The Balancing Act

SBO Staff • April/May 2017ChoralThe Practical Conductor • May 1, 2017

By Brody McDonald

Most singers have the basic knowledge that they can’t sing every note the same way. Many high school singers are limited to a “concert choir” experience. They probably have made it as far as “solo vs. choir” or “moving parts sing louder.” These are good concepts. Combined with dynamics, they are a solid start. However, a cappella music has more opportunities for changing musical roles than any other genre. Singing in an a cappella group is different because every arrangement brings new textures and new “instrumentation.” Some songs have horn lines and some don’t. The teamwork involved would be like building a piece of furniture with every person in your group owning one tool. You’d have to plan, communicate, and sometimes trade tools to get the job done.

The components of a cappella singing include:

  • Solo(s)
  • Background Vocals
  • Harmonies
  • Echoes/Inserts
  • Syllables
  • White Notes
  • The Rhythm Section
  • Bass
  • Vocal Percussion


The solo is the melody of the song. Remember that you are presenting like a band, so your soloist isn’t just louder. They should be more present in every way: visually, musically, and stylistically.

Background Vocals

Background vocals cover everything that isn’t the soloist or rhythm section (bass and drums). Background vocals come in a variety of styles. Depending on how many singers you have and the arrangement, you might have these happening at once.


When we say harmonies, we are not referring to harmony in the general sense, but instead any voices that are directly harmonizing with the soloist. What we consider traditional harmonies might be presented as syllables or white notes.


Echoes are little bits of singing that accent the soloist’s performance. After a soloist’s line is finished, echoes are used as direct reiterations of the melody or a quick burst of harmony to fill the rests until the solo comes back in. Think of the song “Proud Mary” with the backup singers echoing the lead: “rolling (rolling) rolling (rolling) rolling on the river…” An example of an insert is “Get Ready” by The Temptations. After the soloist sings “I never met a girl who makes me feel the way that you do,” the backing vocals insert “You’re alright.” The echo/insert serves the purpose of continuing motion in the music until the soloist enters again.


Syllables refer to the nonsense syllables that create rhythmic energy or mimic instruments. I have heard them called “jens and jo-dos.” Remember from chapter 3 that syllables are guidelines to sound, not hard-and-fast words.

White Notes

“White notes” refers to notes that are static in pitch, and thus require special attention to ensure they are interesting to hear without covering up other parts. Singers can use dynamic tools like sfortzando, crescendo and decrescendo to provide interest. Another tool would be to alter the vowel over the course of the note. For instance, let’s examine a single pitch held on a whole note. Start on “ooh” and over the course of four beats, slowly morph to an “ah.”

The Rhythm Section

The rhythm section is the backbone of your group. Your bass and vocal percussion must stay linked with each other to create a foundation on which the group can sing. Keeping these two working in synchronicity can make the difference between a good group and a great group.

The Pyramid of Priority

Look at the included diagram. The pyramid is divided by a thick black line. This reminds us that our rhythm section is the foundation on which our group always sits. Above that line is the rest of the group. Two lines show us the inverse relationship between the need to create interest and presence in the mix (volume relationship). For example: the soloist should always be louder than the background vocals, so they don’t get lost in the mix. However, solos are inherently interesting. That is not to say that the soloist can go on autopilot (far from it), but with all other things being equal, the melody will naturally sound more interesting to the audience than, for instance, whole notes.

When your singers sing white notes, they will have to figure out ways for the notes to be interesting, but should not be overly present in the mix. White notes can easily cover up other parts.

Syllables are usually rhythmic propellants (like a rhythm guitar part), and thus should be more present in the mix. Still, these parts can be repetitive and thus need to be sung with intensity to avoid monotony. Also, repeated rhythmic figures will need accents to create interest. Many arrangements do not provide accents within repetitive figures, so you’ll have to create your own. For more on this, reference “Sing in circles” in the Rehearsal Techniques chapter.

Harmonies and echoes should be sung basically in equal volume to the soloist. These brief musical moments are like cherries on a sundae.

Make a Mental Map

As they move from white notes to syllables to harmonies/echoes they will have to move up and down volumatically and pay closer attention to their stylizations. To test this process, take a song you have learned and have all singers sing all the way through without any sensitivity to their role in the arrangement. You’ll hear an awkward sound where singers pop out of the mix in non-musical ways. Then sing the chart again applying the principles of the pyramid of priority. We think you’ll be pleased with the results.

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