Updated: Aug 17, 2022
If it hasn't already happened, there will undoubtedly come a time as a violin/fiddle player where you'll find yourself playing alongside a singer. This could be in a jam session, a casual setting with friends and fellow musicians, or even a live performance. Over the course of my career as a performing musician, nine out of every ten times I've performed live, it has been backing up a singer either in a band or as a duo. In these situations, it's important to keep a few things in mind so that you can do your best in this important accompanist role.
Here are my four tips for playing with singers:
Know the songs ahead of time, if possible. If you are going into a rehearsal for a performance, make sure you are showing up prepared. If you've been given charts ahead of time, learn them. Otherwise, if you haven't been given specific parts, listen to the songs you will be covering in the rehearsal to familiarize yourself with them, and practice playing along with the recordings to create your own parts. If you are entering a more casual jam situation, it's unlikely you will be given charts or even the names of the songs ahead of time. However, see if you can talk to someone who regularly attends the jam session you are interested in, and find out what tunes they typically cover. If this is not a possibility, at least know the type of jam session you are entering into (Bluegrass, Old Time, Traditional Irish, etc.), that way you can familiarize yourself with the more common types of tunes within that style, and thus feel more comfortable when playing melody and backing up whoever is singing on the songs that have lyrics.
Pay attention to the singer's style. If it's your first time playing with a certain singer, be sure to listen to their style, both genre-wise and dynamic-wise. What types of songs do they sing? Do they tend to sing on the quiet side, or louder side? Paying attention to these things can really help you know what to play alongside them, and how to play it. Additionally, paying attention to the type of song is crucial for effectively adding your part as an instrumentalist. For example, if the lead singer is singing a ballad about a lost love, it probably isn't the best time to pull out your fast and fiery fiddle solo. Likewise, if the song is more on the upbeat side, you wouldn't want to only play long drones, as it wouldn't match the lively rhythm of the song. So, use your ear and intuition.
Find out how you can best compliment what they are doing. Possibly one of the most important components of playing with a singer is complimenting what they are singing. After all, that's what you're there for! The beauty of music is that each instrument, including the voice, has its own role and purpose within a song. As a fiddle player, the best thing you can do is to listen to the singer and match their timing and style. Some examples of things you could do when playing alongside a singer are to find out the key and play sustained notes, play chords - either sustained or rhythmic, and echoing the melody line at the ends of phrases, otherwise known as "fills". Also, don't feel the need to play constantly. In fact, it's better if you don't. If you've ever seen a live performance with a violinist/fiddle player in the band, you'll notice they are likely not playing continuously throughout the entire song. They are most likely dropping out occasionally when they are not needed, then coming back in when they are. Complimenting a singer includes knowing when to create space, and taking brief breaks at key moments creates a more powerful entrance when you do come back in.
Make sure you're supporting, not overpowering. Since the violin is similar in range and tonal quality to the human voice, it can be easy to step on what the singer is singing if playing too loudly. It's helpful to think of staying at a volume that is slightly lower than that of the singer, so as not to compete with or overpower them. That being said, you also don't want to play too quietly! The violin has a tendency to get drowned out, especially if louder electric instruments are present, and I have experienced this myself as well. In these cases, play loudly and powerfully when the song permits. In addition to volume level, ensure you are not playing too many notes at inappropriate times. Save the solos for breaks in the song where the singer cues you to take the lead.
So, those were my tips for playing with singers. I hope you are able to utilize these the next time you find yourself in a situation that calls for it. Now, go check out my video on this topic!