Were you always able to sing and play at the same time?

July 4, 2010 7:18 AM

In the last year or so I've gotten a little bit bolder about singing, edging past extreme self-consciousness to feeling pretty comfortable joining in on a chorus at an open session... but unless the chorus follows the simplest of chord changes, I pretty much have to choose one or the other: singing or playing.

Usually when I ask people about how they do it, the response is puzzled, and along the lines of: "Hmm. Well, I just play the song, and I sing along to it." That leads me to wonder if this is one of those innate talent things that just comes naturally to some people.

So, I guess my question has two parts: If you can sing and play at the same time, was it always something you could just do without any extra effort? If not, how did you go about developing that ability?
posted by usonian (30 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

I've had to put in effort with every new instrument I've picked up to get the singing-while-playing thing working smoothly, yeah. It's been so long on guitar that I can't really remember the process—it feels really natural at this point to sing while doing most rhythm guitar type stuff at least— but drums are new enough for me and different enough in terms of what I have to Just Do with the rest of my body while also singing that I can't really consistently pull off vox while doing anything other than a pretty brainded, unvaried beat.

As far as I can tell, for me it's all about getting comfortable enough with an instrument or with a part that I can more or less just let it go into autopilot and put most of my attention on singing. And the short version there is: practice, practice, practice. Take some songs you want to play and sing on, and just go at it, run through them every day, loop a chorus or a verse if it gives you trouble until it stops giving you so much trouble. Hopefully eventually it'll just start to click—not instantly, just by degrees—and you'll find that you're more able to let your hands and your memory take care of the changes so you don't have to be "following" them as much in the first place and singing won't be such a distraction.

Part of the question here: are you playing songs you already know with a certain amount of confidence when you're doing this? Songs that you pretty much know the chords for already, that you could mostly close your eyes and still pull off with the occasional peek to remind of a line? That's the stuff that will be easiest to get comfortable doing both on; if you're trying to sightread chords and/or melody lines while playing with folks, that's a bit more work you're trying to do besides the actual playing and singing and may be making it more challenging yet. Not that you really have a choice about that with open jams, just something to keep in mind when evaluating your own progress—don't be too hard on yourself.

In any case, good on you for getting your sing on. As long as guitar-plus-vox remains a challenge for this stuff, I'd say you should just pick, song to song, whichever of singing or playing or working on doing both seems like more fun/interesting for the song the group is currently playing and go with that, with maybe a bias toward singing since it sounds like you're trying to break out of your shell there and nothing will help with that like continuing to belt it out whenever you're comfortable doing so.
posted by cortex at 7:31 AM on July 4, 2010

I agree it's not effortless. It's hard to do until you are *completely comfortable* with the instrumental part and can play it eyes off while having a conversation with someone about the price of herring in Ulan Bator. Once you can do this, there's no problem -- lots of my songs have really complicated cross-picking parts but I am so familiar with them that they require no conscious brain-engagement at all.

One thing that really really helps is to write your own stuff at the instrument. For some reason, if you start out by playing and singing a song at the same time, it becomes the most natural thing in the world. In fact, there are several songs that I find harder to play without singing, because the voice and finger cues are all mixed up in my head.
posted by unSane at 8:07 AM on July 4, 2010

I am completely unable to sing and play anything at the same time. Sometimes I practice -- I've made it to the point that I can play kazoo while playing ukulele -- but then I feel silly, because it's one of those things that seems to me that it shouldn't be that much more difficult than just playing an instrument. But it is. And I need to get to a point where I can sing and play at the same time.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 8:40 AM on July 4, 2010

I've never had much trouble singing and playing chords. But singing - even back-up - and playing lead guitar parts that may be contrapuntal or rhythmically "off" is pretty tough. I played in a prog band eons ago and had to do this sometimes. You almost have to "split" your mind to do it - it's kind of like juggling but not so much fun (!). Hats off to bass players like the late, great James Dewar (Robin Trower & Stone The Crows) and another sadly gone great - Phil Lynott - who could play sometimes quite involved bass parts and handle lead vocals apparently effortlessly.

Agree with what's been said above - it's down to practice to the point of not having to think about it. Soon as you do think about it you might fall over. Might sound utterly daft, but learning to juggle or do other things that require left-hand and right-hand to do different things simultaneously might be useful "training". Drummers have to do this all the time - so perhaps learning some simple drum patterns where you need to do something different with left and right would help too? Or maybe not.....
posted by MajorDundee at 9:34 AM on July 4, 2010

i generally don't sing, but i do know that i can't play bass and do it but i can play fairly basic guitar chords and do it. but seeing as i'm usually drunk or stoned when it does happen i can't vouch for how scientific my analysis is. strangely i was listening to thin lizzy recently and was struck by the complexity of what lynott was doing and as the major says, how effortless and full of feel he made it sound. likewise i've always carried a grudging respect for police-era sting as well as macca and in particular, richard sinclair. or (gulp) chris squire. as others have said, it takes a certain kind of brain. i don't think i have one like that.
posted by peterkins at 2:01 PM on July 4, 2010

I disagree strongly that this is an innate talent--It's a skill that can be developed.

