/ 1, 3, 5, 8
So, Fa, Mi, Re, Do/ 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
I’m a big fan of simple patterns for vocalizing and building vocal function. Exercises built on triads and 5-note scales work well for me and my students. But, one day, I realized that ALL of the vocalises I did were in a major key and I was only training my ear to hear and sing in a major key, So, I decided to try changing it up on a few exercises. I began by changing a “Do, Mi, So, Do” exercise to a “Do, Mi, So, Ti” (Maj7) and it was HARD! That is when I began vocalizing myself and my students in different modalities to improve their ears. Give it a try. It’s fun and your students’ ears will grow exponentially! Plus, I love bundling ear training with voice building. Keep in mind that it might not work on every exercise you do but if you can find some that work for you and your student, it will be a nice change and a nice challenge.
Here are but a few examples:
- An exercise sung on a major triad might also be sung on a minor triad.
Could become this:
Could become this…
- A 5-note exercise on a major pattern…
…could be changed to an exercise on a minor pattern:
- But the fun doesn’t stop there! Take an exercise sung on this standard major pattern…
…and sing it as a min7 chord instead
…or as a dominant 7 chord
…or (and I find this the hardest for my students and myself) a Maj7 chord:
AMP IT UP: Once a student gets really good at singing the different modalities, you can move your exercises up chromatically as you typically do but ask for a different modality for each exercise.
3. Learn Different Scales (major and minor aren’t enough)
Challenge your students to learn different scales. My favorites are the blues, major pentatonic, and chromatic.
Basic blues scale (in the key of C here) – this can be sung on whatever vowel or syllable makes you happy. (I prefer [du] but you do [ju])
Once a student has the sound of the blues scale in their ear, I have them sing the next little exercise I created on the syllable [du]. You’ll notice the melody notes are the same for the entire exercise but the chords change. More advanced students could use solfege and dig into the theory of this but for now, we’re gonna stick with using the ear more than the brain.
AMP IT UP: Once the student can sing this – which won’t take long, ask them to make up their own melody while you play the chords. This is another exercise that I’ve used with all ages and every student loves it!
Major Pentatonic Scale – you know this one even if you think you don’t. You will hear this used extensively in pop music and anyone who is riffing with Stevie Wonder on his tunes already has this scale in their ears.
Here it is in the key of C:
My approach here is the same as with the blues: teach them the scale and then let them play with it. Have them make up little melodies using ONLY the notes of the major pentatonic for example.
AMP IT UP: Have them sing the scale while you play different chords. Or, even better, if the student plays piano or guitar, have the student play the chords and sing/play around with the scale. The notes for C pentatonic work over CMa9, Dm7, Gm7, Gsus7, Am7, C7. The scale works over other chords as well but we’ll start going down the jazz rabbit hole if I’m not careful here.
Chromatic Scale – I am going to assume that if you’ve made it this far, you know what a chromatic scale is and don’t need to notate that here.
As part of the warm up, I have my students sing a chromatic scale. With beginners, we may only sing the first 3 to 5 notes but over time, the student learns to sing the entire scale up and down… a capella. This alone is great for the ear but we can build on that. For instance….
AMP IT UP: play a chromatic scale (or if you want your mind focused on the student and piano is not your strong point, record a chromatic scale on piano at a slow tempo and in whatever key works best for the student.) Play the track for your student and have them sing along. When the student is ready and is singing the scale and hearing those intervals, have the student begin their scale after the piano has played the first 4 notes so that the student is singing the chromatic scale with the piano track but a major 3rd below the piano.
AMP IT UP TO AN ELEVEN: have the student begin after the piano has played the first 2 notes so that the student is singing the chromatic scale a whole step below the piano. (Great practice tuning major 2nds.)
4. Sing Scales with Different Intervals
This concept is simple but the execution can be a fun challenge. Find a comfortable starting pitch and then sing a major scale using the interval of a perfect 4th: (Do, Fa, Re, So…and so on.) Then repeat using intervals of a 5th. Amping it up!
Whether you choose to try out some of my suggestions or you choose to create some of your own exercises, I encourage you to take time to develop your students’ ears in every lesson. Take it slowly. Perhaps try to incorporate one new idea a month. Don’t be afraid to spend time on this important training in the lesson simply because it might not have been what you did in your classical lessons. Not only will your students grow, but you will too and you can be confident that you’ve given your students more of the tools they need to succeed as a singer, songwriter, recording artist, backup singer, or lead singer.