Much like the phrase, “Play nice with others”, it also applies to the work done on the live stage and in the recording studios with back up singers. “Sing nice with others.”
If anyone asked me to teach them how to sing back up in a group, I could only tell them to “listen” to the singer standing next to them. In that, I mean, hear what is being sung and blend in with the others. Not too loud, not too soft. There are several tools singers can use that will allow them to hear the music, hear the person next to them and to hear themselves.
Once I saw a singer close her ear with her finger, the ear that was closest to the person she was standing next to, the person she was supposed to blend with. All we heard was yelling. There was no effort on her part to create an ‘integral flow’ as one unit. That’s not singing nice with others and this is not Karaoke!
Maybe that’s what the first part of the word, “back” was meant to do, keep those singers in the back, not up front with the lead, star, focal point center stage. The preferred dress was “black” as to not be more visible than the lead, star, focal point center.
At the peek of my back up singing days, I had so many black clothes that I could wear them to a job interview, go to a funeral then head to the stage.
Back up singers sometimes were brought downstage close to the headliner, if they were good looking, to enhance the focus. Other times, back up singers were relegated to almost to back of the orchestra, behind the stage curtains so they would not be seen or to distract.
To be honest with you, not everyone who sings is a back up singer. A lead singer can tear the house down but they may not know the art of ‘blending’. Most back up singers I’ve known can sing lead if they choose and do it excellently but it takes a real gifted singer to be able to sit amongst other singers and not take up so much space individually but as a powerful unit.
I’ve had my share of singing back up with and for singers who were not aware of how loud they sang out. They could not tell if they were on sharp or flat, but just let it rip. Those singers are not the kind I like to work with.
Let me describe to you what a group of back up singers are supposed to sound like: a beautiful tapestry where each and every individual thread stands out on its own, holds its own power yet placed next to each other, they become One. Equal. Balanced. They all shine.
At a recent James Taylor’s concert, I was reminded of how skilled back up singers need to be and his singers are just that. Back up singers never got much notice until the documentary, “20 Feet From Stardom” came out last year in 2013 and recently won an Oscar.
So whether you’re singing in a dive bar or performing in Carnegie Hall, there is no difference to using your skills. And remember to have fun! Lots of fun!