If you think of it as doing two different things at once, then it's much easier to psych yourself out and not be able to do it. But if you think of it as one composite sequence of things to do, then it is much more manageable. For example, think about certain key parts of the melodies and chord progressions when both hit a strong beat at the same time. Like, in the example of The Girl from Ipanema "Hmmm...I sing the word 'tall' together with the Fmaj7 chord, but the word 'young' falls a little before the chord." That way, those moments can be signposts to confirm that what you're doing is lining up right.

At the same time, even though eventually you want to think of the vocals and the guitar/piano/ autoharp/marxophone playing as one activity you're doing, in order to do it smoothly, it can help to get them up to speed separately first before combining them. That way, like other people commenting have already mentioned, you build up muscle memory for that part, so that when you put the separate parts together, you aren't starting from square one.

Really, you can play anything as long as you find the right starting tempo. If it's insanely complicated, just start ridiculously slow when you're working it out, and then work up to faster tempos.

I think this is also true about playing more than one line on one instrument, like the two hands of a piano part, or a fingerstyle guitar part with both a bass line and a melody or chords.
posted by umbú at 7:11 PM on July 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Depends on the song. I have no problems when it's a basic rhythm or just chords with some ornamentation here and there. Or like mentioned above, a song where the intricate picking is dependent upon the vocals somehow, or they're intertwined. I find it hard when things are just slightly off. Even in songs I write; i.e., I made a recording of a song I wrote called Light On, with the acoustic guitar doing the same melody line as the vocal, but a bit ahead of it. When I sing it and play it at the same time in real life, it's impossible for my brain to not meld the timing of the two into the same thing.
posted by chococat at 9:27 PM on July 4, 2010

I disagree strongly that this is an innate talent--It's a skill that can be developed.

oh yes, i think you're right. ibut i reckon that (like with a lot of things) the wiring of some people's brains gives them a bit of a head start...
posted by peterkins at 12:06 AM on July 5, 2010

the wiring of some people's brains gives them a bit of a head start...

If anyone falls into this 'head start' category, it'd have to be Paul McCartney. Some of those bass lines he played while singing those melodies? Unbelievable. I think we must've been looking at some pre-wiring there.

As far as myself, I can really only play the most rudimentary of parts while singing at the same time. Alas.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:24 AM on July 5, 2010

it's like muscle memory, the more you use it the better you get at it, i couldn't at all, and now it's too easy. think of how a drummer has to learn to make all four of his/her limbs move independently, it's the same deal.
posted by hiddenknives at 7:46 PM on July 5, 2010

Yeah, I should echo what some other folks have said re: lead parts and such. I'm really comfortable playing guitar or banjo or uke or piano stuff while singing, if it's stuff I know well or pretty basic rhythm stuff, but singing while getting fancy as it were is not something that goes well without a great deal of practice for the specific pair of parts. If I was singing on a song with a band, it'd be either tricky instrumental part or lead or harmony vox, but not both.

The nice thing about working with a band is being able to structure songs to support these sorts of constraints. It's also, obviously, a nice thing about doing overdub-based recording.
posted by cortex at 8:30 PM on July 5, 2010

Agree with the above: its a learned skill.

But I find it really comes a lot quicker than you expect too. well with guitar anyway. Chords and more repetitive parts are pretty easy to get the hang of if you practice those songs everyday for a few weeks.

However i find it absolutely impossible to play any kind of complicated syncopated / funky bassline while singing. but I think its cause i have to concentrate / get into a rhythm too much when i play bass.
posted by mary8nne at 4:01 AM on July 6, 2010

funky bassline

Yeah, see, that's it: chunking out chords is one thing, but bass lines and singing together, that's a double melodic line thing, which is a whole other beast. Especially when we're talking relatively complex bass lines, which is why I mentioned McCartney upthread.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:09 AM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Interesting how the brain works. Not only can't I sing when I'm playing complex guitar stuff that isn't fully into muscle memory territory, but I can't even talk. If someone is talking with me while I'm playing, I have absolutely no difficulty fully focusing on what they are saying, and I can nod or shake my head in response, but I'm completely unable to form any words unless I stop playing. They guitar playing part of my brain definitely shares resources with my speech, but not much overlap with my listening and comprehending brain center.
posted by jpdoane at 9:57 AM on July 6, 2010

Just struck me that this is a farting and chewing gum simultaneously kinda thing. Which may mean, ultimately, that most of are in fact Gerald Ford*.....(cue Spartacus gag).

