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I'm not a professional singer but I love singing. I find it very difficult to focus on my own vocal line when I hear other vocal lines. For example,

  1. When I was in the college choir, I sang bass, and sometimes I get distracted by other vocal parts, especially when I stand at the boundary of bass singers. What I mean by getting distracted is that my mind tries to follow others' lines and I become unable to follow my own line. When that is about to happen, I'd keep silent for a short while, re-focus, listen to other bass singers, and then continue. This rarely happens when I stand in between other bass singers.

  2. When I listen to the "karaoke" version of pop songs1, I may have difficulties imagining the main vocal. After I get familiar with the vocal harmony (or whatever the supporting vocal line is), I may not be able to hum the main vocal while I listen to the "karaoke" version again. If the vocal harmony is strong and over the whole chorus, I may get distracted for the whole duration (such that my mind is fully engaged with the vocal harmony), and not be able to recover; but if I turn down the volume, I can usually quickly recover. (In contrast, I do not have problems humming the vocal harmony when listening to the full version.)

How can I improve? Should I try to ignore the other vocal lines that I hear and focus on my own, or allow more than one vocal lines to simultaneous co-exist in my mind? Any practice you would suggest?

1ones which omit the main vocal but retains the supporting vocals


Thank everyone for your great input! It's difficult to pick an answer :-)

If you have any other ideas, don't hesitate to post them!

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1  
Related - Singing: How to pre-visualize harmonies –  neilfein Oct 17 '11 at 18:28
    
@neilfein Thank you for the link. Using their terminology, I think I have a rather weak aural image which can be easily overridden by external stimulus... –  netvope Oct 18 '11 at 18:53
    
Listen closely to the song, play and sing it often times and believing by yourself is important. –  user5865 Mar 4 '13 at 10:30

6 Answers 6

Focus on something else, like your time.

Well, like many other aspects of music, the goal is to submit to a process that will help your memory (and execution) of music to become 'second-nature'.

By intentionally focusing on a different structure in the same piece, you give your consciousness a chance to find a method to learn with out attacking the problem head on. Different from say, computer programming, where all memory might have a set place from which to retrieve that information, the brain, in my guess, has its own symphony of activity that it uses to retrieve a piece of memory.

In a slightly simplified explanation, the brain is a muscle. Do not do curls until until your arm is stuck in an L-shape. Learning precision is part of exercising different supporting mechanisms around the main point of what you are trying to learn.

So, instead of focusing on intervals, maybe even pitch, focus on the time structure.

In 4/4 , {1, 2, 3 & 4 &}, {Tri-pull-it, Tri-pull-it, 3 e & 'ah', 4 e & 'ah'}

And try not to tap your foot, please. Thanks. -Rene.

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How will distracting yourself help? –  Matthew Read Oct 17 '11 at 22:16
    
The problem is a distraction. I rather like the idea of pre-empting a negative distraction by pre-distracting your brain with a different useful task. (Though I believe OPs issue is more one of aural awareness.) –  NReilingh Oct 18 '11 at 0:51
    
... However, I know of no studies that show foot tapping to be a detrimental practice to any aspect of musical performance. If you have a reference for that, I'd love to see it! –  NReilingh Oct 18 '11 at 0:59
    
Just google "why you shouldn't tap your foot." That's what I did. –  Rene Marcelo Oct 18 '11 at 15:47

I use the following technique to keep track of my position in the song, and I'm told it's really weird that I prefer this, so take it with a grain of salt.

Pay attention to your intervals within the Major or Minor key you're playing in. If you know where the "Do" is (regardless of key) and you get used to hearing the distance separating a "Mi" from a "Do", or whatever note you're trying to sing, then you'll have an easier time following your own part relative to the key the piece is in.

If you can get a good mental grasp of the location of Do while you're singing, and you know where your part is relative to that Do, then you're set. If you find yourself getting lost, pause for a split second, listen to the chord being produced by those around you, and find Do again, then pick yourself back up.

You're a Bass singer, so also remember that the Bass part is very often the root of the chord you're singing at any given moment. (With numerous exceptions). Remember that the Alto and Tenor most often spell out the rest of chord, and that the Melody line totally does its own thing and disobeys all the laws of logic and reason. When listening to Kareoke, you'll want to listen to whatever instrument is playing the Bass part (usually a Bass Guitar in modern music) and figure out what the basic chord progressions are-- that should help you locate Do. (Most major songs, for example, like to have the Bass hover around a Do, Fa, and Sol, ie the I, IV, and V chords.) From there, just figure out where the melody line starts relative to a Do, and you're set.

