This is a topic I explored a little bit in a past blog post but what got me thinking about it again was an experience during a lesson I was giving last week.
One of my students, who also plays in a rock band (electric bass guitar), brought his bass to the lesson as it was left in the student’s parent’s car after a gig the student did the previous night (the other parent was picking the student up after the lesson, hence my office being the transfer space). Yes, I’m being deliberately vague with the student and parent’s gender in the interest of protecting privacy.
We talked a bit about the band the student plays in and I asked about the other members (drums, guitar, vocals–standard instrumentation). But I remarked about the vocalist being, well, a vocalist but not also playing an instrument. The student says that occasionally the drummer won’t be able to make it rehearsals or gigs and the singer, who can also play guitar and drums will sometimes drum while singing–doing it with some difficulty.
So we started talking the mechanics of singing while playing and I eventually asked whether the student has tried to sing while playing to which the response was yes while also indicating difficulty doing both at the same time. The student said inevitably either the cello line or the vocals will be lost.
So I ended up giving some pointers in singing while playing. I talked about the levels of difficulty between doing pizzicato or bowing while singing and that for some types of playing the difference is negligible (e.g. repetitive rhythms or ostinatos) while doing sustained bowing of melodies or harmonies while singing a sustained line can often be the most difficult of all. The student only seemed mildly interested until I demonstrated all the differences with songs I sing and play–after the first tune, the student’s eyes grew wide in what was, for all intents and purposes, slack-jawed awe.
I’m sure part of that was the fact that the half dozen tunes I sang/played were all in different languages (Greek, Albanian, Azerbaijani, Macedonian) and using relatively different vocal styles (and in one case an odd metered rhythm). So, I guess, not only was I singing while playing the cello, but I was doing so in foreign languages while demonstrating different technical aspects of bowing vs plucking and meters with which many Westerners aren’t familiar.
[Jon Silpayamanant singing an Albanian folk tune, “Ani Mori Nuse” for Unsuk in Pittsburgh (August 2010)]
That experience reminded me, again, how focused and narrow our musical training (and exposure to other musics) in the Western classical tradition (as well as the pop traditions) tends to be. Granted, I’ve been singing while playing cello for about a decade now–and it still probably takes me much longer to learn a new song while playing than the average singer/songwriter type guitarist (then again, maybe some of that has to do with memorizing non-English lyrics and learning the vocal style of different traditions).
There’s nothing wrong with that tunnel-like focus, except in how that can also shape our ideas of how we might used our abilities in contexts outside of the box of the musical tradition(s) we’ve trained in–and I think this goes the same for performers as well as songwriters and composers.
Singing while playing thread at the New Directions Cello Association website: http://www.newdirectionscello.com/node/71