How to Be A Better Background Vocalist

Background vocalists have the unglamorous job of being in the “background”. But don’t be so quick to relegate yourself to some sub-class of singers. Background vocalists are vital to any musical set and particularly to a worship set. Congregationally, the church feels more comfortable to sing out when the vocalists on stage are showing them how. As a background singer you can greatly enhance the sound of a song and the spirit of the room. Think about it. Without background vocalists there are no harmonies. Without background vocalists, the vocals lack dynamic range. Without background vocalists, the lead singer sounds dull! Your harmonies matter greatly! So, take heart dear background singer. You have a crucial role to play and you should seek to do it to the best of your ability.

Here are five ways you can improve your background vocal skills and better support the lead vocal:

Know Your Parts

The best way you can help your lead vocalist is to have your parts down cold. When you show up for rehearsal, make sure you know each of your parts for each of the songs. If you’re unsure of a particular note or harmony, spend the time at home to figure it out. Search YouTube for a tutorial or ask your worship leader for a recording to reference.

For the worship leaders reading this, you can set your vocalists up for success by making a simple acoustic recording of the vocal parts. Record yourself singing the melody, and then record each of the parts you want your singers to sing, pan them a little bit left and right, and upload the recording to Planning Center for each song.

If you can’t do that, then try holding a vocal rehearsal thirty minutes before the band arrives. Gather the singers and tell them when you want them to come in, who you want to sing what, and tighten up the timing and vocal dynamics.

Knowing your parts takes time and effort but in the end, it is the best way to support the lead vocalist and congregation.

Build The Song

If your worship leader doesn’t provide you with vocal direction prior to rehearsal, take the liberty to come up with parts that you think will best serve the song. When you do, be sure to think like a “producer”. How can you best build the song? Maybe you shouldn’t come in right away in verse one. Maybe you can sing melody for the first chorus, and break off into harmony at verse two? Or maybe you can only harmonize a particular phrase to emphasize a lyric? Perhaps you should drop out during the bridge? There’s rarely a time when you should sing for the entire song. So if you’re tasked with coming up with your own parts, be sure to “think like a producer”. Do so diligently but hold it loosely if the worship leader asks you to change something.

There’s rarely a time when you should sing for the entirety of a song.

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A huge part of being a great background vocalist is knowing how to “blend”. It is not your job to stand out. You are a part of a “team”, so egos and individuality go by the wayside to advance the overall sound. There are two types blending you need to do: Tone and Timing.

Tone: When singing background vocals, you should not assume a strong “lead” tone. You have to soften your tone to better blend with the lead vocalist. I’m not talking about singing softer, although sometimes you must. I’m talking about rounding out the tone, so it’s a softer, warmer tone. You want your tone to compliment and not grate against the leader’s tone. Try to match the lead vocalists inflection, power and crescendos. Avoid vibrato and soften your consonants.

Timing: Besides tone, you want to match your lead singers timing. Make sure your phrases are starting and ending with the leaders. Is the leader “dropping off” certain parts of words? Are they cutting notes short? Holding them long? Make sure you match your lead singer’s timing and things will begin to sound a lot tighter.

The key to great blending is to be a great listener. The more you listen to the other singers, the better you will blend.

Sing Off Mic

Another way you can support the lead vocalist is to sing “off-mic” when you don’t have a part to sing. Just because your harmony part hasn’t started yet doesn’t mean you need to stand there like a statue. Hold the mic by your side and sing along with the leader. This visually cues the congregation to know that it’s OK for them to be singing at that moment. While we’re on the topic of visually cuing our congregation, be sure that your stage presence is engaging and helpful to the congregation. You don’t have to be over the top theatrical. Just be natural, confident and sincere. For some tips on stage presence, check out THIS post and THIS podcast episode.

Stick To The Parts

Finally, the job of background vocalists is to keep a solid track for the lead vocalist and the congregation. If your lead vocalist decides do jump up on some crazy vocal run or change up the timing in a significant way, don’t try to follow them. It will just sound sloppy. Instead, stick to the parts as planned (this is especially true when there are multiple background vocalists) and keep the “track” for the congregation to sing along with. Sometimes when I lead I like to pull back from my microphone and let the church sing. When I do this, I want my background vocalists to continue singing their parts, so the church feels confident in what to sing. When your leader leaves the track, it’s your job to stick to it.

Embrace Your Role

If you do these five things you will be an excellent background vocalist and better support your worship leader! Remember, you’re a vital part of the team. Embrace your role and do it with excellence!

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