Why Singing in Tune is an Important Skill for an Instrumentalist
Many of the world's best instrumentalists have something very important in common besides their masterful playing. Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Nat King Cole and Harry Connick Jr. all achieved fame as expressive singers on top of their primary instrumental talents, and it's easy to believe their vocal ability aided in their affecting musicianship. Conversely, their success as singers can also be partially attributed to their virtuosic instrumental skills.
Human speech is a great analogy for engaging instrumental solos. Both use pauses to articulate phrases and add emphasis while following natural patterns of pitch and tone. An uninteresting speech or instrumental solo is often missing structure, doesn't seem to go anywhere and makes the listener feel mystified.
Blues and jazz musicians have long accompanied with themselves using scat singing to help phrase their solos, such as the legendary guitarist George Benson. Singing along can also help beginners learn a new instrument; Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull taught himself guitar, tin whistle, mouth harp and flute using this technique, which he picked up from jazz flutist Roland Kirk.
"The reinforcement of my tentative flute tone by singing the note in unison gave me confidence and, ultimately, the bravery to trade phrases with the guitar and drums and to lay down the basis of the style which started to make an impact on our listeners," says Anderson.
Not only will it increase your confidence, but training your ear will vastly increase your faculty for identifying musical forms and pitches when you play. Singing is the easiest way to achieve a good ear and, luckily, everyone with a voice is a born singer. Toddlers are a testament to that.
Some people are more shy when it comes to singing than others, however, and whistling is a great first step. Legendary jazz harmonica and guitar master Toots Thielemans is a testament to this technique, and his melodious whistling and guitar combo on "Bluesette" is not only practical but also lovely in that it sounds like a duet.
Simply knowing the melody of a piece of music can be a big help, and singing along is an easy way to become familiar with the ins and outs of a composition. After you've done it enough, you'll find yourself following the melody in your head before you even get the notes past your lips. Your brain isn't limited in the same way your mouth is, and you'll soon be hearing multiple notes at once and even specific intonation. Your ability to play your instrument with accuracy will become simpler because you have been training your ear to pay closer attention to each pitch than it ever has before. This skill becomes more natural the more you use it; just hear the melody in your head, produce it by whistling, humming or singing it and play.
As you become more comfortable using it, your voice will likely become more confident-sounding and in tune, giving you a bonus instrument for performance. Even if that isn't your eventual goal, you will become a better performer from the simple fact that you now have an increased capacity for remembering notes, intervals and melodies.
If you're like many instrumentalists, your focus is on your instrument, not your ear, but ear training is an often overlooked but invaluable skill when it comes to improving your musicianship, as is a basic knowledge of music theory. When you're just starting out, try choosing familiar examples for memorizing intervals, such as the perfect fifth at the beginning of the Star Wars theme. After you have those down, try singing major scales and intervals in major scales before finally using your instrument to play them. It can sometimes help to physically reach up or down with your hands or visualize your instrument playing the note in your mind. Try a variety of approaches until you find what works for you. Always remember to keep yourself on track by occasionally checking your pitch.
When you really dissect a melody, you'll begin to see how many phrases repeat in a melody and can even be heard in other melodies, so you can use the skills you've already learned to help with a completely unrelated piece.
Spend the time to train your ear, and you will reap the rewards. A few additional benefits of a well-trained ear include:
- Quicker learning of new pieces
- Greater retention of more compositions
- Better memory of melodies
- Increased improvisational ability
- Freedom to concentrate on expression
The initially daunting task of beginning an ear training regime is well worth the time and energy. This priceless skill set will soon become second nature and make you an overall better musician.
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