Again, this is just how I personally hear music, and there are other techniques to try. I'm just trying to describe the thought process that happens in microseconds-- if it doesn't come naturally after a while, try something else. Experiment. ^_^

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This technique can fail for many types of choral music, so be careful. You'll need to be able to quickly mentally relocate your Do when the key changes. Songs that use unusual scales or that have lots of unwritten key changes with accidentals can be difficult to apply this to. (Consequently, these are the kinds of songs that I have a LOT of trouble with.) –  Nicholas Flynt Oct 17 '11 at 17:21

In addition to practicing with the group, practice your part on its own to reinforce it. As someone else already said, you can then add other parts one by one.

For "in the moment", when you're having trouble hearing your own part against others, try sticking a finger in one ear (not both!). This has the effect of increasing the prominence of what you are singing in what you are hearing. If you mostly know the line and just need help getting back on track, this might be enough for you, particularly if you have practiced the part on its own. (I also use this technique during practices for the "somebody on my part if off; is it me?" questions.)

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I recommend to practice listening.

Take a piece of music with a polyphonic structure or many instruments and the notes and try to listen to a particular instrument.

Start with simple pieces, for example a choral piece where you already know the bass quite well and you can switch between listening to the soprano and the bass or a piece with voice accompanied by piano so you can switch between voice and piano.

You can also try to read notes and imagine the melody in your mind but this is harder and comes later.

Another related goal is to learn to listen to yourself singing.

The final goal is to know your own melody as part of the harmony because you cannot sing in harmony with the rest of the choir if you just block them out successfully, although this may be an intermediate step during rehearsals.

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To overcome being 'unable to follow my own line' is not the same as 'to avoid being distracted'. The main skill to be acquired is being able to follow two lines at the same time.

For your choral singing situation, this means you keep following both the most noticeable line at the moment and your own line - i.e. the melody (plus bits of accompanying motif popping out here or there) and the bass line. By allowing exactly two 'vocal lines to simultaneous co-exist in your mind', you may have little attention span left for other lines, but that is okay because that will not stop you from following your own line.

To acquire the skill, practice playing on piano (or guitar whatever instrument that does not need your breath to sound) the melody while singing the bass at the same time. If you do not play any musical instrument, ask a friend to teach you 'one-handed but all-key-signatured piano-playing' (yes, this is really necessary). For someone just getting started on it, this practice can be very difficult at first, but if you practice each part separately at normal speed then repeat many many times at slower and slower speed before you try to attack the practice directly, you will find that you may be able to do it with enough success to do it a second time and a third time and an n-th time at higher and higher speed until you can do it at normal speed (if your direct attack at the two-parts-at-once practice is really unsuccessful at any point, go back to the individual-part practice again: yes, it helps. Your first breakthrough may take days or weeks or even months, but you will make it happen for you by keeping at it).

I would suggest start acquiring the skill with songs in which every part sings the same text e.g. multi-parts christmas carols. Then move on to rounds. Then something in which the two parts are completely different. Good examples of that are J. S. Bach's BWV 114 (look videos and scores online), and "It's A Small World" (i.e. sing and play the verse and the chorus at the same time).

For your karaoke situation, I recommend using the muting and soloing features of vanBasco's Karaoke Player to practice. It also allow you to adjust each track's relative loudness, so you can practice a song again and again, each time turning the volume of your part down bit by bit (and backtrack when you get lost) until you overcome your d"difficulties imagining the main vocal". The software's onscreen keyboard display and tempo adjustment features are also very helpful for karaoke singers. When you practice, again, focus your attention not on trying to not get distracted but on how to keep track of two lines in your mind at the same time.

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I think that this is a very common problem, especially when you don't sing harmony very often or are just getting started (I know it was hard for me to get used to!)

Here are a few tips that helped me out alot

  1. Practice the part by yourself. Especially if the part you are singing is not the melody / the commonly heard line, it's very important to be familiar and comfortable with the part that you are singing. Practice it without any accompaniment or other parts (a capella).
  2. Add each additional part one at a time (if possible). This can help keep you from being overwhelmed by all the different parts at once (which can be distracting, even if you are comfortable with your part).
    • If you have the music for the other parts, you can use recording software (like Audacity) and a cheap microphone to layer them in one at a time while you sing along with them.
  3. Become with familiar with the other parts. I know this seems like it could contribute to the problem, but being able to recognize the other parts or background harmony vocals for what they are can really help you notice when you start to drift into singing one of them (rather than your own part).

I think if you continue to practice singing along with karaoke tracks / singing harmony with others, you'll see that it becomes easier and easier with experience. But, hopefully these will help you along the way.

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