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Want to be a Professional Session Singer?

There are a wide range of voices and styles needed in the session world – says Mary Carewe.

Mary’s varied session career includes singing for movies such as Dr Strange and The Hobbit, performing backing vocals for Pop Idol and recording solos for chart topping classical records such as ADIEMUS.

She shares 5 secrets of the session world and explains how you can get your foot in the door.

1. Stepping stones into session singing

There are numerous types of sessions: doing backing vocals on an artist’s demos, demoing a songwriter’s material, jingles for TV and radio, film sessions for Disney, pre-recorded vocals for theatrical productions and TV shows from X-factor to Strictly Come Dancing!

I would say that young singers may be sought out for jingles as clients often want someone contemporary sounding and bands and young producers will also often want to work with young singers.

However, big film sessions are not the place for an inexperienced singer to start nor is TV. The costs involved with those productions generally mean the producers want to know they are getting someone who really knows the ropes.

2. Sight singing or learning by ear

There are some sessions that will be for sight-readers and others that are done by ear.

Most work, where there is a large group of singers, will involve reading to an extent as the rehearsal time involved with teaching non-readers grows the more people are involved.

The film sessions for the big Hollywood composers like Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Danny Elfman for instance are reading gigs and the reading skills required are high.

When you record BVs for a band then that is more often done by ear, and to be someone who gets booked again and again you need to be super quick and reliable.

When it comes to jingles then often it helps if you read but then you may be asked to improvise or change the notes considerably as the composer works out what the client wants.

3. Prepare without preparing

As a session singer, you may not know what you are going to record that day so you just need to be wide awake and focussed (and well warmed up!)

However, you may have been sent some music or a demo to listen to. If so, do that preparation even if you can’t spend a lot of time on it – it will help a lot.

Never pretend that you have done that prep if you haven’t…better to confess that either you haven’t had the time or that the technology didn’t work!

4. Know your worth

Fees for different jobs vary widely and things have changed a LOT over recent years as the trade agreements that were negotiated on the behalf of singers and musicians by our unions – Equity and the MU – have been undermined because it’s no longer essential for professional singers and musicians to be a member of a union.

However, those agreements are there to protect singers’ rights and are a guide to the appropriate rates that professional singers should be paid. I would strongly recommend that you join a union and learn what the going rates should be as well as what ‘rights’ you have given to the record company, film company, producer etc by accepting the fee.

A couple of examples of fees: a basic recording session (BPI agreement) is £120 for 3 hours. For a film session (PACT agreement) the fee can vary (depending on number of musicians/singers) but is generally £95.95 per hour (minimum of 2 hours).

Being asked to work for free or for a nominal fee is increasingly common – every producer or production company will have a tight budget! Only you can decide what you will or won’t agree to, but by talking to other singers and agreeing together what is unacceptable then you will be confident that what you ask for is fair or ‘the going rate’!

Remember, you are providing a skilled service – and no one would ask an electrician to pop in and do a job for nothing! It’s a fine balance between making contacts and being flexible and being ripped off and undercutting your peers.

5. Record a show reel on a budget

If you are a session singer looking for work and wanting to record a few demos, I would suggest you don’t spend a fortune but you look around for someone who can give you 3 or 4 hours recording time in a good, professional home studio set up.

Or you can record yourself at home as I discussed in last week’s article, Hone Your Singing Skills with Home Recording.


My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Danielle Lamb Danielle Lamb - Wasn't Ready To Love

Great use of the loops – you are clearly very well used to using the loop station and have vocal rhythm. You have a wide range and a good technique – you seem very relaxed when you sing which is a good thing. One comment would be to use a tad less nasality? It only struck me now and then (eg. around 2.20 ‘needed me to’) that you may find other ways to colour those phrases. It is this nasality also that makes the words a bit indistinct lower in the range. I know it’s partly a style thing but the listener does want to know what the song is about so maybe try and use a few more consonants in those lower phrases. Towards the end a couple of notes were just a bit pitchy – but it’s live and you were having fun! Overall this was a very rounded performance and I enjoyed it a lot!

Why I chose Danielle Lamb as a Finalist

Danielle clearly has a good understanding of vocal techniques and style and put her song across with panache.


Mary has long been established as one of the UK’s most in demand and versatile vocalists. Her experience includes work as an international concert soloist as well as a highly regarded session singer. Her vocals feature on the classical chart-topping ADIEMUS recordings and she is sampled on the Aphex Twin track XTAL. She has sung BVs for artists including Steps, Westlife, Pulp and Joe Cocker, on numerous Hollywood film soundtracks such as Dr Strange, The Hobbit, Pirates Of The Caribbean and Disney’s Beauty And The Beast, TV shows like Pop Idol, Stars In Their Eyes, French And Saunders and Benidorm, and many TV and radio jingles most notably ‘Autoglass’ for which she apologises! As a soloist, Mary has recorded film music, theatre songs and classic pop repertoire for releases by EMI, Universal and Readers Digest and she performs around the world with orchestras in iconic venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. www.marycarewe.com