Play what you sing, sing what you play.

“If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it” are words I heard at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and all over the world in my music travels. It’s something I really took to heart. Voice is not “just another instrument” – in fact, voice is everybody’s first instrument, including yours.

Regardless of if you were a natural singer as a young child, or spent time developing a mastery – your voice is the instrument you always have with you. It’s what you started using first, and you use every day of your life (through speech).

Many musicians are afraid to sing. More still simply consider the human voice as just another instrument, and since they already play one instrument they feel no need to learn that one too. But what is often overlooked is just how much your skills as a musician can benefit from a little voice training! Now, you certainly don’t need to sing in front of others, or even be very good at it. Developing your basic vocal skills and using your voice to train your ears can and will help you tremendously as a musician.

HOW SINGING HELPS

Here’s why every musician who doesn’t sing should seriously reconsider that choice:

  1. It really shows you the concept you have in your head (and how to improve it).

    Singing can help you understand timing and volume dynamics of a particular song. If you’re having problems understanding tricky rhythms, or odd intervals, try to sing what you’re having difficulty with. This helps simplify the problem by removing the artificial (a musical instrument) and coming back to the elemental means of sound production.
    Instead of getting caught up in the skill of your instrument, you can remove that element, and focus instead on whatever it is you’re trying to achieve. Whether that be rhythm, emotion or anything in between. Singing allows you focus on the crux of the problem and not get caught up in everything else you’re trying to achieve along with it.

  2. The emotion of a piece is much more obvious.

    Singing a piece can greatly help you get a feel for the music and really understand the emotions you’re trying to play. It’s much easier to “feel” the emotion when you’re singing (removing the artificial) than when you’re distracted by your instrument. Just like in our above example, by removing the instrument you’re left with the pure musical emotional – no instrument to get in the way of figuring out just what you need to do. Should the song get louder? Quieter? Faster? By working through it with your voice you can solve the problem much more quickly. Not to mention, it’s a much easier way to express to other musicians the feeling your trying to convey.

  3. It requires full responsibility for pitch.

    Voice training can help you develop good pitch perception. You can train your ears without singing – but it’s like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. You may not realize it, but there is a powerful feedback loop between your ears and your voice. Exercises using your voice to train your ears is incredibly beneficial because you’re not just listening to notes but singing them back too. Which is particularly effective for improving your musical listening skills.

But beyond all that, singing is such a vulnerable and innate activity, that including it in your music practice seems essential for staying connected to “the spirit of music”. Your voice is the instrument most closely related to your musical hearing. In fact, most of the great performers can sing an idea to you, even if they aren’t world class singers. It’s a really important way to express ideas.

INCORPORATE SINGING INTO YOUR PRACTICE

As a professional French hornist, here’s how I practice singing:

  • I include it in my warm ups, checking for tone, resonance, intonation, and vowel.
  • I sing phrases and pieces of music I’m working on, to improve the musical quality.
  • When I’m practicing with Modacity and making a guided improvement, “singing” is frequently an option I consider that helps me make progress. Here’s an example:

DON’T SELL YOURSELF SHORT

Your singing voice is a powerful asset. You can make progress without it, but you’re limiting yourself unnecessarily. You don’t need to be a good singer to benefit from using your voice to train your ears. Master basic pitch control, but there’s certainly no need to become a vocal performer. Nobody is asking you to get up on stage or join in at your next karaoke night. Simply start using your voice to train your ears in the privacy of your own home.

Every musician deserves to reach their full musical potential, and that requires ear training. To train your ears to the most effectively, first take of advantage of your most personal of instrument: your voice.

Marc Gelfo

Marc Gelfo

Marc has been practicing music for 30+ years. After applying cognitive science & computer science to French horn, Marc became an internationally touring symphony musician. His experience includes teaching and performing with thousands of musicians around the world, including the San Francisco Symphony.