This is a repost from SATURDAY, JULY 3, 2010 on my old blog. I hope to include it in a book someday.
This blog post is for all of you who love singing backup vocal, which we in the biz call BGV for BackGround Vocals.
I love singing with you guys. We fit together in a tightly controlled and yet totally organic formation, like a flock of geese flying in a V. Our lead vocalist goes up, we go up. Our lead vocalist goes down, we go down. Our lead vocalist crescendos (that’s fancy music talk for getting louder), we crescendo. Our lead vocalist decrescendos, we back off slightly, too, staying just a hair behind so that the lead is still out in front, in the point position of the V formation. It’s magic and yet it’s reproducible, both an art and a science.
So let’s teach the others how to fly along with us. Feel free to add comments if I miss anything. I’d love to grow our numbers because well-sung harmonies are so rare and so wonderful.
Flying in your zone, it’s like soccer or basketball
So if you don’t like the flying geese analogy, let’s look at the zone analogy.
In soccer and basketball, each player has a zone. You get in your zone and you stay in your zone. If you go into another player’s zone two bad things happen: nobody is now in your zone (say, right forward) and your team now has 2 players in another zone.
In singing harmony, finding and staying in your zone is also important. For example, if your job is to sing just a little higher than the melody or lead (we call this position the “tenor” position) then you should find your position and stay there. Don’t venture lower, either into the melody/lead position or farther down into the “baritone” position. Don’t venture higher, up into the “high baritone” position a full 5th above the melody. There are already players in those positions, so you’ll color that position too darkly and worse, nobody is singing tenor now.
Find your zone. Embrace your zone. We need you there. We sound full and warm with all of us in our zones.
Flying slightly behind the leader
This concept is easy to explain. We need the melody to be prominent, easy to pick out and recognize. So we BGVs stay just a little behind, both in volume and in timing.
As far as volume goes, much of this is up to our sound techs. Pray for them, that God will guide their fingers and open their ears. I mean, we gotta all hear each other or this thing doesn’t work. So we all need to be strong in the monitors, if we’re going electric. And never underestimate the power of a good compressor to balance and shape the vocals. If we’re going acoustic, we need to stand close together, so everyone is within earshot, even if the banjo is banjo-loud.
Now timing is an art, almost a psychic connection. We all need to make our attacks (fancy musical term that means how we start the note) and decays in formation. Us BGVs need to be just a nanosecond behind the lead on the attack, and just a smidgen ahead in the decay. This way, the melody/lead is the first and last thing heard in the vocal blend. This letting go of the note in submission to the leader’s lead is hard for us diva types. We love to embrace that note and hold it for all it’s worth. Resist this impulse, it’s of the devil.
Flying with the leader
Here’s the last little instruction: follow the leader. If the leader goes up a small interval (fancy musical term for the number of pitches between notes in a passage), then we go up a small interval, staying within the chord and holding our positions. If the leader goes up a large interval, then we also go up a large interval, not a small one, not holding the same note we just embraced.
When the leader makes a big leap, you need to make a big leap, too. If you don’t make an equally big leap, you’ll be doubling somebody else’s part, either your other BGV team mate, or the melody, making that part too dark and leaving a big hole where your part should be in the blend. So make that leap. Whee, it’s musical bungee fun!
Now, let me take just a moment to rant about counter-melody. Don’t do it. Don’t even think about it. Counter-melody is similar to harmony because it’s something that fits in the chord and is not the melody. But it’s not harmony. Counter-melody draws attention to itself. It says “Hey, I’m singing over here. Look at me!” and draws attention away from the melody, messing up the nice warm blend of a tightly flying harmony. If you want to sing out front, sing the melody role for goodness sake. Then you can be the goose out front for all the world to see and admire. I hope I’ve made my point. Counter-melody, like refusing to decay in time, is of the devil.
So there you have it. My small bit of musical evangelism. Singing harmony is for anybody who can sing. It’s simple but it’s not easy. But you can do it. I believe in you.
Please join us. We’d love to sing with you!