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Session Singing in Hollywood!

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Suzanne Waters: Successful!

Suzanne Waters, one of our book buyers, only just recently did her first big film scoring session here in Los Angeles. Elin took a few minutes to ask her some questions about her experience to share with all of you.

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SSH: Suzanne, how long have you been here in L.A., and how long have you been pursuing a career as a session
singer?

Suzanne: In college I majored in graphic design after listening to people who told me I’d better study something I could get a job doing right out of school. Before I knew it, I’d been in LA nearly ten years feeling trapped in a full-time graphic design job when I really wanted to be singing. I managed to get a few very lucky sessions/gigs over the years, but I didn’t know how to make the gigs more regular. Late last year I was laid off and it was like a wake-up call–life is too short to spend it doing something I never really wanted to do in the first place. I started doing a ton of research, and I found your book! It gave me a place to start and immediately helped me establish realistic and attainable goals. I still have a long way to go, still work other freelance gigs, but I’ve been able to accomplish so much in the past few months just by devoting the majority of my time and effort towards a career I really want.

SSH: What’s your background as a singer?

Suzanne: I was surrounded with classical music as a child and grew up in a very musical family. I think singing started to take shape for me at my father’s music school where I was taking solfège classes to supplement my piano lessons with him. I studied voice more specifically in high school, doing a few musicals and singing in competitive choirs. In college I minored in music, focusing on opera and performance. Once I graduated, I kept performing and singing in musicals, weddings, family reunions, church services… wherever I could. Finally more recently I was able to get my feet wet in the entertainment industry, a few highlights being singing vocals for a 2-time Academy Award winning composer and performing live for a Paramount Pictures press event in Seoul, Korea.

SSH: How did you get the gig? Did you have to audition?

Suzanne: There really was no was no formal audition. I think it was more a product of meeting and being heard by as many people as possible. I started by going to events where I could network with members of the singing community, and gradually formed new relationships with successful singers. Many of these singers and musicians were willing to share valuable advice and feedback, which helped me better understand the industry and how a new singer can actually break in. One piece of advice I heard was to make sure I stay on top of my game and be ready for that big opportunity when it comes. I started taking sight singing classes and studying privately again. I did well at auditions and call-backs, invited people to hear me sing live, recorded new tracks for my demo, and added every new accomplishment to my resume. When there was news to report, I made sure to keep all my new contacts updated. After much patient persistence and fortunate timing, a contractor was able to give me a chance!

SSH: What was the most surprising thing about the session?

Suzanne: I knew I was going to be singing with an amazing group of singers, but I was blown away by everyone’s skills. So many first takes were the only takes, and I couldn’t believe how fast we moved through all the queues. It was like being part of a well-oiled machine! I was so excited to have a part in creating the sound.

SSH: Do you have any words of wisdom for others who would like to pursue this line of work?

Suzanne: I’m definitely no expert and I still have tons to learn, but I would say my first big opportunity came because I shifted my focus to accomplishing goals for myself as a singer. I re-assessed a lot of things… What was my website doing for me lately? What are my strengths as a vocalist that would make me valuable as a session singer? Is my demo on par with other frequently working session singers’ demos? Who do I want to make a point of meeting, and who do I know that could vouch for me? Once you decide what you want, don’t waste time like I did keeping it on the back burner! And this is advice I’m merely echoing from the awesome people I’ve been meeting, but I think it’s really important: don’t just be talented. Be respectful, be excited, and be passionate!

Session Singing: Background and Experience

Elin Carlson discusses her education and experiences that helped her become a successful session singer in Hollywood.

Have you bought our book yet? Gotten the free chapter? Information is on the Buy the Book tab!

We now have some recommended products for you to check out – books, programs on goal-setting and organization, a link to our e-mail marketing program that we love – it’s all on the “Also Recommended” page.

Finally, we found this GREAT blog post on session singing. It’s chock-full of great advice and information on this career path, and is an excellent supplement to the information we are providing here and in our book:
Gary Powell (composer/producer) Blog Post

If you know of any blogs about studio work or the film music industry, let us know! We’ll add them to our blog roll, too.

Being the Contractor

When you do get to the level of being a contractor it is for these reasons.

• You have proven yourself as a strong, effective singer in the industry
• You have proven yourself as being responsible
• You know the singing community
• Your employers know they can trust you to get what they need

Maybe the last item should be first, but actually the first three lead to the last.

As a contractor you are casting the session. The composer, producer, company or other person requesting your services has told you what they want. Now comes the challenge: correctly choosing the personnel. It’s a challenge because it is the desire of every contractor to be happy to give jobs especially to those who have been supportive and friends. But that’s not always the case and the needs of the employer are the paramount concern.

