on singing while playing the cello (part 2)…

Jon Silpayamanant singing with il Troubadore at Tribal Revolutions Bellydance Festival in Chicago (June 2010)

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


  1. To me, it sounds like the layering that we do in belly dance. The easiest layering is when everything is synchronized so like the two moves are in the same direction and at the same speed. When you want to make things more complex, then you start de-synchronizing those elements so like the moves could be on different planes and/or on different speeds… and add walking/traveling to the mix… I was playing with that last night in my practice. It requires a level of separation between the items and it’s really all about the brain being able to direct what each part of the body is supposed to be doing. I bet that it’s similar.

    I think that the tunnel-like focus is not necessarily bad either. But it can be limiting. And there may be a cultural thing here in the Western world where we like to have our people lined up simply: you are the cellist… you, over there, are the singer… you, over there, are xx… can you be all that wrapped into one? Why not? Also there is a sense of “if it’s difficult, why bother?” Well, you proved to the student that, if you merely push hard enough, it’s doable.

    And this is where what the student described reminded me of layering in dance… when you attempt a layering that you’ve never done before (and especially if it’s the de-synchronized one), you may indeed start losing one of the movements and then you need to remember to do both (or more than two). If you give up at the first try, of course you won’t be able to do it. It takes practice but that’s really all that’s needed (and patience).


    • That’s the ultimate lesson–practice, practice, practice!

      The focus is bad if it creates a tunnel of possibilities–otherwise, that focus is so sorely needed to reach levels of excellence–that’s undeniable.

      I’ve really found singing isn’t so very different than playing, say, two different lines on the cello at the same time. There are a number of pieces in the standard repertoire that require that, and at least a small handful of pieces that require vocalization while playing.

      It’s just like you said–basically layering is probably a great word for it–I wonder who first started coining that term in bellydance pedagogy? Suhaila probably? Seems like a perfectly useful concept to help folks visualize what’s happening with this kind of technique!


      • It is quite a brain-growing exercise to sing & play simultaneously! You mentioned levels of
        difficulty, and that makes a lot of sense with my experience. I was in a quartet playing adapted
        Japanese folk material that came down to a duo eventually. I ended up being the cellist, djembe player, and back-up singer. It was a total mind-@#$% at first, and still extremely difficult later on since it was singing harmony lines in a foreign language while playing alternate lines and/or rhythmic bass&chordal parts with a female singer/guitarist who liked to vary her parts subtly each time we played!! How humbling… But it did allow me as a 40+ yr old person at the time to expand my skill set both on cello and in my singing ability. The Japanese woman was totally demanding of excellence in pitch, pronunciation, timing, etc. For me it’s similiar to piano, in that Rt. hand, OK; Lt hand OK; both hands together–NOT OK! Takes an inordinate amount of effort to get incrementally better. Motivation is key, or the work won’t happen! Success also varies greatly with how comfortable I am on the instrument I’m playing, and familiarity of the music. I sing and play the eastern European and Arabic material on cello, gadulka, guitar, and saz, and I’ve noticed I just don’t have enough head-room when on gadulka so I have to stop playing and focus on the vocals. I REALLY notice the difference in levels, and the belly-dancer above put it. Ornaments, emotional input, pitch, rhythm all suffer and would take MUCH more time than I am able to give it to improve! Thanks for getting me thinking in a more analytical way about this –James


      • Thank you for you comments, James!

        The piano analogy is spot on–same issue, really. And I imagine organ (with the feet!) would in some ways be an even bigger problem. Obviously with both of those instruments, the students learn from a young age to use the hands (and feet) together and independently–so it becomes a part of their normal learning process to multi-task. And I suspect that many guitarist/singers get that head start. I remember when I first started learning the dumbek and other middle eastern drums–same issue since the hands are used independently–my hands always wanted to play together! And it is something teachers have to struggle with in teaching beginning string players–to get the bow arm to work independently of the left hand.

        It takes alot of work and effort for those of us who started in later in adult life singing while playing. After a while it gets easier and more spontaneous. Since I primarily drum for my Balkan band, I find myself spontaneously singing with the singers on occasion and it rarely throws off my rhythm even for the complicated odd metered tunes.

        Motivation is the key–and practice and experience. We may not become master vocalists, but there no reason we can’t supplement our playing with vocals!


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