Backup singing is a crucial part of great albums and concerts. While it may seem that the lead singer has a tough job, it’s easy to forget how challenging it is to seamlessly weave complex harmonies into an overall melody, all without taking over the spotlight. If you’re a singer who doesn’t necessarily want to take center stage, consider a career as a backup singer. Great backup singers get to be a part of some amazing experiences without the harsh glare of fame. It’s a big job, but it’s definitely rewarding, and often involves some pretty cool perks.
What Does it Take to Be a Backup Singer?
It’s not as simple as knowing how to be a singer. A backup vocalist supports, saves, and helps a lead vocalist shine. There can’t be any ego involved, nor any selfish tendencies. You have to know how to listen, adapt, and most importantly, you have to know how to create harmonies and not overpower a performance. Some backup singers dance as well, or at least follow basic choreography, while others might also play an instrument. The best backing vocalists are able to “save” a performance – they possess an intuition that helps them read the lead singer and help them out if they’re off, or in trouble. Sometimes it’s a thankless job, but if you truly love singing and don’t want to be out front, it is the perfect way to have a career in music.
How Do You Get a Job as a Backup Vocalist?
Like any career, the more experience you have, the better chance you’ll have at landing gigs. Experience starts with training, and training begins with learning how to be a singer in general, often through voice lessons. If you know early on that backup singing is something that interests you, let your instructor or coach know that. You’ll have to learn a whole different way of singing. Training as a backup vocalist includes learning to harmonize effortlessly. You have to know how to blend, and how to get rid of parts of your voice that might stand out. It’s also important to learn about equipment in the music industry, and how to use it: think microphones, speakers, monitors, and anything else that will make you an invaluable member of the team. Once you have the training, it’s time to get out there!
Choirs can be a good place to get solid practice, especially if you’re not singing the melodic parts of a piece. Choirs are also about blending to become a part of the whole. Continue to practice every chance you get. Listen to music in the car and at home, and create your own harmonies.
You can also try to get involved with local bands. See if you can do some work in the studio as a session singer or studio musician. Once you have gained more experience, start auditioning for the big names.
What Does a Backup Vocalist Audition Look Like?
Before you hit the auditions, make sure you are in top vocal shape. Brush up if you need to with lessons. You’ll most likely need to know how to read sheet music on the spot. Familiarize yourself with the music or artist you’ll be auditioning for. Know exactly what’s expected of you for each specific audition: How long should your audition piece be? What type of music do they want to hear?
Preparation is essential, and it’s also helpful to have a variety of material on hand, not just one piece. Know what key you are going to sing in. Have your sheet music ready, with notes for the accompanist if needed. Have a demo and press kit on hand to leave with the director. Finally, make sure you are ready for anything!
A vocal audition is usually just that, singing. There are, however, a couple of extra things to remember. Unless you are asked to sing a song by the artist you’re auditioning for, try to avoid it. Show off your voice without showing off (remember, you are not lead singer). Be friendly and courteous, and dress subtly and classy, like you would for a job interview. Listen and stay composed; backup singing is all about being part of a team and being an easy person to work with.
Become a Backup Vocalist
The Oscar-winning documentary movie 20 Feet from Stardom is an awesome introduction into the lives of some elite backing vocalists. If it inspires you, subscribe to Backstage, take your lessons, practice, gain experience, and train some more—and before you know it, you’ll be well on your way to a successful music career as a backing vocalist.
Photo by U.S. Army