5 Things you should know
Backup singers/vocalists provide harmonic accompaniment for the lead singer. The job of a backup singer is tasking and a lot of times harder than that of the lead singer. If you are a backup singer, there are basic requirements that enhance your success in that role. We will look at five of them.
- BASIC SKILL SET
A. Ability to learn songs quickly
As a producer, I get to see different people brought to the studio to do background vocals on tracks, and I find it really time wasting working with people who cannot learn melodies and lyrics fast enough. In a concert or church setting also, you may be required to backup for someone you have not rehearsed with. This skill is invaluable in such situations.
B. Ability to recognize and sing the correct notes
This is as important as the first. Music directors know too well the pain of trying to make a choir recognize and sing a particular note. A two-hour rehearsal or recording session could stretch far beyond that simply because a singer is not able to produce the required pitch. Precision is essential when it comes to harmony as just one note can change everything. The difference between a major chord and minor chord is the just one note-the third scale degree!
This merits a post on its own and we will deal with it later in detail, but I will outline a few things about blending here. Blending requires you to blend your voice with others without a noticeable difference in timbre. Blending is a major ingredient that separates amateur backup singing from the professional sound you hear in top records. Every voice is unique. For a solo artiste, uniqueness is key, but for the backup singer, you need to blend, become invisible, and modify your vocal to fit the required sound. There are some factors in blending:
A. Volume and Dynamics
Blending requires you to match your volume to that of others. Too high and you will overshadow others; too low and others will overshadow you. Every backup singer also needs to follow the musical dynamics of the piece. Any deviation will mess up the blend.
B. Breathing points
Breath management ability varies among individuals by reason of training and practice. Good blending requires backup singers to breathe at the same points in a musical phrase.
Sustained notes, crescendos, rests, delineation, staccato, etc., must start and end at the same time, and be observed by everyone.
As backing vocal, 95% of your job description involves singing harmonies, hence you should be at home with singing harmonies. I need to state here emphatically that you should be able to sing any harmony given to you irrespective of what voice type you are.That is of course as allowed by your vocal range.
I hear people say things like, "No, I am a soprano singer so I can't sing that alto/tenor part."
Sister, you are limiting yourself. It is annoying to me when I see three ladies backing up someone and they are all singing the melody. You ask them why, and you hear stuff like "Well, we are all soprano singers!"
Mehn! That just gets to me! It's a terrible and unprofessional excuse.
Please learn how to sing other harmonies no matter what voice part you normally sing.
- FOLLOW-DO NOT LEAD
Scenario 1: A lady was leading the praise session in a church, and at some point it looked like she had run out of songs; so she signaled the musicians to play on. One of her backup singers decided to help her by raising a song. Unfortunately, just as the backup singer raised a song, the song leader raised another song –both of them started simultaneously.
The result? Chaos.
Scenario 2: The tenor backup singer for a guest artiste at a concert was busy doing ad libs at every point in the song. It was noisy. We were not sure who the song leader was between the guest artiste and his tenor singer.
You job is to be a backup. Do just that and nothing else except you are asked to by the song leader. I believe I do not need to over-flog this.
A. Look Good
People often look at the backup singers as much they look at the song leader. So dress well and look your best. You are a major contributor to the image of the band.
I once caught a backup singer staring at people that were coming into the church during the praise session. She just zoned out. Her mouth was open and she wasn't singing.
C. Know your lyrics
The projector that you depend on will someday fail you. I've seen it happen many times. Learn your lyrics until it becomes a part of you. How will you be able to express a message that you barely know?
D. Be Professional
Do not get too excited that you forget what you are supposed to do. Do not leave your microphone because your body is pushing you to dance to the rhythm of the song. Do not just "enter the spirit" and leave those you are meant to lead. Being a backup singer is a great responsibility. Treat it as such.
The backup singer's role is crucial to the success of every band. If you are a backup singer, I need you to understand this. You are important. Your presence matters. Some singers feel that the only cool job is that of the song leader.
Being a backup singer helps you prepare better for a solo career by giving you a solid training in performance; so you get to learn and grow without having all eyes totally on you.
So if you are a backup singer, keep your head up and do your job well and also remember to aspire and train yourself to be a lead vocalist.