Much is written about the solo singer or lead singer experience, but what about the special requirements of those singers not in the limelight – the lowly but oh-so important back-up singer? Whether you’re a hired hand or a band musician doing double-duty as a singer, get ready to learn how to be an integral and welcome part of the overall vocal sound.
LEARN TO HARMONIZE
You don’t have to be a great singer to be a good back-up singer, but you do need to be able to create harmony parts and hold firm no matter which other vocal parts surround you.
Make sure you know the melody well before you attempt to find harmony parts. Practice singing along with recordings with complex harmonies like Queen, Dan Fogelberg, or the Beatles. Listen carefully to the existing harmonies then sing along.
If you have trouble maintaining your pitch in the midst of various harmony parts, plug one of your ears nearest to the closest singer. Start practising harmonies from a distance, then scooch in gradually. Don’t stand in the middle of a threesome; position yourself on the outside.
Monitors are key. Whether you use floor monitors or in-ears, this may be the most important ingredient in your back-up singing ability. If any one of the singers can’t hear themselves, what results is a sonic blood bath. Control the reverb in the monitor mix- you don’t want to be swimming in reverb.
Now that you can hear what the other singers are doing, try to match their vowel sounds. That means if they sing the “oo” vowel with fishy lips, do the same. Or if the lead singer is pronouncing the vowel in the word “love” like “ah” instead of “uh”, match their vowel.
Add or reduce nasality to match and support the group sound.
Control your loudness when singing back-up, not too loud OR too soft.
Watch that your vibrato isn’t too wobbly (slow and big) or jittery (fast and shallow). Neither type of vibrato blends well with others. If you can’t control your vibrato speed, I recommend that you aim to sing with straight tone.
Never let your voice stick out. Begin and end each phrase exactly with the other back-up singers. Don’t come in early or leave late! Minimize the clarity of your consonants. Soften your final T’s or P’s or leave them off altogether. S’s are the most dangerous and can be almost eliminated. Final S’s can easily sound like a bunch of snakes hissing.
Watch your breathing sounds. Audible gasping can mar a good group sound, particularly during a quiet ballad.
Performing singers, especially touring singers should know the basic mechanics of their voices to achieve endurance and to minimize vocal abuse.
When preparing for the road, find harmony parts you can sing comfortably when exhausted, sick, or when just not in the mood to sing that night.
Back-up singing is a team effort-so put your best attitude forward and keep your ego in check. This kind of singing is not easy- not everyone can do it well. But it’s really fun, so keep practicing to become the best group singer you can be!
– Lisa Popeil
Lisa Popeil is an LA voice coach with more than 35 years of professional teaching experience. Creator of the Voiceworks® Method, the Total Singer DVD, and co-author of the book Sing Anything-Mastering Vocal Styles, Lisa trains singers in vocal technique, stage performance and vocal health for touring professionals. www.popeil.com