What do Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Nat King Cole, and Harry Connick, Jr., have in common? Among other things, every one of these artists achieved fame as both virtuosic instrumentalists and expressive singers. It isn't much of a stretch to believe that their ability to sing movingly helped them play their instruments more expressively as well. The opposite is also true: their ability to perform at the highest levels of musicianship contributed to their success as singers.
Good instrumental soloing can be viewed as very much like "speech inflected": the use of phrases and the alteration of pitch and tone that resemble the way people speak. Natural speech (and an engaging instrumental solo) contains pauses for emphasis, and statements that build upon one another while bringing the audience along with a sense of involvement and interest. A poorly executed solo (or speech) usually lacks development and shape, leaves the listener confused or disinterested, and appears to have little thought or structure to hold it together.
Guitar great George Benson is typically heard scat singing along with his solos—and he's just following a time-honored tradition in blues and jazz. The singing helps him create meaningful musical phrasing. Singing can also help you to learn your instrument.
Take the example of Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, who learned to play the flute by singing along. Anderson, who picked up this sing-along idea from jazz flutist Roland Kirk, had earlier learned to play guitar by singing along and then went on to master the tin whistle and mouth harp in the same way before attempting the flute.
Anderson says, "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." The good news is that your ability to discern accurate pitch and musical forms in your playing will increase enormously with ear training, and singing is your golden road to a better ear. Whether you believe it or not, you are already a natural singer. After all, your voice was probably your first instrument.
However, if you lack confidence in your ability to sing, consider jazz harmonica and guitar great Toots Thielemans and try whistling your tunes—as he often did—as you develop your instrumental mastery. A great example of Thielemans using this technique is in his bird-like rendition of "Bluesette" with The Boston Pops, which is available on the Internet. If you close your eyes to this version of Thielemans' playing his guitar while whistling, the performance sounds like a duet.
Singing along also helps you to know what you are playing, which also helps you to play it. Mentally knowing where you are going musically helps enormously in getting there—in this case to the next note and then to the next phrase and the next line.
With practice, very soon you'll notice that even before you sing or whistle along, you'll be hearing the melody in your head, which will also help your playing. You'll also be hearing and reproducing intervals and intonation. Your playing accuracy will increase dramatically and you'll find that playing your instrument becomes easier. What you are developing is your ability to hear, recognize, sing, and play pitches accurately.
For brass instrumentalists, a handy mantra for this technique is: "Sing, buzz, play." But whatever your musical instrument, you can imagine the melody, sing, whistle or hum it and then play it. Even if you don't think highly of your singing, you are free to sing when no one is around. In your head - where you have unlimited range - you can be a virtuoso. You will be transforming musical ideas into music, and the process will become more automatic the more you practice.
As you proceed, you might discover that your voice develops quite nicely, and you now have an additional skill to offer to your group, if you are a band member or are considering being one. Another bonus is that you will gain greater ability to memorize intervals, notes, melody, and phrasing - certainly a benefit to any performer.
Like a lot of us, you may have overlooked ear training until now. But even a little bit of ear training goes a long way toward making you a better musician. A little knowledge of music theory can also be very helpful as you start, as can choosing familiar examples when you begin. (For example, the old 3-note theme for NBC begins with a major sixth. "Here Comes the Bride" starts with a perfect fourth, and the theme from Star Wars opens with a perfect fifth.) For additional exercises, move on to singing major scales, then sing intervals in major scales, then play them on your instrument, and while you are doing that, remember to check your voice's pitch from time to time.
Bring all your senses into your singing. When you sing a high note, reach up for it with your hand or reach down for a low note. Visualize the notes on your instrument - see them in your mind as you sing them.
Don't be discouraged. Break musical pieces into phrases and as you sing them you'll notice that many of them repeat and can be found in other music. You'll soon be able to apply what you've learned from one tune to another. The more music that you learn this way, the easier it gets.
Here are a few more benefits of training your ear through singing:
Admittedly learning to train your ear by singing can be difficult when you are beginning. It can also feel intimidating and perplex you at times - but don't give up and you'll get it.