Bluegrass Harmony: The Final Frontier

By Jessica Furui

This past Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival was the first time I successfully sang a decent tenor to anything. And wow! Keith Little was right when he said “it's the most fun you can have with someone with your clothes on.” This past festival was my fifth year and to be quite honest I thought being able to get the tenor would be much easier than it was. But considering it took me a few years to actually sing the right note, sing on pitch, sing songs that were good for me, etc...I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Oh my darling best friend Gina, oh how she kindly tolerated me.

It's the most fun you can have with someone with your clothes on.


I’ve had excellent times singing lead with others singing tenor or baritone parts. When its on, the buzz appears...the vibes between you and them. But that buzz feels totally different when you’re doing the tenor part. Though it’s kind of hard to explain. The incredible thing is that if you get off it for just a split second the buzz goes away but will quickly return when the notes are right once more. It is definitely one of the most incredible feelings I’ve been humble enough to experience in my thirty-some-odd years on this planet. It’s no wonder I see my friends and heroes smiling at each one another as they sing. It's so much fun! And it’s definitely no wonder that people like myself can get goose bumps, chills or even shed a lonesome tear when the harmonies cut like that. 
It’s been a rough road for me though. Being in jams, especially the more intimate ones with close friends. Someone calls a song and the race is on to see who calls the tenor, then perhaps the baritone. The song is sung and I’m there listening with great pleasure, yet there is a deep longing in my heart to be one of those harmony parts. Like when you’re at the school dance and you know you can (kind of) dance but you’re a little shy and goofy, and alas, you’re there at the edge of the room watching everyone else dance, laugh and smile. Ugh. I’m having a good time, really I am. But the longing of being able to sing together like that is deep and wide as the Mississippi herself.
Here I am, five years into the bluegrass life and I’m starting to crack the code of harmony. Everyone I’ve ever asked has basically given me the same answer: listen to the music. And listen I do! But I’m also a visual learner so I felt like I needed some kind of reference and never could find one. The whole “third above,” “fifth below,” or whatever-it-is business never made any sense to me anyway. I realized - finally - that I was trying to find that part too high above the lead. 

If there is one thing I’ve learned in my trials and tribulations it's that if you want to try and sing the tenor part you’ve got to know the lead, by George! Facial expressions are hilariously telling non-verbal communications to you that you are either totally nailing the harmony or completely not-nailing the harmony. Makes me laugh when I think of the times I’ve tried to sing a harmony part and the corner of the other singers mouth crinkles up a little bit, or their eyes wince, or perhaps they’ve even gone so far as to slightly back away from my enthusiastic attempt. On the flip side, as a wobbly lead singer it can be very difficult to stay on the lead or even sing the song if the harmony singer doesn't a) know the words; b) sings a different version; or c) isn't hitting the right harmony note. There are so many things happening! Playing an instrument is one thing. Adding vocals, a whole other thing. Then try to sing with others!! Wow. Try to do all that well and you're onto something.
But, oh, the feeling when you see the singer’s eyes light up. Their smile beams brighter, they slightly lean in closer. That is what its all about, people. That is what we’re talking about! The buzz does its thing and both people seem to float a little above the ground for a moment in time. One of my favorite moments from this past Father’s Day Fest was when dear Gina and I stole away for a few hours to play some songs together. She called I’m Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail, a song that I call myself and in the same key. So it came time and I sang with her and I sang the right part. She started smiling so much that she could barely sing the song any more. And if I remember correctly we both started laughing that we had to stop the song. The look on her face was of the surprised proud parent/thank-the-good-lord-this-is-finally-happening look – it was awesome.

Here are a few tips that I've picked up in my quest to find the Final Frontier. Mind you I have not yet conquered, just paid a quick visit. But these are some tidbits I've pick up along the way.

  • Know the song first. If you kind of know the harmony part, it's quite alright for you to go over it a bit with the lead before the song starts. This is somewhat dependent on the situation, of course. But if you don't know the song or the part, it might be best to let someone else do it. 
  • Make eye contact with the lead and follow their phrasing. If they are doing a different version than you're used to perhaps wait to become acquainted with their version before launching into the harmony part.
  •  In jam settings, have people call the harmony parts rather than several people singing together. The folks singing together will have a better chance to hear themselves in order to put their best effort forward. 
  • Take heed to the nonverbal communication going on and listen to yourself. That said don't give up and have fun!

Here’s to more singin’! Thanks for reading. I'll leave you with some of my favorite songs: