On Singing While Playing
reprinted with permission from Acoustic Musician Magazine
Here are some tips for singers who also play an instrument. For information on improving your live singing performances while singing and playing please check out my new e-book Singing Live: The Performing Skills Guidebook for Contemporary Singers.
Deep down, have you ever been a little peeved at artists like Shawn Colvin and Vince Gill? You know, those folks who make it seem so easy to sing expressively while their hands are simultaneously rocketing over the fretboard? Most of us mortals know that it takes takes a huge amount of practice and concentration just to play proficiently, let alone trying to sing as well. As a voice coach and performer I've dealt with the problems inherent in singing while playing for many years, and I'd like to share a few tips on what works for most musicians. I'll primarily be addressing players who are fairly comfortable with their instruments and want to add some singing technique to the mix. But anyone who sings and plays an instrument may find some helpful hints here.
When players come to me for singing advice, the first thing I do is wrestle their instrument from them and hide it. This leaves them bereft and cranky, but they can now focus on probably the most important aspect of singing: breathing. To hit those high notes, to sustain them, and to last through a set or two, you need to take in a lot more air than usual. Plus, you need to control the exhalation, when the sound is actually produced.
There are two general schools of thought about correct breathing for singing: diaphragmatic and intercostal (think how you'll impress your friends with your new singing vocabulary!) Most teachers advocate one method or the other, but I think it's valuble to understand both.
In diaphragmatic breathing, you should feel some expansion in your lower belly as you inhale. This happens because your diaphragm, (the dome-shaped muscle that essentially bisects your midriff), drops and pushes against your stomach as your lungs fill with air. This is also called stomach breathing, though no air is going into your stomach. Diaphramatic or stomach breathing is often noticable when you first awaken and your body is still relaxed. Another way to feel this is to slouch slightly forward while standing, knees bent. Your stomach will relax and your breathing should feel deeper. The trick is keeping your stomach relaxed and still inhaling deeply once you've returned to standing up straight.
The theory behind intercostal breathing is that since your lungs wrap around your sides, you should feel expansion there, in your intercostal muscles, as you breathe in. Try this: stand with your hands on your rib cage, thumbs forward. Now bend over slightly from your hips, keeping your back straight, and inhale into your sides. Some people find it easier to expand their sides and lower back on the inhalation, while others find stomach breathing to be easier. Occasionally someone can feel expansion in both areas. For now, keep both breathing methods in mind since everything can change when you pick up your instrument.
The critical factor with inhaling is that you are not simply taking a shallow chest breath. Check your chest and shoulders in a mirror as you inhale. If you see a lot of up and down movement, try both of the above postures to get your inhalation deeper and fuller. Consciously relaxing your throat as you inhale will also deepen the breath. Ideally you should feel as relaxed as possible as you inhale, since it's on the exhale that you'll be working.
You probably felt your rib cage rise and expand on the inhalation; now keep it lifted as you exhale. The lifted rib cage is the hallmark of the basic singing posture, which should feel like normal good posture, not rigid military erectness. Keeping your rib cage raised as you exhale may feel unusual at first. But if you let your rib cage fall as you exhale you'll lose control of the air as it comes out. This is called "lack of support" and can result in strained or out of tune notes. Try exhaling through your teeth on "sss" with your rib cage lifted and you'll feel your lower abdomen and/or belly start to tighten. These are the muscles that help you control the exhale. You may also feel your lower back muscles (the latissimus dorsi) when you exhale correctly, since these muscles help to hold up your rib cage. By the way, many people get dizzy from hyperventilation when they first work on their breathing. This is normal and stops happening within a few weeks. If you feel dizzy, sit down and recover.
To re-cap, here's breathing in a nutshell:
Now we're going to skip over all those tedious scales and arpeggios that teachers are always making their students sing, and go straight for the fun part-singing songs. Before you get your instrument back, get in front of the mirror and sing whatever song you like, a cappella. Try these three things as you sing:
- Relax on the inhale, feel expansion in your belly and/or sides and lower back.
- Keep your rib cage lifted when you exhale, forcing your lower abdomen and diaphragm to release the air slowly.
As soon as your singing feels loose and relaxed, you can stop swaying or walking and gradually sing less sloppily. Continue to keep your body relaxed. Enunciate the lyrics more; sustain the notes. Focus on keeping your face and throat relaxed. The combination of attention to breathing and conscious relaxation is essentially getting out of the way of your natural voice. This results in a fuller, easier-to-produce sound.
