Musicians who come to take voice lessons with me are not just coming to learn to sing better. They often want to sing well while playing their instruments, too. Although it’s great fun to play and sing at the same time, the activity can be fraught with pitfalls. It’s challenging because essentially you are “playing” two instruments at the same time!
One can be very skilled at singing or very adept on an instrument but put them together and it can make your brain hurt! The main problem I encounter with my students and myself is that an instrument can pull one out of physical alignment. For instance, tomorrow I am singing a concert of Italian-Neapolitan songs for a party and will accompany myself on the piano. As a pianist I often tense up my arms and shoulders, especially when playing moving octaves or big chords. This will then creep into the back of my neck and tongue, locking my jaw, breath and articulation. I must be very awake to not let this happen.
I do an Alexander Technique exercise with my students that’s very revealing. I ask them to stand and do a complex multiplication problem while keeping a diffuse awareness of their body, joints, breath, etc. It’s hard. What we discover is that, when the brain is working on something that takes focus, we may hold our breath, lock our joints, even forget we have a body! It’s the same thing with the “pull” of the eyes to the computer. Much neck pain starts because of our lack of whole-body awareness as we sit, read and type. Figuring out instrumental fingering and chords can take similar focus.
When holding a guitar or bass or sitting playing the piano, we must pay some attention to the head-back relationship. For our breath to be free and available for our singing (or for our playing expression), we must avoid collapsing down or leaning on the instrument. This can lead to locking of the joints or de-energizing of the whole body, which deactivates our singing.
Sitting while singing also changes my perception of the breath. For instance, I can feel the pooching of the belly on the inhale, which is nice, but it doesn’t seem quite as deep. And my sense of vocal support shifts. How much support do I need for that middle-upper range? Am I pulling and locking my head back to see the music on the stand while I play? I have noticed that the slightest pullback of the head back and down affects the larynx and changes my resonance. And a relaxed tongue while standing feels different to me while sitting.
Playing an instrument freely and well takes time and effort. And, the voice is an instrument. Often, there are different melodies or rhythms happening at the same time. So, I tell my adult singing students to practice their instruments separately first with a good awareness of their body in space. Then, when singing and playing, try not to change anything. Make sure your body has its own independent balance and activation for singing. One image I have is to “dance” with or at the instrument. Allow your brain and inner singing voice to do more of the work. This will release muscular tension from the arms and hands. I give singing lessons and teach the Alexander Technique in my Marin singing studio because it addresses this ever so-tricky balance between singing and playing.