Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Backing Vocals

A fully orchestrated non-improvised song might include backing vocals to compliment the melody and the instrumentation. We don't have that sort of luxury in improvised songs. Or do we?

In any improvised song, there's an opportunity for backing vocals; any participant that isn't actively driving at that moment can potentially contribute. They don't even have to be on stage; we've had many a song in our long-form musicals where off-stage singers provide backing vocals.

We are somewhat resource-constrained when we're doing an improv song; we usually won't have a band on standby, and we're not going to go back and re-record layered vocals, so we have fewer tools we can use to provide light and shade or a nice build within a song. The addition of backing vocals can really help a song to step up, or to provide contrast between verses and choruses.

I'd say there are three broad types of backing vocals we see in songs. I don't know if they have formal names, but for this article I'll give them some: shapeless, layered and weaving.


Providing vowel-based backing is pretty easy and effective. We've talked about this before in Oohs and Aahs.


Sometimes the supporting players can pick the lyric and melody that is about to be used, either by anticipating a rhyme, or by contributing to a well-established chorus. (I'm startled by how often good players can predict the rhyme that is about to show up. One of those things that can make a show look not-improvised. Hah, like we have the time or inclination to rehearse this stuff.)


Supporting players might take those interstitial moments between lead vocal lines, and add their own vocals. This can work a treat; they're not competing with the singer, the extra weight can help to build a song to a climax, and there's a lot more freedom to the lyric. Echoing a lyric (from, say, a chorus) works nicely and can be done by a group of backing singers; extending with new lyrics is more challenging and probably works best with one backing singer.

To sing, or not to sing

To me, there are times when backing vocals are undesirable.

From a story perspective, I like backing vocals layered on solo songs, and on some duets, but not all of them. In a really intimate "new love"-type duet where the characters really open up and share their personal and private feelings with each other (and the audience), the intrusion of other voices seems wrong.

Something I see done quite often in workshops and with short-form groups is having a set of backing singers doing, well, basically, "doo-wop" style backing. I have a confession to make; although I've taught classes and encouraged people to try that out, I hate that style of backing vocal. It took me a long time to figure out why. When you have multiple musicians driving the music for a scene, you acquire a fair amount of momentum and it gets hard to change direction or react to things. A bunch of doo-wop singers are essentially doing the same thing; you establish a pattern, you commit to it so you can extend it, but when you need to change it you all need to recognise the change, musician and singers alike. I dislike unbreakable momentum in improvised songs, and I think that's why doo-wop backing doesn't do it for me.

I have found that, if you have more than one backing singer, it works well when one of the backing singers is somewhat taking the lead. They pay attention to the music and the lead singer, reacting to their changes and setting everything up.

Next week we'll have a specific example of backing vocals from Worst Side Story.
Photo by Adam N Ward


Girl Clumsy said...


Kris Anderson hates something.

The nicest man in Brisbane hates something.



Having said that, doo-wop is a good starter place for many newer improvisers, or people who aren't confident with their singing. But yes, like anything in impro, if you stick too rigidly to it, it could wind up being detrimental to the scene.

Robbie said...

A bit late to this discussion (I'm catching up on the last 25 blog posts all at once), but I have to agree about your reservations with backing vocals.

I have to beat it into my actors' skulls ALL THE TIME to hold off on the BVs. So often a solo character will start a sincere ballad number and about two lines into the song three people offstage will repeat a key word, each in a slightly different way. The result is a quick ramping up in loudness, the solo singer finds it harder and harder to compete, and the shape of song is ruined.

Actors start to get the message when they realise that if they're making noise behind the lead vocalist, they're not going to hear what the lead character of the scene is singing about.

On that listening note, actors so often want to join in on a chorus first time. What happens is that the chorus doesn't become established and settled: the non-lead singers would be far better to concentrate intently on absorbing and remembering what one person establishes.

Rant over!

travis said...

Having more practice helps improve. Check with a dentist piedmont too so you have a presentable teeth while singing.

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