TIPS FOR SINGERS
Shortcuts for learning new material.
Dorian: Hey Lynne, can you do American Idol this week?
Dorian: Call time is 7am, so come early and be prepared to stay late.
Me: OK Good.
It was Hollywood week and when I arrived at the venue, hundreds of Idol hopefuls were buzzing here and there, singing through the halls, anxiously preparing for an audition that could possibly change their lives forever. If you’re familiar with the show, you know that Hollywood Week is the last week of auditions before the final 40 are picked to go on to compete on the show. There were hundreds of contestants, which meant there were hundreds of songs to learn.
It was a huge undertaking and quite a responsibility. Our job was to create the best atmosphere for each contestant by recreating the original recording as closely as possible so they would be comfortable.
As a support or backing vocalist one of the most important skills to develop is the art of learning new music quickly.
Over the past two plus decades, I have developed a few tricks for learning new material quickly and I’d like to share a few of them with you.
Listen! Listen! Listen! If you have only a short time, find a way to do these steps simultaneously. You’ll be identifying the sections of the song, the harmonic structure, the style, where vocals are used, and learning the words.
#1. Identify the sections i.e. intro, verse, chorus and bridge.
Learn the chorus first. The chorus is the most important part of a song. A strong hook is better than scattering your effort on vocal details that often go unnoticed. Your music director will be happy with a strong hook in these settings because it is the most important part of the song. They have other musicians to worry about and they probably haven’t put in the time to learn all the detailed vocal parts that us vocalist listen for. After you’ve learned the chorus, go back and listen to the entire song, top to bottom and make notes as to what sections have vocals and learn them.
#2. Harmonic structure
Many times, sheet music is not provided for the singers, so we have to fend for ourselves and pick out the harmonies by ear, and that’s when a good set of headphones comes in hand. Sometimes there are more parts, but usually, there are three voices, top, middle, and bottom, a.k.a. soprano, alto, and tenor. It’s important to make yourself aware of the harmonies in the music so you don’t end up singing a major chord against a minor chord. The soprano part is usually the easiest to hear, so start there. Then learn the tenor or the bottom part next. The middle is generally the trickiest to hear, so if you have to top and the bottom, the middle is less elusive.
A great support or backing singer is like a chameleon. It’s important to lose some of your own style when adapting to songs outside of your own personal genre. For example, If the song is a country song, your may change the way you pronounce certain words, or in other songs, no vibrato is required, and in others, like gospel, you may have to increase or slow your vibrato. After you make those adjustments, then bring it to life by singing it like you wrote it even though it may be very different from what you would ordinarily do.
# Vocal Parts
Now you’re working on the details. You’re taking note of the subtle oohs and ahs that add to the mood of the song. It’s helpful to make notes for yourself to determine when you come in and on what note. A common problem for vocalist is singing the note you hear next to you. You abandon your part and sing with your colleague, leaving one part vacant. This is where you must develop your method for finding and keeping your note. Some use the numbers method, others use squiggly lines drawn on the lyrics sheet, if you have one. I use a combination of those two methods. If you are not familiar with the numbers method, or the squiggly line method where you actually draw lines that move as your part moves, another good tip is to find your first note in the melody, so you know it before your part comes up. Here’s how you do it. First you identify your part. Then listen to the song with your note in mind and listen for the same note in the song so you can recognize it before you actually have to sing.
With so many songs to learn and so little time, you have to figure out a way to write out the lyrics, which is time consuming. I do what I call vocal shorthand. Here’s how I do it. As the chorus is played, I write the first letter of each word that is said. I don’t worry about getting every word perfect until I come back and later fill it in. It’s much quicker than writing every word, stopping the recording and starting again.
I hope these shortcuts help you to become a more effective vocalist in these high stress situations. Take care!