on singing while playing the cello…

I had wanted to talk about this topic for some time now as I realize my ability (and willingness) to sing while playing the cello puts me in the minority of instrumentalists of many if not most genres–and especially with the minority of instrumentalists who play bowed stringed instruments.

Singing isn’t the issue here, we’ve probably all sung privately (in the shower?) if not publicly (for good or ill). But a particular thread at the Cello Chat forum (as well as a number of the comments really hit home how, um, “unorthodox” it is for cellists to sing while playing.

I know that some of this goes back to some of the things I talked about regarding the role of the performer (for the numerous facebook comments on that post, go here) and that generally people have a relatively narrowly defined and arbitrary notion of what it means for them to be a musician.

As far the difficulty level–well, the most difficult thing about doing it is just getting over the inhibition that’s keeping you from doing it. There’s really nothing to it and once you get the hang of singing while playing it, like everything, starts to come more naturally.

Sure, there are some things that are more difficult to do–playing a particularly difficult passage or singing a particularly demanding vocal line-but what I’ve found the most tricky is playing sustained melody on the cello, while singing a sustained melody or counter-melody (or vice versa). It’s an issue of keeping track of completely different lines that really divides the attention thus preventing you from focusing on one or the other more fully. In other words, what works well, is being able to put one or the other (either playing the cello or singing) in “automatic mode” so that you can focus your attention on the [usually] mre demanding line.

I’m sure singer-songwriter types already know some of this and have tons of experience with the techniques that bowed string players have to struggle a bit with, but it’s not something cellists can take for granted. And personally, I think singing while playing should become a part of the pedagogical process for any instrumentalist for which it is even possible (wind players excluded, for obvious reasons).

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5 thoughts on “on singing while playing the cello…

  1. I’ve had to learn to sing in Japanese while playing support parts on cello. It DEFINITELY has restructured my brain! The lead singer takes subtle liberties with timing and inflection/emphasis, so I have to adjust my harmony vocal lines on the fly accordingly, while keeping the timing of the cello lines(usually rhythmic and chordal support, but also improvised answering lines) rock solid! It’s quite humbling… I also sing in Greek, Arabic, Turkish, and other Eastern European languages while playing cello, and Gadulka (Bulgarian bowed ‘fiddle’), but usually it’s the same melody at least. Ben Sollee and Trevor Exter are two examples of extreme virtuosity when it comes to beautiful singing while playing accompaniment parts on the cello. A great exercise to explore is to play a dbl. stop on the cello while singing a third note to make a chord; then vary one of the notes (cello or vocal) and check out the resulting ‘new’ chord. Take known chord progressions and adapt voicings in the same manner–good luck, and have fun!

  2. James, where did you get your Gadulka? I had bought one on ebay that turned out to be crap and have heard that lark in the morning and their products are hit and miss.

    That aside, one exercise that Erik Friedlander suggest is playing Bach two part inventions–play one line while vocalizing the other–as a great way of building up the chops for independence between the voice and cello.

    Personally, I prefer Jorane’s singing/cello stuff, incredible stuff – I usually refer to her as the “French-Canadian Tori Amos of the Cello” but that’s probably a little misleading.

    I don’t spend too much time developing this, sadly, I’ll usually just learn a tune as I have to–though my Balkan band has put me on the spot a few times since there are a few Eastern European tunes I sing in one of my other groups. Basically “forced” me to sing in a different key area, which is fine for the singing, but obviously the cello lines would be different and therein lays that challenge–especially if you have to do it on the spur of the moment during a performance! :)

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