“How To Be (And Get Work As) A Background Singer” by Judy Rodman

Judy Rodman

By Judy Rodman



Having done over 40 years of studio and live vocal work as well as training other singers, I’ve compiled some qualities that this kind of singing demands.  To sing background vocals you need:[private_pro]

  • Vocal training to be able to perform the feats of what I call a “stunt singer.” It takes more stamina and control to be a great background singer than to be a lead singer, because you will have to trace and blend with another voice perfectly, taking on the lead voice’s tone, personality, rhythm, phrasing and accent, or adding whatever different texture of voice the producer wants to offset the lead singer’s voice.
  • To be able to change your voice at the producer’s request.
  • To be able to hear and create harmony parts. Sometimes the parts will be dictated to you by your group leader or the session producer; sometimes you’ll need to come up with suggestions.
  • Experience singing background parts with live performers and/or backing vocals in a recording studio. No matter what kind of training you have, there’s no substitute for actual experience. It’s a catch-22; you need experience to get experience, so take whatever opportunity you can possibly find or afford to get in front of a stage or recording studio mic.
  • A demonstration (demo) recording of your voice. This can be a simple guitar or piano/vocal, a karaoke track with your voice recorded over it, or can be full instrumental tracks created just for you. Just make sure that your vocal performance is the most important thing you record. Don’t spend money on tracks without budgeting enough time for great vocals. Duh!
  • Referrals from people you’ve sung with and sung for.
  • Networking, networking, networking. This takes time and persistence, and people skills are very necessary. Go to writers’ nights and to concerts; hang out with musicians and songwriters you know. If you know any session singers, you might ask them to sing with you and assess how well they think you do.
  • To realize that you may need to keep your day job. Background work is very competitive and usually has a great deal to do with being at the right place at the right time. Sometimes when someone else can’t make a session, an untried singer will get a chance. However, it is important to be generous of spirit, to support and recommend other singers trying to get work as well. Undercutting your fellow session singer will come back to bite you. It usually takes years to break in to regular session work. Make sure you build the right reputation.
  • Background singers tend to be hired for the following qualities:
    • They sound great with the lead singer. They can “trace” the singer’s inflections, rhythms, tone colors and accents. They support but do not overpower the singer’s vocal sound, or they provide an appropriate counter-sound (such as r&b choir sound or very straight, instrumental pad sound).
    • They learn their parts fast. Time is money in the studio and in the rehearsal hall.
    • They can do “head charts” (just come up with the parts in their heads)
    • They can read the Nashville number system (if in Nashville),
    • They can read written music (traditional notes).  You can get hired without being able to do all three, but you are considered a much more versatile singer if you can work whatever way the producer, artist or group leader wants.
    • They have positive, professional attitudes and work well with others. Diva attitudes, argumentative natures and competitive spirits are left at the door.
    • They can be depended upon to show up on time, every time.
    • They are nice people. The music business is a small world, and it gets to be community where where you like to work with friends and good hearted people.

Some of my best friends in the world are background singers. And great background singers are true professionals… always a pleasure to be around!

Judy Rodman has many years of professional experience as an award-winning recording artist, stage and television performer, multi-genre hit songwriter, studio producer and vocal consultant, and a highly sought-after voice teacher with her own breakthrough training method “Power, Path & Performance”. [/private_pro]