Six Steps to be a Better Backing Singer – Lisa Popeil

Much is written about the solo singer or lead singer
experience, but what about the special requirements
of those singers not in the limelight_ Lisa Popeil

Much is written about the solo singer or lead singer
experience, but what about the special requirements
of those singers not in the limelight lowly but
oh-so-important backup 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.

You don’t have to be a great singer to be a good
backup 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
to recordings with complex harmonies like Queen, Dan
Fogelberg or the Beatles. Listen carefully to the
existing harmonies, then sing along. Do research
online for CDs or videos specifically created to
improve your skills in “vocal harmony.”
If you have trouble maintaining your pitch amid of
various harmony parts, plug your ear that is near the
singer who is closest to you. Or practice singing with
other vocal parts from a distance, gradually moving
closer to the other singers. Or don’t stand in the
middle of a threesome; position yourself on the
outside. You must be able to maintain your pitch in
sometimes challenging sonic situations, which leads
us to…

Monitors are key. Whether you use floor monitors or
in-ears, this may be the most important ingredient in
your backup singing ability. If even one of the singers
can’t hear himself, the result is a sonic blood bath.
Top Los Angeles session singer Scottie Haskell
suggests that you should “Control the reverb in the
monitor mix—too much and you’ll be swimming and
not able to hear anything clearly.”
Don’t be afraid to ask the sound guy to adjust your
monitor level and of course make sure you can hear
every singer so you all can nicely stack the vocal

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
Add or reduce nasality to match and support the
group sound.
Control your loudness when singing backup. Try to
balance your volume so you’re neither too loud OR
too soft when singing in harmony.
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.

Backup singers basically help create a fuller overall
vocal sound, so never let your voice stick out. There
are several ways to accomplish this. First: begin and
end each phrase exactly along with the other backup
singers. Don’t come in early or leave late! Second:
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. Practice singing “Sally sells seashells by the
seashore” as
“…ally…ellz..ea..ellz…by…the…ea..ore”. Extreme
example, yes, but it’ll give you an idea of how to sing
on your vowels while minimizing your S sounds.
Watch your breathing sounds. Audible gasping can
mar a good group sound, particularly during a quiet
ballad. If a phrase is really long, stagger your
breathing among the group to give the illusion of one
long phrase.

Grammy-winning pro singer Angie Jarée says,
“Anyone embarking on a tour should already have
taken enough voice lessons to know the mechanics of
singing and, more importantly, their own instrument; if
not, they need to do so pronto.” She likens singing to
running: “The [tour] thing is more like long distance
running and the studio thing is more like sprinting.
The key points to achieving ‘endurance’ are adequate
prep such as physical stretching, vocal warmups and
cool-downs; 7-8 hours of sleep; eating healthy;
strong discipline (minimal drinking and partying); and
the right attitude.”
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. Live shows
while traveling will test your vocal technique even if
you’re not in the spotlight.

Put your ego aside when singing backup vocals. Or as
Scottie Haskell advises, “Remember, backup singing is
not a contest—it’s a team effort. Think of the old
adage, ‘There is no I in team.’”
Backup singing is not easy—it takes real chops. Not
everyone can do it well. Come ready with your “A”
game, a positive attitude and a willingness to take
personal growth steps to be in a good head space as
part of that team.

Lisa Popeil is a Los Angeles voice coach with over 35
professional teaching experience. Creator of the
Voiceworks® Method, the Total Singer DVD, and co-
author of the book Sing Anything-Mastering Vocal
Styles, Popeil trains singers in vocal technique, stage
performance and vocal health for touring

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