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So You Want to Be A Session Singer By Sally Rivers

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Aged about seven & hugging an over sized acoustic guitar, I remember my cousin getting quite agitated with me because I wouldn't sing the melody line along with her there I was, happy in my way, doing what I always did picking out harmonies to anything I could and to this day, there are some songs from childhood, which I would struggle to remember how the melody went, but I could sing you any one of several harmonies to it ;)

I was only 12, when I did my first paid session job. I remember the feel of the warm Beyer headphones as they cupped my head & the clean, dry, smooth sound of my voice, completely filling my head with my sound.

I had never been in a vocal booth before, let alone in a proper recording studio, complete with engineer and huge desk today I was being paid handsomely to do something I did all the time for fun to sing harmonies. I was hired to back up a fairly poor band from Manchester on their first album Today these guys are famous throughout the World.

And so in that little dark room, I began my life time love affair with the microphone

Today, I have more than 20yrs experience as a session singer, having thousands of studio and live credits including Celine Dion, Anastacia, The Rolling Stones, Robert Palmer, Sugar Babes & many, many others.

In my role as a vocal coach, I am often approached by singers who are keen to enter the industry & one of the questions I am so often asked is How do you become a session singer?

I read somewhere recently, that only 1 in 1000 singers, has what it takes to become a session singer. Session singers are regarded as the best of the best of the best, the premier league if you like their musical skills & intuition having been carefully honed, primarily through experience, involving long hard hours in the studio and an overwhelming desire to deliver a perfect product. I'm always amused when singers will tell me that if they can't make it as a lead singer, they would consider being a backing/session singer.

A session singer is required to be a vocal chameleon and a more generic sound is often the most desirable. A singer who has a particularly distinctive sound will find it harder to get work as the vocal will stick out in the mix. A good session singer is content to remain anonymous & blend in to the background. Sure, they are occasions when a more stylistic vocal is required, but this is pretty rare.

Blending is one of those essential skills, learned through experience & a backing singer will be required to match tone, phrasing, intonation and blend effortlessly with the lead singer.

Most of my own work has been as a lead singer, performing my own lead and harmony vocals for a variety of projects, from video games, to commercial jingles, to demoing songs for named artistes and occasionally for release. From time to time I am also hired as a background singer, performing backing vocals for tours and studio sessions.

Much of the recording I do is on overseas projects and I am able to do this from my own recording studio. Producers like to have the choice of whether you will record for them in their studios or your own. If you are recording in their own studios, the standard varies enormously – I have sung in multi million pound studios, in converted attics & on one memorable occasion, in a guys bedroom, with the mic gaffa taped to the side of his bunk bed!

When asked what you need to be successful in the session world, first and foremost, you need talent & the confidence to know, that you really CAN deliver the goods. Many singers come to me for assessments, with the belief they can make it as a session singer, because they are good singers. Most will have never stepped foot in a studio & when asked to locate a simple harmony, they can't find it. They may have range issues or technical issues, more often than not, they can't think on their feet They flap you can't flap in a studio…You just need to deliver, every time & when producers & song writers are paying for your time, they expect perfect delivery (often anticipating their needs) FIRST time.

Being a good singer just isn't enough you need to develop skills and nuances, the ability to ad lib on the spot, sing in virtually any key, harmonise and improvise endlessly you need to be able to do everything that is asked of you vocally and without too much thought and often preparation. Your skills are honed to perfection and vocally you must be in complete control of your instrument. You will have wonderful, natural instincts and the ability to take a song and craft it, in just the way the writer or producer has imagined it. Of course, vocally you need to be very healthy. You need to be a vocal athlete & able to sing without fatigue for many hours at a time.

While a lot of it is about your talent not just your voice, but your sense of musicality, it is also about your personality. A session singer needs to be the consummate professional, the quiet man, the humble man (or woman) studios notoriously record late into the night & often you are often working alone or with just a producer it can be a very lonely job, with very long hours (it is not uncommon for me to sing for 8hrs straight) and the relationships you form with the people in the control room are extremely important. When there is serious work to be done and time is money, they need positive, dependable, professional singers to come in and discreetly do their job. It is nice to be important, but it is much more important to be nice. What I'm saying is there is no place for egos.

There is so much more I could write, but just before I go, I want to say, if you really think you have what it takes, you are the real deal, then totally go for it why live an ordinary life, when you can live an extraordinary one ;)

Sally Rivers


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