Here are seven tips for background vocalists that I’ve learned through years of singing in worship teams and bands. Although my advice is specific to church worship ministries, most of it applies to anyone who sings background vocals (BGV).
1) Allow the lead vocalist to sing the first verse alone…
…so that the congregation can clearly hear the melody. This is for the benefit of any member of your congregation who might be unfamiliar with the song.
- If the song is entirely new to the congregation, also allow the lead vocalist to sing the first chorus alone. But if the song is familiar to your congregation, it’s not as critical to let the main vocalist sing the chorus solo. The congregation will likely be singing more robustly on a familiar chorus, which will aid any visitors who might not be familiar with the song.
2) Make sure your harmonic singing is in sync with the lead vocalist.
During rehearsal, pay attention to the specific way they are singing the lyrical phrases and do your best to match the timing. Let them lead the song.
3) Don’t sing harmony on every word or phrase.
If the text is particularly wordy, limit your harmonic vocals to the accented words and phrases. This will also help you keep in time with the lead vocalist who is less likely to vary the timing on the clearly accented words.
4) Share the harmony goodness.
As a harmony vocalist, you have the opportunity to help the congregation hear other musical, vocal parts of a song. This can aid those in your congregation whose vocal ranges vary from the lead vocalist.
- Gents, you have the opportunity to help the men in your congregation hear a tenor, baritone or bass line that accompanies a lead female vocalist.
- Ladies, you have the same opportunity to help the women find an alto or soprano part when a male vocalist is leading the song.
Of course not everyone in your congregation will be able to sing a second or third part, and that’s okay. But we can help them hear a complementary vocal part that they may otherwise have missed. And if they can sing it in the congregation, it will add fullness to the choir of voices.
5) Be careful not to excessively sing melody over the lead vocalist.
There are instances when having all the vocalists sing the melody on the mic is very powerful and serves to further emphasize the lyrics. But if you are going to sing melody on mic with the lead vocalist, be extra careful to match the tone and timing of the lead vocalist.
When we aren’t singing harmony on the mic (like when we’re purposefully allowing the lead vocalist to clearly spell out the melody for the congregation), it’s still important for us to sing out with the congregation. However, if we’re singing double (or triple) melody on the mic, our sounds and words can easily become muddled.
The lead vocalist may also have a more difficult time hearing themselves and as a result become pitchy and off-key in their singing. In these cases, it’s helpful if the background vocalists back off of the microphone while still singing with the congregation.
6) Rehearse and solidify parts.
When there are three or more vocalists, be sure you rehearse and solidify the three parts to be sung so everyone’s not fishing for their musical line during the gathered worship time.
7) Don’t try and harmonize out of your range.
If the only harmony part you can hear is out of reach, leave it where it is and sing the melody off the mic. Sometimes if a harmony is too far removed from the melody it becomes more of a distraction than a support for the melody, especially if there isn’t a third, middle part to close the sound gap.
Be sure to check out our 9 Tips to Becoming A Confident Singer.
As the daughter of a worship pastor, Kristen Gilles became involved in music ministry at a young age. Accomplished as a vocalist, pianist, guitarist and songwriter, she has led worship in various churches and conferences, toured the United States from New York City to Dallas, Texas and many points in between, and recorded an EP in 2009, Embrace The Bigger Picture. Connect with Kristen at Facebook.com/kristensmithgilles.
Kristen currently leads worship in Sojourn Community Church and was featured on Sojourn’s 2011 album The Water And The Blood: The Hymns Of Isaac Watts, Volume Two.