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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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!**
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.