Friday, October 30, 2009

Singing and Playing at the same time

Singing and playing an instrument at the same time presents some unique challenges. I am currently working on playing Scruggs style banjo while singing. It's sort of like juggling and tight rope walking at the same time. The whole thing can quickly fall apart. I've played guitar and sang for years, but I try not to take it for granted that I actually know what I'm doing. When I record myself I find I often don't.

Rhythm is a delicate thing. It's a topic that should be studied with great care on its own. It deserves more time in the spotlight. I've devoted a little time to rhythm guitar in an old post:

The study of rhythm is a great thing to do. Take some lessons with a drummer or percussionist. Listen to lots of different music and try to get a handle on what's going on with the rhythm.

So now you've studied rhythm and want to sing and play your instrument of choice at the same time...Now what?

  • Learn each element separately
Get your rhythm down APART from your singing. If you play guitar you shouldn't have to think to much about your hands while you're singing. Then practice your singing apart from playing. Make sure you know what you're going to sing. Get each and every note down. Then you'll be ready to put them together.

  • Put them together SLOWLY
Once again the answer to most mistakes. Go slow! Make sure you're getting a seamless flow of rhythm and singing by playing at 1/2 speed or slower. You'll be surprised at the mistakes you notice and your sensitivity towards fixing them. If you hit a snag, fix it right there. Maybe you need to just play through a part real slow over and over, gaining a sensitivity to how best connect the two elements.

Right now I'm working on singing and playing banjo at the same time. I know the singing part but I'm having trouble pairing it with the picking. I'm finding that if I put the metronome on slow and work through the parts very slowly,] I can smooth it out with not too much trouble.
Bring the tempo up slow and with ease and eventually it'll be up to the tempo you want.

  • Record yourself
This is the hardest pill to take for a lot of folks but arguably the most helpful. You won't find a faster way to see how you're doing. The recording will not lie. However, I need to state right here and now that friends and relatives are NOT a reliable source for feedback. Finding an honest voice for feedback is a rare and difficult thing. With a potentially fragile ego at stake most people will say nice things and not really speak the truth. I'm sure there are plenty of folks who can't or won't want to hear the truth. Fair enough. But, if you want to improve you need to look at your weaknesses and go after those. Recording yourself will tell you that. And hey, it'll tell you what's going right as well. Nice work.

  • Be open to change/Less could be more or maybe not...
I've often found that I would get stuck playing something one particular way for a long time and then when I recorded it I found that it didn't work. Sometimes less is more - especially when it comes to singing and playing. The vocal is usually the most important element, so maybe simplifying your instrument part is the answer. The opposite could be true though. Maybe you need a little strum here or a nice lick after a vocal line. Experiment and be open to change. What does the song need?

The challenge of singing while playing is a fine art. It offers limitless opportunity for musical creativity. Get good at your instrument. Get good at singing. Listen to the great ones. How did they do it? Steal from them, eventually you'll find your own style through the process.

Hope it helps.

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