Sing & Hum your way to better music

Connecting the Voice with your Musical instrument

After over 25 years of playing music I’m 100% convinced that the thing lacking from a lot of peoples musical training is the art of singing and vocalizing what they are playing.  At one time most kids had experience singing, either in school, a particular religious affiliation or elsewhere.

Many people choose not to sing because they have a “bad voice.”  Well, I’m hear to tell you don’t sing in front of other people :P.  No I’m just kidding, well kind of.  Just because you don’t have the ability to be a great singer or aren’t interest in it, don’t let that stop you from doing it in the confines of your own home.  To not spend time vocalizing is actually to the detriment of your music, even if you are an instrumental performer.

If a person is playing mechanically, without dynamics or not “playing the words”, it’s most likely because somewhere in their internal ear is a disconnection. They do not hear the effects internally that they are trying to create externally.

They don’t hear the music properly, most likely, the way they would sing it represents how they would play it.  I’ve had students sing something for me and it was monotone and that was how they were playing, every note the same volume.  They were not enunciating, accenting or speaking with clarity the words.  I advise that this people need to spend time humming the melody away from the instruments, which requires lots of listening.  In some cases tapping out the rhythm away from the instrument is beneficial.  Working on your phrasing and dynamics with your voice can aid your learning those things with an instrument.

Singing connects you to the music in a way that playing an instrument can’t.  You feel it resonate inside you, it becomes a part of you as much as it can.  I believe it creates a longer laster impression and memory of the melody.  It imprints you with that music.  The melody becomes something besides a bunch of finger motions on a fingerboard.

My story: Years ago in what I call my “second attempt” to learn how to play jazz I was at a bit of a crossroads as I found myself getting lost in the forms, chords, etc.  I started asking myself, how did I learn bluegrass to the point I could simply play it by ear.  What was I doing different?

In my bluegrass training I worked A LOT on vocal tunes and I could either sing or hum most things I could play on the banjo.  It was in my internal memory and not only my hands.  So I began treating my jazz training in the same way, I would get the lyrics sheet to all of the standards. I would learn to sing or at least hum one verse of them.  I would then have this running through my mind as I was playing, using that melody to keep my place in the songs.  How did I practice? I would strum the chords while singing the melodies.  In more extreme cases I would sing the melody while drumming out different beats to assure the song was completely secure pulse-wise.  This began to change my playing for the better.

Another example-I probably know somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand songs.  People sometimes ask me “How do you remember all of that?”  My answer is, I internally hear it and that aids me in finding it on my instrument.  Let’s take something like “Grandfather’s Clock”, the reason I can improvise for say ten minutes on that song is because it’s internally blasting in my head while playing it, even when not playing the melody it is still there running in the background.  I can sing it away from the instrument.

I explain by telling people, “If you wanted to learn Three Blind Mice on the guitar” would you really want/need the sheet music?  No, you would sit down, hum the tune and try to peck around until you found it on the fingerboard.  It works like that with more complicated pieces as your ear gets developed.  Until you develop a hand to ear connection that is accurate on the fly.

Most recently I began embarking on a journey to study classical, concert, and renaissance music.  Seeing as how I didn’t start piano until a year or so ago, I must say a great deal of it I cannot play. Much of it’s impossible to play on a guitar or stringed instrument.  So what do I do?  I play one part and sing the other.  At the moment I have a Ravel and a Beethoven piece I’m studying.  I play the bassline and I sing the melodies in solfege (in some cases humming suffices). Those melodies will probably stay with me my lifetime, much more so than if i had just sat down to play them at the piano, or guitar.  With Renaissance Counterpoint, I do the same.  I begin by singing one line and then try to play a line while singing another.  The Renaissance stuff is extremely difficult for me because I’m not much of a piano player :)….

One night last week, I took out the Ravel score and played the viola part with my left hand at the piano and sang the violin part.  It’s hard to put into words but I could sit there all day with that score analyze it and it would never lead to as much as I get out of singing it.  A three fold approach is probably best 1)Read the parts (vision) 2)Play the parts (tactile memory) 3)Sing/vocalize the parts.  After this done, you will have left a serious musical mark on yourself.  It cannot be quantified but it will come through your music, that is for sure.

Too many people take up an instrument and spend years practicing it not understanding why their playing doesn’t sound like what’s on the recordings.  Without a teacher it’s entirely possibly that your playing is mechanical because that’s how you are hearing your music.   What can you do to solve the problem? It doesn’t involve an instrument.

It’s possible the best thing you could do for your playing is to put the instrument down and sing a bit, tap out some rhythms.  Get the music into your being through singing and experiencing it with your own body.  Don’t worry so much about “pitch”, worry more about how are you phrasing and accenting the melody, does it have life to it?

Jody Written by:

Professional Musician of 27 years. I've played Banjo and Acoustic Guitar on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry, and The Ryman Auditorium. I've also played in six different countries.