On Singing While Playing

reprinted with permission from Acoustic Musician Magazine. This is an edited version of the original.

Here are some tips for singers who also play an instrument. For more extensive voice technique please check out The No Scales, Just Songs Vocal Workout or Singing with Style.

If you are experiencing vocal fatigue please check out The Vocal Recovery Warmup.

For information on improving your live singing performances while singing and playing please check out Singing Live: The Performing Skills Guidebook for Contemporary Singers. 

Deep down, have you ever been a little peeved at artists like Ani diFranco, John Maher and Keith Urban? 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. Most teachers advocate one method or the other, but I think it's valuable to understand both. Keep both breathing methods in mind, since everything can change when you pick up your instrument. 

In diaphragmatic breathing, you should feel some expansion in your lower belly as you inhale. 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.

For more detailed exercises to access diaphragmatic breathing or intercostal breathing please check out The No Scales, Just Songs Vocal Workout.

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. 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 your exhalation. .

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: 
    • 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. 

Before you get your instrument back, get in front of the mirror and sing whatever song you like, a cappella. Notice three things as you sing: 

    • 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. 

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. 

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 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.

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: 

    • 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. 

Practice either way until you trick your body into staying relaxed even when you go back to more difficult singing and playing.

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.

© 2001/2017 Susan Anders

© Susan Anders 

There's more about singing and other topics on my blog I Feel Like Singing: notes about singing, songwriting, performing, vocal coaching, and the intersection of art, soul and commerce.

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