In this episode, we discuss the value of using your voice as a training tool to hone your instrumental skills – and how your voice is closely tied to rhythm, phrasing, and storytelling in music.
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On this podcast we often talk about the specific skills of musicality: such as playing by ear or improvising.
But there’s also the broader notion of “playing musically” – which is a slightly more subtle thing. And while it’s closely related to all those specific skills, it’s something to be cultivated in its own right.
When you see a great performer and think “Wow, they’re really musical” or “Gosh, they have incredible musicality”, it might be specific skills you’re noticing, like their ability to play anything they hear, or sit in easily with a new band, or improvise something that sounds amazing, seemingly out of nowhere. But it might just as well be a concert performer who isn’t demonstrating any of those specific skills, but plays in a way that moves the audience and makes a really deep impression with their music.
That’s what I mean by “playing musically” and one valuable thing to know about if you want to play more musically is the notion of playing like you’re singing.
Now before we dive in, one thing to clarify: I’m not going to be talking about making an instrument sound like a human voice. That’s a fascinating topic in itself. I remember back when the first MUSE album came out there was this particular solo on a track where I just could not tell whether the distorted sound I was hearing was a guitar or a singer – and that was really cool and made me realise just how expressive guitar playing can be. And it’s not limited to distorted sounds and audio effects, I think we’ve probably all heard a saxophone or a violin play and felt a deep instinctive connection as if we’re singing or hearing somebody sing. So there is a lot of interesting stuff around instrument technique and the way you can make your timbre sound more like it’s somebody singing. But that’s not what we’re going to be covering in this episode.
We’re going to be talking about some powerful things you can learn from singing to make your playing sound “more musical” – whether you’re a singer yourself or not, and whatever kind of timbre you want your instrument to have.
When I chose the topic for this episode I was expecting to go deep into one specific thing about approaching playing as if it’s singing – but when I started to think about it I realised this is actually a big and multi-faceted topic. So I’m going to cover a few different interesting angles in a lighter way. Because I think that if any one of them resonates with you, you’ll be able to take that idea away and quickly make your own playing much more musical…
1: Inner hearing is closely tied to singing, and that leads to a musical performance
All the main methods of musicianship training like Kodály, Orff, Music Learning Theory, and so on agree: to play musically you need to develop your inner hearing. The ability to imagine music vividly in your mind.
This is imtimately tied to your singing voice and while it is possible to develop good inner hearing without singing it’s vastly easier to do so through using your voice as a training tool, as discussed in episode 37.
What’s more your voice is the most direct route to bring the music you hear in your head out into the world without the complications of key signatures and fingering and instrument technique.
If you’re flinching at this and thinking “singing’s not for me” then I’d encourage you to check out episode 12 with George Bevan for the low-down on how anyone can learn the fundamentals of singing quickly and easily.
So one reason approaching music from the viewpoint of singing is that a musically meaningful performance almost always stems from the performer having a vivid mental model of the performance they want to create – and that inner hearing is deeply tied to our ability to imagine ourselves singing, or indeed to actually do it.
I loved how Gerald Klickstein, author of “The Musician’s Way” talked about this back in episode 10, the importance of forming your own mental model of how you want your performance to sound *before* working away on your instrument trying to produce it.
If you don’t find yourself frequently getting your current repertoire stuck in your head on loop, or absent-mindedly humming it to yourself during the day then you probably aren’t spending enough time and effort on the mental model side of creating a compelling performance. Challenge yourself to sing the pieces you want to perform and imagine yourself singing them and you’ll find you get a whole new depth of understanding of the expressive possibilities available to you.
2: For natural language phrasing
The second reason to think in terms of singing is a much more literal one. Singing and spoken language evolved together and a lot of the rhythmic ideas in music actually stem from the rhythmic patterns in speech. In music we formalise things tightly in terms of quarter notes and triplets and time signatures and rests – but listen to a great musician play and you’ll realise they are absolutely not sticking rigidly to the precision of a metronome for their rhythms!
They’re also not strictly obeying the dynamic markings like forte and piano, crescendos and diminuendos – or at least they’re not sticking only to these. The performer has enormous leeway to make their own decisions about note emphasis and volume, and the best performers make full use of that.
Now I’m not saying that you should completely ignore the written rhythms or dynamic markings and make it all up completely – but to stick intensely strictly to them would be a big mistake too.
Often when talking about Musical U I’ll make reference to how we can help musicians get away from “playing like a robot” and instead feel free, confident and creative. A big part of that is in those specific skills like playing by ear and improvising that we teach, but a lot of it also comes down to making your own musical choices, such as interpreting rhythms and dynamics in your own way.
So what does all that have to do with playing like singing? Well, one big gateway here is to think in terms of words. Whether or not the piece you’re playing has lyrics, you can approach rhythm and phrasing as if the notes you’re playing are syllables of words in a sentence. You can make up meaningless scat syllables DEMO or even write your own lyrics – or use the existing lyrics if they exist. But the point is that the stream of notes with rigid rhythms defined in the sheet music will suddenly reveal all kinds of subtleties and possibilities.
This is what Marshall McDonald was talking about in episode 94 when he mentioned concert pianists actually taking a breath between phrases, almost as if they were singing each one rather than playing it.
And here’s the really cool thing: We all speak and listen to language, pretty much all day every day. Which means you already have a deep instinctive understanding of how spoken phrasing works.
It’s pretty hard to explain to a musician in words how to make their phrasing sound more expressive – there are tips you can give but often it’s best done through demonstration and mimickry. But another big shortcut is to just ask: if this was a spoken sentence, how would I say it?