- Make sure that your breathing is still behaving. Watch particularly for tension in your throat or shoulders on both the inhale and exhale.
- Sing sloppily, as if you were tipsy. (Note: alcohol does not help at this stage! It simply dries your poor vocal cords out.) Sloppy singing relaxes your throat, mouth and tongue, and singing should feel easier. You may also feel more resonance (vibration) in your face, which will make your tone richer.
- Sway your arms slightly as you sing. Now you might be feeling pretty silly, but swaying tends to dispel body tension. If you don't want to sway, try walking around the room. Remember that everything except your rib cage, which remains lifted and firm, should feel relaxed.
Now it's time to get back to your instrument. (If your instrument can be played standing up, stand up. I don't care if you've practiced guitar for twenty years sitting down, please stand up.) Pianists, dulcimer players and all those who need to sit, take note: it's very easy to slump and go back to shallow breathing when sitting. On the other hand, if Ray Charles could sit and sound great, so can you. If you lose your deep inhalation when you sit, you might try doing either of the tilted postures I described before, but from a seated position. Or, raise your arms above your head (which lifts your rib cage), breathe deeply and lower your arms without letting your rib cage fall.
Whether you are sitting or standing, grab your instrument and strap it on, or get in position at the keyboard or whatever you need to do. Put your hands in position on your instrument, and once again check your posture and breathing. Is one of your shoulders higher than the other? Can you still breathe deeply? Can you keep your rib cage lifted? This is when it helps to have two breathing methods. Some guitarists, for instance, find it much easier to breathe intercostally (into the back and sides) when there is a guitar up against their stomachs. Others use that pressure as a gentle reminder to feel their stomachs expand as they inhale. Pianists leaning towards the keyboard may find stomach breathing easier. Experiment with both kinds of breathing to find out what works best for you.
This is also a good time to experiment with shortening or lengthening your instrument strap, or playing with the distance from piano stool to keyboard to see if little changes help your posture and breathing. I went the extreme route and switched from a big heavy Ovation to a small-bodied Taylor when I realized that I had to severely curl my skinny shoulders forward to play the bigger guitar. Many instrumentalists don't have size options, however. If you are playing a heavy instrument, try not to let the pressure on your shoulders carry down to your midriff. You may have to develop the ability to isolate your body parts, where your shoulders and upper chest feel some strain but your belly and sides stay relaxed. One way to do this (seated or standing) is to do a mock hula while playing your instrument. Your shoulders and rib cage will stay firm while your midriff gets loosey-goosey. I also find this hula valuble when I'm recording vocals. My mouth stays right on the mic while my abdomen stays loose, keeping my breathing relaxed.
When you start to play your instrument for real, notice if you gradually slump forward or tense up in certain places. Keep your singing posture and continue breathing deeply, even though you aren't singing yet.
Finally, sing and play at the same time. Ideally your singing and playing technique should be so solid that you can focus on delivery, but it's helpful to be picky now. If possible, get in front of a mirror and sing to yourself, that can nip any sneaky slumping maneuvers in the bud. Make sure that you're in tune (tape yourself if you don't know, the tape won't lie). If it's just too much to focus on both playing and singing well, try one of the following:
Practice either way until you trick your body into staying relaxed even when you go back to more difficult singing and playing.
- Make the playing easier: a simple chord accompaniment with no fancy licks will free you up.
- Make the singing easier: go back to the sloppy singing you did earlier, or la-la the lyrics.
When everything starts to feel good, you might want to slap a microphone (or facsimile) in front of you. Now you'll find out if you can maintain that great singer's posture, breathe deeply, and not look at your hands while singing and playing. It can be tricky to play difficult passages while singing. Stellar singer/guitarist and Acoustic Musician contributor Kristina Olsen has developed a style where she can look at her hand on the fretboard and sing out of the side of her mouth into the mic. She probably won't sue you if you steal her trick, but I recommend practicing while staying on mic, or while maintaining eye contact with yourself in the mirror. Also, arrange your songs so that the difficult licks happen in between the singing.
Beginners or people with bad habits carved in stone may need to work on their singing and playing separately for a good chunk of time before combining the two. Others may find that a combination study plan works better: work on your voice and instrument both separately and together, keeping the concepts of breathing, posture and relaxation in mind throughout. With enough time and practice, your fingers and voice will soar effortlessly in a balance of freedom and craft.
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