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A Resource for the Aspiring Vocalist


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Roles and Duties for Vocalists

For those of you who are interested in pursuing a career which implements the joy of singing into work life, we have compiled some basic knowledge regarding the professional field. We understand this page as an inspiration of the different assignments vocalists can take, and as an overview of the expectations the professional environment demands from the singer. We also thought of giving some tips on how you can prepare yourself for entering into assignments, and where you can receive support for your career.

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^ The Roles of a Vocalist

To make a living as a vocalist is not always an easy task, especially since the field is highly competitive. We thought we collect a quick list of possible roles a vocalist could fill to inspire the search for opportunities for those, who would like to jump into the professional field.

Backing Vocalist

The backing vocalist provides vocal accompaniment for a lead singer live or in a recording. He or she oftentimes work with other backing singers, singing phrases, providing harmonies in a melodic context, or leading in to the main vocals. Sometimes a backing vocalist may get asked to arrange the harmonies of the track.

Session Singer

A session singer provides both, lead and backing vocals for a specified project on base of a contract. This can be per example a soundtrack (film/tv/games), a commercial (tv/radio/internet), an ident (radio), a demo song (for a composer/songwriter), a playback (for live use), or a part of an audio recording.

Replacement Vocalist

A replacement vocalist or deputizing singer is someone who acts as a substitute for another singer, either on contract or on "last minute" call. This could be in any setting, per example on events like weddings, in the theatre, or on stage, and sometimes even in the studio. Deputizing singers need to be able to perform as replacement without further rehearsal.

Tribute Singer

A tribute singer oftentimes impersonates a past or current artist by being able to replicate the singing style and behaviour very closely. Sometimes a tribute can also be the performance of an original song in the style of the act the tribute is for, or simply an interpretation thereof.

Lead Vocalist

The lead vocalist or lead singer is oftentimes the front man (or front woman) of a group or band, and acts as the most prominent voice in the performance. Lead vocalists oftentimes play instruments alongside their singing, and/or are able to entertain an audience with additional show components, such as per example dancing.

Solo Artist

A solo artist or soloist is basically a lead vocalist who performs as an individual, or under his or her individual identity. Since the branding evolves around the solo artist alone, any accompaniment in the studio or live can in theory be interchangeable.

^ Skills a Vocalist Should Have

We now have an idea of the different types of engagements a vocalist could fill in the professional world. While the different tasks may ask for slightly different abilities, there are a lot of things that are simply expected from the vocalist. What follows, is a list with abilities that we think are needed to succeed in the professional field, or at least are very useful to possess.

Though it is rarely a requirement, it can be of great benefit to get an education in the field of music as a base for entering the professional field. Depending on the field of study the education path will lead to a specific work profile, or will simply function as a knowledge base for the chosen career path. Find a list of educational institutes based in Canada on our linked resources list.

A singer should be

  • a good performer
  • a good entertainer
  • educated about microphone technique
  • able to write his or her own songs
  • able to market him- or herself
  • able to learn and perform new songs with only short rehearsal time
  • versatile in his or her ability to perform different music styles
  • flexible to make changes to style and performance by instruction
  • able to deliver what is expected during a recording session fast
  • able to be consistent in performance, per example when a retake is necessary
  • able to replicate a melody by ear
  • able to sight read
  • able to harmonize or blend with other singers
  • able to deliver different harmonies for the purpose of stacking them on top of each other
  • able to arrange harmony parts and backing vocals

^ Preparations for the Professional Field

To enter the professional field it is a good idea to come prepared. This means there are a few things you can work and improve upon at any given time, which in return will help to advance your career or may open new opportunities.

Prepare your voice

A professional singer may need to sing many hours a day for every day or night in the week. This is very different from an occasional performance on stage. The key to success here is to develop a correct singing technique that will not strain or damage your voice in any way. Imagine you've lost your voice in the middle of fulfilling a contract. Not cool. To achieve this the best option is professional instruction. You may begin as an autodidact and with a vocal program of your choice, but further down the road working with a professional vocal coach is of huge benefit.

Never stop learning and ask for constructive criticism

There is always something new to learn. Use your practice sessions to advance on your craft. Learn new singing techniques, sing new music styles, and add songs to your repertoire. Study other singers, but don't forget to develop your own style. Sometimes it's a good idea to get your singing reviewed by someone professional like other singers, musicians and agents, especially if you do not work with a vocal coach at times. You may also ask people you work with, or the person who rejected you at an audition. This will give you some feedback on mistakes and habits to work on.

Promote yourself and your services

On first contact with possible work you might be asked who you are and what you offer. It is for that reason that you need something that represents you. Today this is usually done with social media presence, a website with blog, and a newsletter service. You can use this same tools to make yourself known, build a followership or fanbase, and to bring attention to you as an artist. If you don't have a demo reel yet, you should at least present a video showing you performing your craft live, and maybe a selection of studio recordings featuring your voice. Your online presence also should include a biography, a headshot, and some live photos.

Prepare a demo reel

A demo reel is a presentation in audio or video format that showcases your abilities as a singer. There are many different types of how a demo reel can be put together, but we would recommend to have a 1-2 minute long demo with clips from your best work performing as a lead vocalist, even if you apply for other types of work. You should choose only the best performances which showcase your style of singing including an original work and cover songs. If you are capable then add other music styles you are able to offer. Also choose songs with different tempo, and make sure the demo gives an idea of your vocal range. You can then add on to the reel by offering several outstanding performances in full length.

Be prepared to answer a few questions during auditions

It is not uncommon during an audition that you will be asked who you are, where you come from, whom you worked with, what vocal range you have, among other questions.

Make contacts and collect live experience

Connect with local musicians and singers, and ask someone you trust to refer you per example to an agent. Connecting with agents might open doors at larger companies, and an agent you have successfully worked for might repeatedly book you. If you apply for advertised opportunities make sure to maintain contact on a personal level. While reaching out to the local network you could in addition use the opportunity to gain experience and confidence through participation at jam nights and open mics.

Get access to a studio

Having a home studio, or having access to a studio for the purpose of recording your voice can sometimes be of help. You could then deliver a work directly for a quick turnaround, or you could record a very specific musical idea as application for an opportunity. It surely is not the common way for all vocal work, but it may be helpful for some.

^ Receiving Support

Depending on where you stand in your artistic development, it is perhaps possible to gain support from one of the many organizations that actively help new artists with services, grants, funding, awards, international activities, and more. Don't be shy to reach out and review the requirements. It is to mention that the supporting landscape of organizations is different depending on where you reside.

In Canada we find many local and national programs and organizations that actively provide support. Find links to some of these organizations here:

Let's mention a few

Another possibility to gain help is through becoming a member at a union or association that represents the interests of singers. If you decide in favour of this option make sure to invest some time in research. Look at what these organizations have to offer, what they stand for, and make sure that you are comfortable with any ties such a membership could bring. Also consider if the organization of your choice is well represented in your city of residence.

We have prepared an overview containing important unions and associations for Canada and the United States here. However, we consider the following list as a start help for your own research with no claim to be exhaustive.


United States