Backing Tracks and Live Performance

I am not that keen on backing tracks unless they are only used for rehearsal purposes. A friend of mine said that at his son’s school they use backing tracks for public performance. Normally, on a CD there will be a vocal backing track and a track without vocals. The idea is that you will use the vocals for rehearsals and the backing for a public performance. However, my friend said that his school used the vocal track for their performance. So what the audience heard was not even only their own children singing!  The excuse given is so the children sing more confidently as the vocal track will help support them. However, if the children never hear themselves singing as a group without support, they will not know how to take responsibility for their own performance. Too much support results in poor performance and poor learning outcomes.

So what are the alternatives?  First, accompany children with live music. Most people think that this has to be done on a piano. It doesn’t – in many ways a guitar is a better instrument to accompany children as you support them with chords. If you use a piano you are tempted to play the tune in the right hand. This gives the children too much support of the melody. If you accompany on a guitar then the onus is on the children to sing the melody properly. If you accompany on a piano it is good to miss bits out so you only hear the children singing. Like many things in life, less is more.

If you are going to be a little more ambitious and use drums or congas in your accompaniment then you really need a bass guitar as well. If you have a good pianist you can get them to play the bass or even split a keyboard so the top half is piano and the bottom half is a bass guitar sound. You do need the bass if you are going to go for a full live instrumental accompaniment otherwise the sound will just be too top heavy.

If you listen to any recorded music on a CD or MP3 and pick out the most prominent parts you will find they invariably feature in this order:

  1. Lead vocals
  2. Bass
  3. Backing vocals
  4. Drums
  5. Guitar
  6. Keyboards

In school performances when live music is featured, invariably the teacher in charge of the mixer (who normally knows next to nothing about sound) boosts the sound of the piano as they think it is the most important instrument. The resulting mix will inevitably sound groundless. If you are playing in a largish hall you need to have the bass at a much higher level to effectively ground the performance.  Also, if children cannot hear the bass they find it harder to sing the melody. So either use only piano, only guitar or if you are going for a full accompaniment with percussion – piano/guitar, drums and bass. I would also suggest that if you are going to rehearse with full band you also invite the person mixing the music to rehearsals too.

Most schools do not have these luxuries though and have either one accompanist or none. If you do not have an accompanist I suggest you advertise or ask your local High School if they have anyone on staff, or a talented pupil who can accompany your children. My music teacher started his career as a 15 year old organist for a local church choir; if he had not had that experience he probably would not have got the organ scholarship at Durham Cathedral when he went to Durham University. The experience he gained from accompanying the choir was priceless. Rather than using backing tracks, we should be spending a little time looking around our communities to see if we can support young musicians. For a musical I once wrote, I enlisted some parents to play guitars, flutes, bass and drums. It worked out well and some parents who had not played for many years got back into playing music as a result. If your school has no accompanist, send a letter out to your parents. You’ll never know what hidden talents are out there if you don’t ask.

If you really must use backing tracks for public performance, please stop using YouTube. When people download these tracks they come out very low quality. There is a great website called karaoke-version where you can make custom backing tracks of songs that do not lose the sound quality. There is a huge library of them too. The beauty of this site is you can change the key of songs to fit your voices. Often when backing tracks are used, the songs are a tone and half too high for the children if it features a male soloist. The music industry of today generally favours high tenors and Adele-like altos belting out tunes in chest voice so it is quite difficult to find music in an optimal key for primary school children to sing properly in their head voices. If you get children to belt everything out in chest voice you can actually do some vocal damage and it is not good for initial singing technique.

There is a role for backing tracks but more and more I am seeing professional music teachers using these tracks when they could be accompanying using an instrument. I have heard the argument that you can focus more on the children if you are not playing and can put in actions for songs. Having the freedom to teach children well by using technology has merit, but in public performance it is always better to have live accompaniment. It sounds fresher, is more emotionally fulfilling and the children always sing much better. I believe that children need to understand that music does not come from a box or an iPod and it requires skill and practice. What better way to show this than to have live accompaniment.

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