If you’re playing solo you actually have complete freedom in this. For the tune to be recognisable you won’t want to wander completely from the official rhythm but you can bend it pretty far. If you’re playing in a group then you need to be a bit sensitive to which players have that freedom at any given time – for example the rhythm section of drums and bass in a rock band tend to be pretty rigid in keeping the beat, which gives the other players and particularly the melody part a lot of freedom to play around with rhythm. In an orchestra everybody needs to be quite careful about their timing for things to sound cohesive – but there it’s really the conductor “playing” the orchestra as their instrument, and so it’s he or she who has that rhythmic freedom.
So next time you work on a piece try looking at the notes not as individual notes or dots on a page – but as syllables of words of sentences. Try speaking or singing them and explore what you feel would be a natural way of expressing it. Then bring that to your playing.
3: For conveying meaning
The third way to approaching playing like singing is kind of a subcategory of the last one. When a piece actually does have lyrics, it can be instructive and inspiring to really give thought to the content of those lyrics.
This is what Fiona-Jane Weston was talking about in episode 96 when she said sometimes the words are saying one thing while the music tells another story – and to perform the piece credibly you need to understand and express both sides.
So stepping away from the message of “you have total freedom and words or singing can be an avenue to finding that”, this is more about “there is a message already in the piece, and considering the words can help you find it”. Naturally those two aren’t mutually exclusive, you can use the words to understand the piece, and then also to help you express what you’ve found. But I did want to distinguish them because they are very different benefits of approaching playing like singing.
What does this mean in practice? Well it means if you’re an instrument player you need to always consider: does the music I’m playing actually have words to it? If so, what are they, and what do they tell me about how I should be playing this music? If you’re a singer then it means taking a bit of time to consider the lyrics not just in technical terms of vowels and breathing but in the artistic sense of what the song is about and why each word was chosen by the writer.
If we start from an assumption that composers and songwriters had good reason for choosing the words they did, and that the power of the music they wrote is strongly tied to those lyrics – then it’s clear that for any musician to perform the music without carefully considering those words would be really missing out on the potential musicality of their performance.
There’s a broader point too, about understanding the context the music was written in, aside from lyrics. In my conversation with Fiona-Jane she talked about needing to know the storyline a song fits into to really get its meaning and convey it well, and I gave an example from my own past, of spending months learning a piece that was inspired by a painting – without it ever occurring to me to go see what the painting looked like! If we value the artistic creation of a piece of music then we owe it to its creator to pay some attention to the context they wanted it to be understood in.
A small corollary here. I said this idea of considering the meaning of words was different but not entirely separate from the last point, about playing notes as if they’re syllables. And to return to an idea there, that you can make up your own words for music that doesn’t have lyrics: don’t underestimate the value of doing so, especially when you combine it with this idea, of drawing on the lyrics to guide your artistic expression. To put it simply: If you take a piece without lyrics and you write a set of words that are all sunshine and butterflies and play it with those words running through your head – and then the next day you write a different set of words all about tragedy and yearning and play the music with those words running through your head – I think you can probably imagine how differently those two performances would turn out!
The last thing I’ll say here is just: please don’t be intimidated. If you’re anything like I was then you might already be feeling a little lost in all of the technicalities of music, playing the right notes at the right time – and this layer of artistic expression, and the idea of bringing such meaning to your playing might seem lofty and very advanced. But as I hope my butterflies versus tragedy example demonstrated, this doesn’t need to be high art to be effective. Any musical performance can be enhanced by the musician having a vivid inner model of what they want to create, playing notes as if they’re parts of words and sentences, and having a specific lyrical meaning in mind for each phrase they play. This applies to you playing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” just as much as it applies to Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach or Leonard Cohen singing Hallelujah.
The downside of playing like singing
So if approaching playing like singing is such a powerful concept, are there any downsides? Well, overall I’d say none so big as to discourage you from trying it. But one thing worth mentioning is that it *can*, if you’re not careful, actually restrict your creativity rather than enhancing it.
For example I spent a while learning jazz standards on piano and I would always hesitate when picking one I didn’t know and wonder if I should look up the words or not. Because as we’ve talked about, those words can bring a great richness and depth to your performance. But it is also easy to get trapped in that interpretation of the notes. In a way there was something elegant about approaching the new piece purely as dots on a page, and trying to find for myself what the form was, where the best phrasing lay or which parts were most important, and how it all could work as a whole. Once you know the lyrics, a lot of that falls into place, and a bit like when you see a movie before reading the novel it was based on and seeing all the characters in your mind played by the actors they were in the movie, it can be hard to get that idea out of your head once it’s there!
The good news is it’s hard but not impossible. I found that the scat or “bum bum bah” idea mentioned earlier helped, as I could consciously blat out the lyrics with some meaningless syllables, and that let me escape a bit from any preconceptions about how the music should be played. And it’s no coincidence this is a core part of jazz improvisation, the idea of taking the melody and then starting to strip away the details of the verse version and cut it down to its core and start playing around with what it could be.
So, as I said at the start: I thought this was a neatly-defined topic I could share a few pointers on, but I quickly realised there’s a ton of interesting stuff here to explore. I’ve pulled out three ideas about playing like singing that I hope will be useful for you: The idea of using singing, or inner hearing, to develop your ideal performance before you try playing it out loud. The idea of treating notes as parts of words and sentences and leveraging your natural instinct for spoken language to help you find the rhythmic and dynamic possibilities available to you. And the idea of really paying attention to the actual text of a piece to ensure that you appreciate the artistic intention behind it and can convey it as powerfully as possible to your audience.
I won’t pretend to have covered this topic fully but I hope one or more of those ideas gives you a fresh perspective on the music you’ve been playing and how you can make your performances sound more musical, just by shifting how you’re thinking about the notes that you play.