How to perform to a backing track without sounding like you're doing karaoke

This is my take on the sometimes controversial topic of using backing tracks for choral singing, plus some tips on how to select and use tracks.

If you're leading any sort of community or contemporary choir, it's highly likely that you're dealing with people who don't read music. You're therefore going to be teaching and learning by ear. I know of choirs where the singers have the sheet music, despite few of them being able to read it. The choir follows the words in the score and learns the notes by ear. My personal feeling is that this approach is the worst of both worlds - the score is of little use to most of the singers (but becomes a "security blanket") and one of the biggest bonuses of performing from memory, that every eye is on the leader at all times, is lost.

Another model is for the leader to teach written musical scores to a non-reading choir by ear, accompanied by a piano. This might be the perfect fit for your choir, but again I think it's quite a laborious way of rehearsing (although to mitigate that, see my post here about choir engagement).

The model that we've chosen for our community choir is to create our own, usually pretty simple, arrangements to purchased backing tracks*. Our choir generally sings in three parts (soprano, alto and tenor/baritone). Now, I know that using backing tracks might offend choral purists, but choral purists are unlikely to be running community choirs, so we don't need to worry about them!

The big, big advantage of using backing tracks is that it creates a full musical sound that is extremely pleasing to the choir and the audience (you should see our guys boogie when they sing "Ain't No Mountain"!). When I listen to a rock or pop number, I want to hear drums and a bass, not a lone piano. If you're lucky enough to have the resources to rehearse and perform with a band, fantastic, but I doubt that's feasible for most community choirs.

If you're going to use tracks, there are any number to choose from online. Here are my tips for getting the best out of this model.
  1. Get good quality backing tracks, preferably ones that can be customised. Many tracks have backing vocals on them because they're designed for solo karaoke singers, so look for ones that say "instrumental only". Customisable tracks can very often be tweaked to remove backing vocals and even some instruments.
  2. Don't assume that all tracks are equal. You're after a rich, full, well-recorded sound. Listen to the online sample through decent speakers or headphones before buying (although you're usually only gambling a small sum if you buy a duff one that you later discard).
  3. When arranging the song for your choir, keep it simple. Don't follow the original slavishly and avoid any "twiddly bits" that sound very soloistic. Twiddly bits usually lead to poor ensemble.
  4. If your choir members sometimes struggle to hold harmonies or even hear differences between notes, avoid layering too many close harmonies. Simple harmonies and echoes work very well, as do accompanying sounds ('oohs', 'aahs', 'ba, ba, bahs' etc).
  5. Editing tracks is ludicrously easy these days, even for non-geeks. If you don't want the choir standing around for a sixteen-bar screaming guitar solo, cut it!**
  6. Check the lyrics are appropriate. A love song that sounds gorgeous done by a soloist might come across as deeply suspect when sung by sixty people collectively. Depending on your demographic, you may also find that some choir members are uncomfortable singing raunchier lyrics.
  7. When you're rehearsing, note the times in the track where each section (verse, bridge, chorus etc) begin so that you can hop about at will and not have to start from the beginning each time.
  8. Conducting to a backing track is a slightly artificial activity because you're following the track's tempo, rather than dictating it yourself. Don't forget, however, that you're still leading your choir. Give them all the tempo and dynamic input that you would if you were singing acapella or accompanied by a piano.
Using this method, we've created a very successful and much-complimented sound for our community choir. Songs can be learned swiftly and "note-bashing" kept to a minimum so that the choir really enjoys rehearsals.

Do you use backing tracks? Do you loathe them and avoid them at all costs? We'd love to hear your views.

*If you purchase, use and perform to backing tracks, you need to make sure that you comply with copyright and performance laws in your jurisdiction.

**Again, just be careful that the terms of use of whatever you've bought allow you fiddle about with it.
Why is it so hard to recruit men to choirs?
What is the conductor for, exactly?

5 comments

Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Jackie, thanks for getting in touch. At Total Voice, we really like Karaoke Version (www.karaoke-version.com) because they offer custom backing tracks where you can tweak instruments and, sometimes, tempo and pitch. You can also remove all backing vocals, which can be a problem with a lot of the backing tracks on iTunes, and most of the tracks have a "proper" end, not a fade out. In my book, fade-outs are an absolute no-no in performance.
Read more
Read less
Victoria Hopkins Staff

I heartily agree Sarah. It's what you do with it that counts! Our contemporary choir loves that full rock and pop sound. They really get into the groove!
Read more
Read less
Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Annette. The answer is no, we don't write arrangements for our contemporary choir. Obviously, if we did, there might be copyright issues and we might need to approach the individual rights-holder for permission to create such an arrangement. We simply buy a good backing track from a legitimate source such as karaoke-version. We then decide, based on the key and the type of song, which voices will sing the melody, which will take any harmonies or perhaps sing some 'oohs' etc. We stick to the original arrangement as closely as possible given that multiple voices are singing what is usually a solo song. For our chamber choir, we buy or hire scores for each choir member.
Read more
Read less
Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Rachel. We do make lyrics sheets for our community choir for the sole reason that, as far as we know, there is nowhere to purchase them legitimately. If there were, we would do that, just as we purchase scores for our chamber choir. I suppose, strictly speaking, we should attempt to contact individual rights-holders for permission to print lyric sheets for our choir rehearsals, but I'm afraid I think that that would be ridiculously onerous for any community choir. We try to stay as legit as possible - we only use lyric sheets in rehearsal and we would never distribute or sell them. The alternative is, as you say, to teach the lyrics verbally, which our choir would certainly struggle with. I very much doubt that any rights-holders are going to get exercised about what we, or any other community choir, do in this regard. We're not doing anyone out of any royalties because, as already mentioned, there isn't a way to purchase lyrics sheets (I'm very happy to be proved wrong about that, if anyone knows of a source). In fact, we probably do the opposite because I know that many of our choir members purchase the original recordings of the songs that we sing.
Read more
Read less
Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Irene. I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I wouldn’t have thought the two things were mutually exclusive.
Read more
Read less