Musician Hack: Sing + Play
Updated: Aug 22, 2018
I'm in the process of touring a Bob Dylan classic album show around NSW, playing the violin part of Scarlett Rivera and singing the backing vocals of Emmylou Harris, simultaneously. I want to share with you the hack I've discovered that's let me pull this off.
Without frets, string players rely closely on their ear to pitch notes. When we sing, we also rely on the ear. When we try to sing and play (with the bow) at the same time, anarchy ensues! The ear's attention is divided and often always chooses to focus on singing, because of it's close proximity to the sound, I suppose. Why is it fine for a guitarist strumming chords while accompanying themselves singing, then?
I believe there are two reasons: firstly, the long, sustained sound of a violin or viola is closer in quality to the voice. It competes for the attention of the ear moreso than the short, rhythmic decay of a guitar strum. When I put my viola in 'guitar position' and strum, I don't experience the same aural struggle as when I use my bow. Secondly, the guitarist's left hand is playing 'shapes' that are embedded in their muscle memory, and recalling these uses less brain power than, say, playing an intricate melodic line while singing.
So, with this knowledge, I developed a brain 'hack' to allow my ear to focus on my voice without being compromised:
I forced my left hand to play it's notes using purely muscle memory. I sang long notes while changing pitches with my left hand to make sure my ear was focusing on my voice, keeping it in tune with the viola. If I started to tune my viola with my ear, I have to stop singing. I can hear what you're thinking: this is a recipe for intonation disaster! I certainly do find a 'safer' ground when I stick to open strings and first position, and I have since learnt to 'shadow' sing while I quickly check the tuning of my viola.
This skill has taught me so much about my brain, how it learns, and what it's doing when I'm performing. Under the stress of performance (because performance anxiety still affects us all from time to time), I had to play my viola more quietly to be sure my voice was correct. And then there was the time when my strings were slightly out of tune and I had to sing while play double stops (two notes at once). Ouch.
But I've decided to cultivate the skill and keep at it. I try and use it when I produce my #recomposed Youtube video each week. In fact, here is an example of me singing and playing harmonies simultanously, in I'll Fly Away from 'O Brother Where Art Thou':
What are your thoughts on playing and singing at the same time?