LA Music Review | Art, stories and advice
by Linn Holmstedt
Background vocals are versatile and fun…
but can also often be a lot more present than expected. Whether it is the backbone of the tune or the very front and center background vocals play a very important role in music overall. For example, in how many songs do find yourself singing along to the background part rather than the to the lead? It’s more than one might think!
It is needless to say this vocal element is of great significance, naturally requiring a versatile skill set and can be found being more challenging than first expected. Here to assist you, are 5 ways in which you can improve your background vocals and to grow as a background vocal singer.
1. Your Ears
First and foremost – the foundation on which background vocals lies upon are harmonies and singing with other people. In order to execute this well, you will need to use your ears. By saying ”using your ears”- I mean using your ability to listen and to pick up on pitch and rhythm. This is perhaps the absolute most vital element of the craft and I would refer to this as the very first essential step. Once you’ve mastered this ability (or at least practiced it to a place of control and comfort), now add to it the intervals which creates the sweet harmonies we all love to hear.
There are a handful of ways to go about practicing harmonies – some people grow up singing in choirs or with others and seemingly finds it natural, while others go the theoretical route and learn all the intervals of the scale to then use it for harmonizing. Either way is great, however I do recommend learning your intervals and memorizing their sound – it will come in handy either way. For example, learn the major and minor thirds – the difference between them and how to recognize them at any step of the scale.
You can use specific songs, such as ”Oh, When the Saints Go Marching In” which starts the melody outlining a major third interval, to print what they sound like in your memory and to be able to use them as a tool when writing or performing harmonies – but also as a basis for your singing in a whole. Again, as your ears are your sense of pitch and rhythm, it is vital for your vocals overall.
2. Your vocal skill set and expanding your range
Now that you have the most basic step down – the sense of pitch and rhythm – let’s move on to the next aspect of singing background vocals, none other than the vocals themselves. As a background vocalist, you need to be a good singer at the very least. By saying a ”good singer”, I refer to having the ability to learn and perform songs vocally, making them sound great! Keep up the practice routine to grow your vocal abilities, keep expanding your repertoire and continue learning new tunes that helps you grow as a singer.
Furthermore, a skill that I found to be coming in very clutch as a background singer, is expanding your vocal range and being able to tackle any part thrown at you. This one can be tricky, as we carry the vocal chords were gifted and our singing voice is a part of our anatomy – however, your range can be trained to be expanded both upward and downward. The vocal chords are made of muscles and can be taught new skills!
3. Your moves
Thirdly, your ability to dance or perform choreography while simultaneously singing your parts are essential. This one too takes a lot of practice, but once you got the multitasking aspect down – you can be unstoppable. Most bgv live gigs include dancing of some kind – whether it’s full choreography or a simple side step in time with your background section – you will need to be prepared for it. If you are not fully confident in this aspect of the craft, just give it practice.
Run the setlist in front of a mirror and add moves to it.
Also make sure you know the material so well that you don’t have to actively think about it as much, if the dancing tends to grasp your attention when running the tunes. Just practice practice practice! Take a dance class, run it with your friends or fellow singers, watch other bgv singers and see how they perform!
4. Grow your repertoire and become a fast learner
Another important way you can improve your background vocal skill set is through growing your repertoire and getting more comfortable with learning songs rapidly on short notice. Naturally, this is an all over good thing to get good at – as the job of a singer often requires you to learn big batches of songs quickly.
To aim at growing your repertoire will assist you lots when it comes to
becoming a faster learner, but will also come in handy when you do get a setlist of 50 songs with a 4-day notice – you might already know a handful, as your repertoire has grown. Get to know what ways will effectively help you comb through music and memorize it if needed, find little tips and tricks that works for you.
For example, maybe it could be writing each song out by hand once
to help you visualize and memorize, maybe putting together a playlist of the songs and listening to it while on your morning run or perhaps writing out the form and making notes. Personally, I find that I learn songs faster if I go through them first thing in the morning with my morning coffee in hand!
5. Learn from others
Lastly but most definitely not least – learn from other performers! There are so many excellent artists and groups out there – from the 50s with Darlene Love and the Blossoms, to Prince, Journey or more contemporary Bruno Mars and Beyoncé – who features so many incredible harmonic vocal arrangements. Find them and learn them! You pick up so many skills from learning more material, but also having an all over good knowledge in regards to your craft and it’s history is so important.
For example – watch the amazing documentary ”20 Feet from Stardom” directed by filmmaker Morgan Neville, featuring some of the most influential session and background singers of all time and the story of their careers. It is not only very educational, but also super inspiring. (This film in particular brings me to tears every time I see it). Dive into the ins and outs of
the craft – different characteristics of different genres, perhaps there are specific ways in which the vocals are structured to complement the music well and ways in which it’s performed!