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Following the Singer: A Guide to Dealing with Rhythmically Challenged Vocalists

Singer

Q: What do you recommend when you’re tasked with accompanying a seriously rhythm-challenged vocalist?

I was both music director and bassist for a recent musical review, with our band backing up a variety of vocalists. Two talented singers passed the audition with their carefully prepared selections, but with new show music, we discovered some serious rhythm challenges.

Personnel changes were not an option, and it became obvious we had to follow the singers, no matter what. During and in between our compressed rehearsals, our vocal coach was working his end while the drummer and I developed a mind meld on when to lag or push to match the singer.

The rest of the band (four others plus backup vocals) synched up quickly most of the time. We received kudos after the performances and I’d like know how to make this even less apparent to the audience.

A: This can be a tough one, as you’ve found out. The reality is that in the end, it’s our job to make the singer sound good and provide a solid foundation underneath of what is happening up top (the vocals, being the focus of everyone’s attention and the shiny wrapper on the package that you are responsible for producing). Sounds like you’re already there.

I’m never shy about making suggestions to people in the band because, in the end, it should be a group effort and everyone’s efforts should be towards the same end; to make the tune sound as good as possible. I always start with politely stating what I’m hearing and feeling with the music and suggesting that we try it “this way, just to hear how it sounds” or suggesting that someone sit somewhere specific within the context of what the rhythm section is doing.

If the singer (or musician of any kind) just can’t control themselves within the context of the band, and you can’t replace them, you are left with little control. All you really can do at that point is try to grab their hand and lead them one way or another and, if they’re oblivious to your time, you just have to follow them.

The only alternative is to stand your ground and let them go ahead and wind up a half (or full) beat off from the group, which can be dangerous. It’ll definitely sound wrong and can lead to a train wreck.

It’s really a judgement call that only you guys can make, but I would suggest talking over the game plan with the rest of the band so everyone else is on the same page. Sometimes a ballad which ends at a mid-tempo is better than holding your ground to make a point and ruining the entire song or performance. Either way, it’s going to hurt a little for one reason or another.

Readers, what is your approach to this issue? Tell us about it in the comments.

Photo by Jeroen van de Sande

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