Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Oohs and Aahs

Providing backing vocals to an improvised song can be tricky. There's an easy trick you can try, and the results will impress.
Most of the time, when people put backing vocals to an improvised song, they'll sing lyrics that mirror the line that came just before. "I took a ride (took a ride) on a rocket-plane (rocket-plane)..." I think it takes a bit of practice to get good at this. You need to pick a snippet from the line that fits the rhythm of the song. You need to spot that sometimes the singer is going to sing a longer line, and hold back on those vocals. Oh yeah, and you need to hit notes that sound nice, too. No worries.

For an extra degree of difficulty, try getting two or more people to do backing vocals like this at the same time. To me this often sounds like a speaking-in-one-voice exercise, with a bit of stumbling as people pick different snippets of line to sing. It's hard to have a group mind about this stuff.

So... what's this trick that makes it all easy and impressive?

Recently we workshopped a bunch of song structures and formats ahead of our long-form improvised musical "One Bride for Seven Brothers". (You'll be hearing more about One Bride, and the things we learned, in future posts.) We experimented with using non-verbal sounds like oohs and aahs for backing vocals. And it worked really well!

When you don't have to articulate words, you are guaranteed to not clash with the rhythm of the song. You also aren't going to clobber the singer if they're singing over your backing.

The group mind thing works a lot better with aaah backing vocals - everyone chooses the same sound, and you avoid that in-one-voice stumbling-about thing.

Of course, you still have to try and pitch your singing to nicely gel with the music. Reader Jill passed on this tip commenting on On Your Mark... Get Set... Stop? a few months ago:
"Mary Cay Stone, one of the keyboard players at ComedySportz-Twin Cities quoted this to me, and it's made me so very comfortable: You're never more than half a step away from the “right” note… -Victor Wooten"
That's such an excellent tip. I find folks doing aaaah backing vocals can get away with being a half-step away from the right note - for a while they're doing something dissonant, something that gives a bit of tonal instability. The moment when someone resolves that instability is awfully nice.

Photo by owaief89

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