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How to Get Into Session Singing

Juliet Russell shares what it takes to break into new markets for your voice.

Many singers aspire to a career in session singing. After all, the work can be exhilarating and rewarding:

Backing vocals for live acts
Feature vocals e.g. on dance tracks
Singing on adverts for television and radio
Demoing tracks for producers and writers
Studio backing vocal sessions

At the highest level, session singing requires a very specific set of skills: incredible musicality and attention to detail, the ability to take and respond to direction and vocal versatility.

While only a small minority of singers make a living exclusively from session singing; it can be an interesting part of a larger singing portfolio.

The Basics

If you feel this is something you really want to get into, I’ll share with you a few tips to get you started.

First, you’ll want to have several abilities in place:

Can you deliver the goods vocally?
Can you listen to instruction and change the way you are singing accordingly?
Are you reliable?
Are you easy to work with?
Can you harmonise?
Can you improvise?

If you are just starting out…

The first thing to do is to get some experience so you can start building your biog and showreel (see below).

If there are local bands you can sing and record with or a fledgling producer you know who makes beats or writes tracks, approach them and see how you can get involved.

With technology so accessible, it is possible to create good homemade demos.

You can also track down good quality backing tracks to sing along to or record with acoustic accompaniment.

If you already have some experience…

The following may help you get more work and are essential if you want to approach agents:

A Showreel– this is a recording that showcases your vocals at their best, usually excerpts rather than full songs and at least 3 or 4 tracks that demonstrate your vocal range and often your versatility. I would advise having at least one track that demonstrates your ability to harmonise and improvise.

A Biog– this is basically a biography, a brief CV. Put your most impressive experiences early on in your biog e.g. if you have worked with a name act, sung at a major venue, sung on television and radio etc. Have clear headings e.g. live work, recording, television etc. It is also fine to talk about your vocal style, particularly if you specialise, and if you genuinely are versatile it’s fine to mention this.

A Photograph– This is more important for the live side, but it’s also good to be able to put a face to a name and a voice. It makes everything more personable. Choose a professional looking head shot that you are happy with and you feel represents you well. For some castings and agencies you may also be asked for full-length shots.

Website– Most professional people now have their own website. Consider it as a shop window. What do you want potential clients and collaborators to see and hear?

Reading Music- Not all sessions will require you to read music, and in fact many pop sessions don’t, but like anything the more skills you have the more opportunities you will be able to be considered for.

Attention to Detail-This is essential. Some session work requires you to be very, very precise e.g. to repeat exactly the same phrasing, to copy another singer’s vibrato in a BV (backing vocal) line-up. Keep developing your musicality and technique. A great ear can be as important as a great voice if you want to make it in the session world.

Network- Singers and musicians often recommend each other for work so keep developing your network. I have found that nearly every piece of session work I have done has led to something else so be as good at your job as you can be. Word of mouth can be powerful. People who book sessions singers include agents, producers, MDs (Musical Directors), tour managers, session fixers, choir leaders.

My Reactions to This Week’s Peer Review Vids

Dave Kester – Hope for Now (Cover)

Thank you for posting this. I like your self-critique on You Tube. It’s good to be aware your own performance strengths and weaknesses. I agree you could move less! I do like your tone and there’s something very honest about this performance, which is effective. I’m not sure if the key is necessarily too high, but you need to find a more secure way of reaching those higher notes. This is when being more static can help, using the core anchoring muscles to help support a more powerful full voiced sound. Before singing really warm up the articulators too. Open your mouth more so we get more projection and articulation. The distortion on the guitar at 2.43 is a bit overwhelming. Sometimes it’s great to have volume, but not at the expense of sound or recording quality.

Mike Sharp –Jack Johnson Cover

I really like that you make this cover your own and give it a more edgy feel instrumentally and vocally. You seem very comfortable and relaxed and manage to create a gig feel in your living room (if it is your living room!). When you look directly into the camera it’s deliberate and effective. At 1.15 and 2.35 you do a really nice move into your head voice, which works well. The only thing I’d say is that at the beginning the first few lines could do with a bit more breath support to keep them really present and not trailing off at the end. Really nice version though Well done.

See VoiceCouncil’s Feature Interview with Juliet Russell

Juliet Russell has coached Grammy award winners and X-Factor finalists and is a vocal coach on BBC1’s The Voice. Passionate about developing aspiring artists, she co-founded Sense of Sound She has collaborated with artists and companies including Damon Albarn, Imogen Heap, Paloma Faith, Ringo Starr, BBC, Channel 4, Universal Royal Opera House, Greenpeace and Glastonbury, and has written music for film, television and radio. Juliet holds a Masters degree in Music and is in huge demand as coach, vocal arranger and musical director. Juliet is passionate about developing aspiring artists and supporting individuals and communities to explore their voices and creativity.
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  • Amy

    I have a 7 year old that really wants to sing , any suggestions ??

  • David

    Try enrolling her in the Vocadamy singing http://www.vocademy.co.uk/
    My daughter enrolled and her singing has improved massively with good exposure.