by Sandy Cressman

Good harmony singing is very valuable in today's music of all styles. Good vocal group singing is of course wonderfully rewarding in musical terms, but also good harmony singers become very valuable in recording studios as well. I wanted to outline, from my experience, the skills you need to develop in order to become adept in the world of vocal harmony.

For the last 18 years, I have been a member of the vocal trio Pastiche, with whom I have recorded several CDs and toured extensively. Along the way, we became known by producers and studio engineers as an excellent vocal section for background, commercial and soundtrack work. Our studio work has ranged from backing up Eddie Money on hi platinum album "Can't Hold Back" to the smooth Jazz of Ray Obiedo, to creating a cappella soundtracks for computer games by SEGA and Broderbund. Because of our abilities to sing harmonies in tune, blend, groove and adapt our sound to different styles, we are often called to studio sessions of all kinds.

So what can you do to develop that kind of vocal harmony savvy?


Harmony singers need to be able to sing in tune together, creating chords. I would suggest taking some basic ear training at a local college or music school, learning to sing arpeggios of various chords and their inversions. Equally good training is singing along with any kind of harmony vocals on the radio, or going back to some recordings from the forties through eighties that have rich vocal harmonies. See if you can pick out the various harmonies and follow each part singing along. A lot of pitch inaccurracy comes from problems in vocal technique. If you are singing tense or too breathy, you may have a hard time singing your part accurately and singing in tune with the other parts. So get to a vocal coach--I highly recommend the Speech Level Singing method(check out for information).


Often, putting several good lead singers together has disappointing results. Voices "stick out" in different passages of the music, because often these singers are not accustomed to blending their voices. In order to blend, you need to sing with a balanced tone that is not too harsh or strident, and with neutral (not wide) vowels sounds. With Pastiche, we would often discuss which subtle vowel sound we would use on a specific word that wasn't blending as well. Another blend issue is the amount of vibrato you use. Some styles of music demand straighter tone, and in any case you need to match vibratos with the other singers. A good group exercise is to take a major triad, each sing one part of the chord (root, third and fifth), and practice holding out a word for four counts, making sure you match vowels.


Good singing is not just about melody, but rhythm is equally important. Different songs have different rhythmic feels or "grooves", such as swing, straight-eighth notes, funk, shuffle. Again, that music fundamentals class may help. But you might also get together with a drummer and have he or she play and tape various beats. When you sing any style, you want to be aware of the basic pulse of the groove and of the subdivisions, such as eighth or sixteenth notes. That way your sung line "grooves" with the beat. Syncopations lock up with the subdivisions. All singers in the group have to lock in with the groove together. A Cappella groups create the whole groove on their own. And again, listen, listen, listen. Listen to Ella swing, to Take Six funk, to Vocal Sampling's salsa.


Good harmony singers need to sing the nuances of style as one voice. So sing along with vocalists or vocal groups that you like. And record yourself singing along. Play the tape back and listen to see if you are phrasing with them. Is your vibrato together with theirs? How about your pronunciation of the words? Phrasing? Dynamics? Keep on singing with an ear towards developing these skills, and I'm sure you will enjoy harmony singing even more. Maybe you will also get the studio calls started too!

Sandy Cressman

Born in New York City, Sandy began her recording career with the highly acclaimed vocal trio Pastiche, with whom she recorded two CDs, "That's R&Bebop" (Pony/Canyon/Nova) and "Remember That" (BluePrint).

In 1992, Sandy began a solo career parallel to working with Pastiche, and in 1996 joined keyboardist Marcos Silva, for a steady gig at Café Bastille, a San Francisco jazz bistro. Silva, formerly musical director and arranger for Flora Purim and Airto, who has also worked with Toninho Horta, Dori Caymmi and other Brazilian greats, shared her passion for the music. Over a period of two years they developed an extensive repertoire, musical interplay and following in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Sandy has lent her vocals to recordings by such diverse artists as Ray Obiedo (Windham Hill), Pete Escovedo (Concord Crossover) and Eddie Money (CBS). In 1997, Sandy was featured on the debut release "Intercambio" (Good Omen,), by young Brazilian jazz harmonica player Damien. Her love of languages and world music has led her to become a much-in-demand session vocalist for Latin and World Music artists. Sandy often performs with Rebeca Mauleon-Santana, Orquesta Candela, and Jai Uttal and the Pagan Love Orchestra. Sandy also composes songs for television and films, and most recently contributed a song, "Island Ways" to the film "Lulu on the Bridge" starring Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino and Vanessa Redgrave.

Sandy writes for the online magazine "Connecting Voices." and has lent her vocals to a number of notable artists¹ recordings, including: Ray Obiedo‹Sweet Summer Days, Sticks and Stones and Iguana (Windham Hill Records) Pete Escovedo‹Flying South (Concord Crossover Records) Eddie Money‹Can¹t Hold Back (CBS Records) Neal Schon----Late Nite (CBS Records) Pastiche‹Remember That (BluePrint Records) and That¹s R&Bebop (Pony/Canyon/Nova) Damien‹Intercambio (Good Omen Records) * Prince Ayo‹Dancing to Africa (Polygram Nigeria) Candela‹Ilusiones (Orfeo Records, Uruguay) James K‹A Giggle Can Wiggle Its Way Through a Wall (Rivertown Records)

Sandy teaches vocal technique and style at two studio locations in San Francisco and at Blue Bear School of American Music. Sandy also coaches vocal groups and bands on harmony and blend and does vocal production in the studio. Most recently, she arranged and produced the vocals for Dr. Loco and the Rockin¹ Jalapeño Band¹s CD "Puro Party" (Flying Fish Records). Sandy is an associate of instructor Seth Riggs, creator of the Speech Level Singing technique.

To contact Sandy regarding vocal lessons and vocal group or band coaching click HERE