Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Guitar and Singing?

Q: Hey Chris, What's your opinion about the importance of singing as well as playing? I know besides playing guitar, you sing too. Did you start singing when you started paying guitar or did that come about somewhere down the line? I'm wondering because I want to sing as well and think I could broaden my horizons, so to speak doing more than just playing guitar. What are your thoughts?

A: I started singing after the fact. I actually began by singing chorus in my band, they made me do it. I think you have a better chance at getting a gig if you can sing as well as play. Things I've learned about singing from singing myself and watching students at college: 

Pitch - Singers who can play an instrument have good pitch. There are things you can do to change your singing voice to some extent but, I don't know, some singers just have great tone. Pitch more so than tone can certainly be developed and having a good relationship with an instrument is sort of a short cut. So if you play guitar already, you'll have a decent shot at singing as well. 

If you are a singer, you can improve your singing by playing an instrument. If you are an aspiring singer, learn an instrument, obviously guitar or piano come to mind. You can help develop your ears and pitch by singing intervals as well.

Technique - Developing technique obviously is important, but it isn't the goal. The goal is to sing songs with conviction and with as little limitation as possible. To sing without limitation, technique is important. One aspect of technique is range. It is difficult to develop lower range and easier to develop higher range. You have various tools to do so, including developing a stronger head voice. Without getting into physical science, you have two sets of muscles, a different set for chest voice (thyroarytenoid) and head voice (cricothyroid). Learning to hand off from one set to the other smoothly is important. You learn to do this by singing scales in a range that that incorporates both chest (your lower range) and head voice (your higher range). If you don't learn to do this you can damage your voice by forcing yourself to sing in a range too high for your chest voice. When I first started singing as the main singer in my band, I learned the hard way. After a night of singing a few hours, I found I would lose my voice the next day, which makes you useless as a singer if you tour. 

Practicing scales in the proper range is important but also singing the proper vowels are important. A person who has a weak head voice (has a problem handing off the muscles used for chest voice to the muscles used for head voice), can sing certain vowels that will help you find your head voice. A good example would be the vowels "ee" "oo" and "ih" which lower the formant values and make entering head happen lower in pitch. A good voice coach should know these things and that's exactly why they have their students sing scales using certain vowels and in a certain range that tends to stretch between the singer's chest and head voice range. 

Anyways, if you can't find someone who can diagnose your problems (weak head, weak chest or has a problem switching between then), I have good news for you.

VocalizeU - Working at Tokyo School of Music I realized that a lot of enrolling students don't have the piano chops to accompany themselves singing scales. This is a major disadvantage. Obviously if you can't play scales on the keyboard, you are going to have a rough time practicing your singing. I found a great program called VocalizeU that will not only help you find your problem areas, it will also give you the proper exercises to work on daily and change them according to your progress automatically. At the college, teachers assign the proper exercises for each student but the program will diagnose your problems if you don't have a vocal coach to do so. I strongly recommend VocalizeU. You can download it to your computer or your iPad. Go here for more info >>>  

Songs - At least half of your practice time should be dedicated to learning songs. It is important to build a large repertoire but also important to sing songs that will challenge you technique wise. It is also in your best interest to copy some of the important nuances of the singers you like. How singers get from point A to point B is one aspect but also vibrato. You might have a difficult time finding the tone of some of the greats but you can certainly copy their vibrato. Certain singers have very obvious vibrato like Steve Perry and others like Sade, have very slight vibratos. Nobody really becomes great in a vacuum. What I mean is that all the great musicians I have worked with (singers included) had artists that they copied like crazy. I have also found that the real geniuses copied from a wide range of artists, think Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin and Billy Holiday for example (Rock, Soul and Jazz).

Playing and singing - Singing to karaoke of the songs you are working on is OK, but If you can, I really suggest that your learn to accompany yourself on piano or Keyboards. As I said this will not only help you develop pitch but also allow you develop a whole other way to make money. 

Ensemble vs. Karaoke - Working with an ensemble is also important. I have found that singers who have spent their whole career singing to tracks have a really hard time singing with an ensemble. I am a fitness nut and spend four or five days a week at the gym. I often see many similarities between music and weight training. Karaoke is sort of like working with machines while singing with an ensemble is more like free weights. There are very few variables regarding machines. Basically there is one motion and you can't change very much regarding the exercise. While using machines, you use a very specific muscle. When you use a barbell or dumbbell, the variables always change. For example when you do a standing shoulder press, you will have to use muscles all over your body to keep yourself balanced. Besides your shoulders working, your core muscles are working hard to keep you stabilized and by changing your grip just a tiny bit, you will work different areas of your muscles. Just putting weights on the barbell uses muscles and lifting the bar to your shoulders before you do the actual press uses a set of different muscles. That is why body builders tend to use free weights more so than machines. Machines are better than nothing at all and in many ways are better for beginners because you can avoid injuries, but they aren't the choice of more advanced athletes. Machines focus too much on individual muscles while free weights focus on wide groups of muscles. 

Singing with Karaoke has no variables, it is the exact same thing every time  therefore you sing the same way every time. When you sing with a band, the variables change all the time, the dynamics, tempo, volume, even the individual parts change. This forces you to change and adapt. You can always tell the singers who are not used to ensembles, they want more monitor and might stick their fingers in their ears so they can hear themselves better. They have poor eye contact with the members of the band and have a problem giving cues for endings. They can't effectively count off the song. Singing with an ensemble will help you to develop singing energy to rise above the power of an ensemble. Karaoke doesn't have volume or energy so you can sing comfortably, maybe too much so. After all, if you can't get above the track, you can just turn it down. And if you can't hit the high notes, you can change pitch. You can't really do that with an ensemble so you have to develop a certain charisma and power. Just like weight machines are great for beginners, karaoke tracks are a fine place to start. But there comes a time when singing with an ensemble will help bring you to a new level.

Singing can help you as a player - I think guitarists should sing. I mean that is why the guitar was invented really. It is portable and perfect for accompanying yourself singing. I really learned to appreciate singers by becoming a singer myself and realizing that guitar players tend to walk all over singers both volume and note wise. When I record, I generally record the guitar parts first and the vocal parts last. One time after recording everything I found that my own guitar part was overbearing for my vocal track and I had to re-record a simpler guitar track. Now I tend to be more in tune with vocalists because of that experience.

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