Calling All Harmony Singers

On stage and in the studio, everybody has a job to do, and you can be your best when you consider how your part supports the bigger picture.  In musical arrangement, the contribution of each performer will satisfy one or more of the following:

  • establishing or supporting the groove/rhythm
  • establishing or supporting a counter-rhythm
  • establishing or supporting the harmony
  • establishing or supporting the melody or a counter-melody
  • establishing or supporting the lyrics

It’s easy to pinpoint the purpose of the drummer’s part in the arrangement – typically, rhythm.

The bass player’s realm is typically rhythm and harmony, but will occasionally dip into melodic territory.  Same for the guitarist and keyboardist, though more likely these two will have melodic contributions.

The lead singer is clearly involved in melodic and lyrical delivery.

Consider the contributions of horns, strings, percussion, and anyone else you might have on stage or in the studio with you.  The roles will differ from one arrangement to another, but they should be pretty easy to identify.

But what about the harmony (“backup”) vocal?  Whether it’s by a dedicated singer, or by a musician who also sings harmonies, this is the supporting role most easily heard by an audience, and is all too often misunderstood or poorly executed, resulting in an overall performance that might have been better off without harmony vocals at all.

You Talkin’ to Me?

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of fantastic harmony singers out there on stages and on records, and this comment is not aimed at those singers.  Those singers already perform to all the points I list below, and you’ll easily spot these behaviours in your favourite professional stage performances, live or on video.

No, I’m commenting here for the benefit of the less developed harmony singers, and to those singers who are more familiar with singing the lead, in an effort to help them more effectively support the arrangements as a harmony singer.  If you honestly don’t resonate with anything I have to say here, then please go about your day with my apologies for wasting your time.

But it wouldn’t hurt to see what I have to suggest.

It’s Not All About You

One of the jobs of the harmony singer is to establish and support the harmony of the musical arrangement.  This is a truly supporting role, vitally important, yet strongest when delivered with subtlety.  What I mean by this, is that the job requires a gentle touch to avoid distracting from the main event – the lead vocal.  Attention to several details will support this intention:

  • Timing – as a harmony singer, you MUST begin and end your phrases in agreement with the lead vocal.  If you’re singing the same words, do your absolute best to deliver each word in time with the lead vocal, to avoid clashing consonants.  Tight timing of a harmony vocal will allow yours and the lead vocalist’s phrases to sound as if they’re being delivered by a single “instrument”.  Support and celebrate the lead vocal, without drawing inappropriate attention to yourself.
  • Tuning – it is crucial that you are singing in tune with the lead vocalist.  If the lead vocalist is out of tune with the band, you’re better off to sing in tune with the vocalist than with the band (as challenging as that may be), to avoid highlighting the failings of your lead vocalist.
  • Tone – understand the behaviour of your microphone, especially what it does to the tone of your voice when you move closer to, or farther away from such a microphone.  Close-singing into a directional microphone typically emphasizes the “boomy” lower frequencies in your voice, thanks to a microphone behaviour known as “the proximity effect”.
  • Volume – your job is rarely to be as loud as the lead vocalist.  Yes, some arrangements demand true choral singing, but more often your job is to sing “under” the lead vocalist.  Don’t allow your harmony vocal to overpower the lead vocal.  Back away from the microphone when necessary.
  • Consonants – sometimes, as a harmony vocalist, you will do best to soften your consonants or not sing them at all, especially on hard (‘k’, ‘p’, ‘q’) or sibilant (‘t’, ‘ch’, ‘s’, ‘sh’, ‘z’, ‘zh’, ‘d’, ‘j’) consonants, to avoid over-emphasizing such consonants between the singers, and because these consonants usually provide the biggest challenge to tight timing between the voices.  You may be singing the lyrics along with the lead vocalist, but your job is to support, not to be responsible for the audience hearing the words.  All too often, it is more difficult to hear the lyrics when sung by a chorus of singers.
  • Focus – help direct the audience’s eyes toward the lead vocalist whenever they are singing.  To do this most effectively, try looking towards the lead vocalist whenever you are providing a harmony to the lead vocal line.  NOTE that if you are watching the mouth of the lead vocalist, it is also far easier to match the timing of the vocal phrases.
  • Team Up – if you’re singing in a group of harmony singers, your job as a group is to be a team.  Sing, dance, move, align your bodies as a team – as if you together make up a single “instrument”

Now, Take Some Spotlight

Without question, there are moments in which your job is to provide a counter-melody, or even a lead vocal break of your own, and in those moments, your part is a musically important ingredient of the arrangement.  At times like these, you should rightfully step up and grab some spotlight to emphasize your part, but remember to do so without overpowering the lead vocal, if the lead vocalist is singing simultaneously.

Ah, So That’s What You Mean

When your job is to sing ooh’s or aah’s, especially if you’re part of a harmony vocal section, picture your contribution as something similar to the notes or chords played by a harmony instrument (keyboards, guitars, etc.).  Your job here will be to sing “under” the lead vocal, not “against” it.

And For The Sake of Argument

Certainly, there will be times with the arrangement goes against my advice above.  If you become the lead vocalist for any part of the arrangement, then these rules simply do not apply.

As always, this advice comes from a place of support, regardless of how much it might seem like a crotchety set of complaints.  Go forth and be awesome!

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