What about vocal accompaniment? Singing along in choruses is conventional. But do you join the lead singer on the verses? This is where we really move into opinion territory. Here’s mine, for what it’s worth, but do feel free to chime in and disagree (in the Comments section please, not Facebook).
If everyone knows the words of the verses and everyone’s singing along, great – that’s a singalong. But if you’re the only other person who knows the verses, I’d like to suggest you DON’T sing them. Leave them to the song leader. This is a contentious piece of advice, but it’s based on long consideration and experience, and here’s my reasoning:
- You may think you know the ‘correct’ version of the words. But for the next three minutes or so, the song leader’s version is ‘correct’. They might know a different version from you, or use slightly different timing. They may get a few words mixed up today, or forget a verse and need to come back to it – all of which will go more smoothly if they’re the only one making adjustments on the fly. You may be good at listening closely and adapting as you go along, but even singing a phrase here and there that’s different from the leader’s runs the risk of throwing them off. The most experienced singer can still have their confidence shaken mid-song by hearing someone else singing different words.
- Similarly, the song leader directs the arrangement – when to put in a chorus, when to slow down or speed up, when to stop suddenly for effect, when to throw in a lead break and which instrument to invite to take it. A session is a collective performer like a band or choir; the song leader in the role of conductor or choir-leader helps the group perform the song with clear and satisfying dynamics. Two ‘lead singers’ on one song can confuse the accompanying musicians – they don’t know who to look to for cues, to know when things are changing.
- Several times, I’ve seen a song leader stop for an instrumental break, and the second singer – mistakenly thinking the song leader had forgotten the words – has taken over and led the rest of the song. This has left the original leader feeling hurt, furious, insulted or exasperatedly amused, depending on their personality and prior relationship with the second singer. Sometimes the song leader does forget the words, and it’s nice if you’re ready to prompt or support them – but take your cue from them regarding what help is welcome, and be prepared to back out once they’ve picked up the thread again. It can be a good idea to debrief afterwards and check they’re okay with whatever you did.
- A song leader has the spotlight or attention for the duration of ‘their’ song. They’re the ones putting the emotion and expression into the song, connecting with the listeners, getting the song’s message across. If you sing along with them – especially at the same volume or louder – their performance may be diluted, the focus dispersed and the energetic connection lost between singer and listeners. The feeling in the room might be that you’re trying to ‘muscle in’ and steal their thunder – it might even seem like you’re trying to show them up with your superior performance. That’s probably not at all what you intend, but it can feel that way to listeners, other sessioners, and the song leader themselves. There’s a real vulnerability when someone puts themselves out there by singing – the rest of us have a social and artistic duty to help the song leader feel supported and encouraged, not undermined or threatened. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to happen when everyone’s singing along, or even if there are two extra voices. One extra voice creates a strange tension – sometimes it works, but more often it doesn’t.
- Some voices sound good together and some don’t – it’s a law of physics. In a group, everyone sounds good, but when there are just two voices, it’s very noticeable whether or not their acoustic qualities work together. There are a couple of older blokes in the folk scene who I never sing along with because our voices just aren’t compatible – my singing takes away from theirs. In these cases, less is definitely more.
Said it’s not a rule. So when might you sing along on the verses, even though you it’s just you and the song leader?
- Shy or inexperienced singers, those with soft voices, or those who have trouble finding the tune and/or timing, may have their confidence boosted by the support of one other voice. If you establish yourself as someone’s ‘support voice’, check in with them now and then over time to make sure they still need and welcome that support. They may be ready to go it alone, but don’t know how to ask you to butt out.
- One of my friends consistently has trouble finding the tune on just two songs in her extensive repertoire. Both are songs where the accompanying chords can easily lead you astray, tempting you into singing the baseline or a harmony line instead of the melody. If I sing along without playing, between us we can get the tune going strongly, so that’s what we do. Similarly, I have one song for which I can never find the start note – the opening chord is deceptive. I’m grateful when someone else finds it for me, and I don’t mind whether they then drop out or keep singing along with the verses.
- Sometimes a friend and I will learn a new song together, and we’ll sing in unison while the sessioners become familiar with the song. Once the new song’s had a few outings and people are getting comfortable with it, one of us will take over as song leader and the other will sing a harmony.
- On occasion, a song leader may be a little under the weather and inclined to forget the words and/or get stuck in a loop, singing the same verse over and over. Depends on the person, but someone who’s a bit bogged down in the marsh may be grateful for the ‘guiding light’ of another voice to help them move forward and come out the other side.
- Maybe your two voices sound great together, and the song leader is keen for you to sing along with the verses, in unison or harmony or something else (toning, for example, can sound lovely on the right song). In that case, go for it!
As a general principle, we strive to enhance other people’s enjoyment of the session experience. In improvisational theatre, this is called ‘playing to make the other players look good’. Taking this approach helps us look, sound and feel good ourselves. So if you’re in doubt about whether or not to accompany someone with your voice or your instrument, check in with them (non-verbally during the song, verbally afterwards) and find out what works for them. Hopefully, next session will be even more awesome 🙂