In the Off Camera world it simply comes down to who has the sound needed to produce the desired result. For On Camera jobs it becomes more challenging because you have to find the look as well as the voice. These are not always a match. In my last contracting job I had to get 20 singers with 6 criterion that covered the gamut from teen to 50s, hispanic, black, anglo, asian, “sounds like”, a certain look and those designations in all voice parts. Once you know the community you can meet all the needed criterion for any job. That takes time so don’t expect it to happen in your first year of singing. But eventually it can!

Types of Vocal Combinations for Studio Sessions

Most session work is done under union contracts through Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG) or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), and singers are paid a scale according to the size of singing group. Usually a singer knows before they enter the studio if they are singing alone or in combination with other singers, but in the studio, things can change, and one must be able to quickly adapt to whatever scenario is presented. However, here are the basic delineations for group sizes.

Solo

This is self-explanatory. You would be called because your sound, style and training have made you optimal for what the composer wants to hear. Some session singers only perform solo, but most soloists learn to also perform as a group singer. They make themselves more versatile and learn to blend with the voices surrounding them.

Duo

A duo can be made up of two people who regularly sing together, or can be a combination of similar or dissimilar voices. It all depends on what the composer wants.
The voices are chosen for their ability to blend, or maybe for their complimentary yet non-blending style. For example male and female; or one voice gruff and the other sweet. The main thing to recognize is that as a duo the two people are called upon to create in duet form a specific ‘personality’ for the song or cue. Most of the time duos are recorded together but again, one must be prepared for anything in the studio. Although a duet, there may be times when one voice would be recorded separately, and then the second voice would work with that performance at a different time in the same session.

Group (3-8) and Group (9+)

The next level recognized by the union code of both AFTRA and SAG is group singing- any group of singers from 3 to as many as 80. The two group designations are 3 to 8, and 9 plus. Trios, quartets, and quintets fall into the 3 to 8 category, but most often after DUO the groups become ensemble singers of 9 or more. This is usually choral, and can cover styles from gospel, to chant, or classical, to jazz choir or any ethnic style imaginable.

Versatility in the Studio

Do you also play an instrument? Can you arrange vocal charts? Do you conduct? A session singer increases his or her value significantly when they can do something that others cannot. Being able to help in figuring out problem issues or stepping in to help in a way no one else can might be of great benefit to your career. Sometimes simply being able and willing to plunk out the notes on the piano will garner you great respect. However, this is something that should not be pushed upon any contractor, conductor or composer, but rather be something you step up to do when asked. You don’t need to save the day; just be there to help the whole.

Session Singing: You Just Never Know

byline: John West

This is a fascinating world and one never knows who one will meet or how.

At one point a friend of mine was called to sing a solo at as studio for a film with a very famous actor as star and producer. She asked me to go with her for support and because she was not very comfortable just going to a studio session with all men.

We walked into 20th Century Fox studios and there he was. Let’s just say, most women swoon when they hear his name. He was more famous in the 60s and 70s but still looked quite handsome and fit in the 90s.

While she was in the room recording, the actor and producer of the film came over to me and said “John; I would like her to really get some gutsy passion out of her improvisation. Do you think she would mind singing ‘F_____’ a few times as she is riffing? You know, just throw it in here and there”. I smiled knowing that my friend was a pretty staunch religious woman and said “You know, she goes to church regularly and sings in the choir. I don’t think it is the kind of thing she would be comfortable doing”. And like most really big stars I have met, he simply said “OK, I understand. Just thought I would ask”, and the session proceeded beautifully and without a hitch. I did not even mention it to my friend until a couple of days later. She laughed!

And for your info, the actor was Warren Beatty.

Taking Stock of Your Career Path

First of all, we would like to thank all of you who have purchased our book, and hope it’s continuing to help you in your career! If you haven’t taken advantage of your free 15 minute consultation with us, don’t delay. Contact us anytime and we’ll be happy to talk with you about how you are doing. No matter where you are on your career path, a conversation with a mentor (or two!) is the best thing you can do to speed things up!

Be sure to set aside time every so often to review your progress, analyze your finances, see what’s working and what needs improvement in your singing life and business. It’s all too easy to float along in life. Keep your vision for your future clear, and steer as best you can toward your goals.

We’ve designed this blog to provide about a year or so of weekly tips and information on session singing in Hollywood, so you’ll see certain topics repeated. These topics bear repeating, and are some of the fundamental keys to success. We will also continue to intersperse new stories and topics.

Please feel free to ask us to write on any related aspect of the music business you have questions about, and let us know on which subjects you’d like more clarity. We would love to write about what you would most want to read about!

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