Build Your Background-Singing Skills

BEING A great vocal blender separates an okay background singer from a great one.


Cutting vocal tracks for the Revolution project at Abdala Studios in Havana, Cuba.


BEING A great vocal blender separates an okay background singer from a great one. Try these tips for tracking live with a group, excerpted from my book, Working With Your Voice: The Career Guide to Becoming a Professional Singer (Alfred).

Headphone Strategies I’ve never worn my headphones completely covering my ears on any BGV session I’ve ever done, ever. My suggestion: Keep them halfway over both ears (take care to keep them pressed against your head so the sound doesn’t bleed into the vocal mic), make sure you can hear enough melodic and rhythm instruments in your headphones so that your pitch and rhythm are solid, and mostly listen in the room to everything going on around you. You’ll discover that it’s easier to find your blend and sing more precisely; everyone’s timbre and pronunciation will be much easier to decipher when you’re not strictly relying on the sound coming from your cans. If you’re singing BGVs simultaneously with only one other person in the live room, I recommend singing with only one headphone on, taking off the one closest to your singing partner so that you can hear each other. Remember, none of these rules are set in stone, so try diff erent headphone placement and find your own preferred method of hearing while harmonizing.

Playing “Follow the Leader” Now comes the time when you watch every move that the session leader makes, while also keeping your eyes on the other singers. Taking direction is a huge part of the background vocalist’s gig, so embrace being a cog in the musical wheel and get your group game on. It seems like a lot to concentrate on all at once—singing well, blending well, watching your pronunciation, and watching the session leader—but you’ll be surprised by the way all of the different elements come together as you create that one cohesive BGV sound.

Breaking Into Parts Most often, background singers will break into their own parts and sing together, creating layers of harmony parts right then and there. Then, you may be asked to double, triple, or quadruple the parts. Once you’ve been told which part you’re supposed to sing, burn it into your memory bank in hyper-warp-speed, and make sure that you can hear yourself well enough to hold that part down solidly. Keep in mind that you’re going to have to be pretty adept at switching parts, too. Let’s say the producer wants to change a note or two in your part, or prefers that you sing a different BGV part altogether. Say, “No problem!” and quickly memorize the new part, forgetting the part you had gotten used to singing. This new part shall now become your mantra, and you’ll sing it solidly. And then when the producer changes his or her mind again and asks you to go back to your first part, what are you going to say? “No problem!”