*a remark about Ford's intellectual capacity allegedy, and perhaps apochryphally, made by Lydnon Johnson - who ironically never struck me as the sharpest knife in the Presidential drawer himself....
posted by MajorDundee at 2:02 PM on July 6, 2010

I'm kinda known amongst my friends for being very good at this: playing really odd and complicated licks while singing. I still can't play the piano very well or play anything tricky on a drum set, so it's not an across the board rhythmic thing, necessarily.

Just practice practice practice. Find a song with a nice straight-forward strum and progression, get the guitar down so that its automatic and then start trying to sing.

rinse repeat.
posted by es_de_bah at 8:22 PM on July 7, 2010

Nah, it took time for me to figure out which notes would resonate with which other notes, and what additional notes would sound...oh wait...you probably meant guitar, not horn.
posted by askmeaboutLOOM at 8:31 PM on July 7, 2010

I could always play and sing at the same time. However, the things I could play and sing were played very badly, and/or very simply, at first. A lot of it is muscle memory; can you sit at a piano and bang out the same chord rhythmically, over and over, while you sing the same note at the same time? I'm sure you can. Keep doing it, and eventually you'll be able to sing lots of different notes while banging out that chord, or switch the chords a bit while singing that same note. Later on, you'll be able to do both at once.

It quite simply requires practice. You can't think about everything at once, so you have to entrust muscle memory, and that only comes from practice. So, get started.
posted by davejay at 11:02 PM on July 7, 2010

Oh, and re the Paul McCartney thing -- he was already performing when he met John Lennon in mid-1957. The first Beatles album was recorded in late-1962, and the first minor hit from that was Love Me Do. That is *not* a funky bass part or complicated melody, not hardly. So no less than five years of playing live as a professional musician on a regular basis before we have a recording to know what he sounded like. I promise you: if you played out, night after night, weekend after weekend for five years with little break, you might not sound like he did at the time, but you'd sure as hell be able to sing and play complicated things at the same time.
posted by davejay at 11:09 PM on July 7, 2010

It takes practice, and then it takes persistence. I couldn't play bass guitar and sing at first, and then when I joined a band where I really wanted to make a backing-vocals contribution, it was difficult. Eventually, I stopped having to think about the bass line, and it became easier to focus on the vocals. For guitar, it's a bit easier for me. For drums, I've had a hard time, but it was never required of me, so I never worked at it.

It also requires keeping in practice. I've found if I stop doing it for a while, singing and playing at the same time, and then I pick it up weeks or months later, I have to climb the hill again. It's not as steep of a hill, but it's still something that requires effort... until it doesn't.
posted by not_on_display at 4:01 PM on July 8, 2010

Hey, this thread is chock full-o good stuff. I'd like to add one little thing. If you're playing guitar, then you've already trained your brain to make physical actions happen independently (right hand vs. left hand). Theoretically, learning to sing while playing should be no more difficult than learning to play guitar in the first place.

Neil Young songs are pretty good for getting started but you might want to use a capo so you don't sing like him!
posted by snsranch at 4:43 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I got my first guitar when I was 13. I turned 30 last September and have only successfully managed to sing along while playing guitar in the last six months. And the songs have to be very rhythmically simple. I've finally figured out that a good portion of the problem, for me, is that I've had more training singing than on guitar, so I end up focusing on all the stuff I should be focusing on to sing, and ignoring my hands completely. Once that occurred to me, I learned to just try and follow the rhythm on the guitar without panicking too much about the chords (or my pitch - at some point I have to just sing and not worry about it), and I think I've built up enough muscle memory that I don't struggle with chord changes like I used to, so the pieces are coming together. And I've learned that if I can hit the rhythm, and sing roughly in tune, I can get away with a lot of klutziness on the guitar.
posted by annathea at 5:55 AM on July 9, 2010

I actually find that most of the time, I'm singing automatically, and concentrating (if at all) on playing the guitar (or bass or whatever). The singing is the easy part--either you know the words and melody or you don't. Your vocal cords know exactly what to do. Worry about your hands. And then, eventually, you don't worry about your hands, either. And you can play through songs while thinking about what's for dinner or oooh, I need to get my oil changed.

It helps, of course, that I'm clumsy and don't try to do anything but bang out chords while I sing...
posted by uncleozzy at 6:34 AM on July 9, 2010

Your vocal cords know exactly what to do. Worry about your hands.

Other way round with me. Guitar is, as we say this side of the pond, a piece of piss. Generally, the guitar does what it's told and behaves impeccably. My vocal chords, on the other hand, are evil little bastards who will deliberately give me the finger at a crucial point in a take.
posted by MajorDundee at 3:08 PM on July 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I play by ear (and I sing by ear) and I can't really do them at once. If I have to, one or the other (or both) has to be done by rote with no unrehearsed embellishments.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:00 PM on July 9, 2010

Honeslty, I do it perfectly fine, but I don't ever remember struggling with it. It makes sense that it's a learned skill, and it may be that when I was growing up, and singing along to records (yes, kids: RECORDS), that I was tapping along on my leg or the floor or something and it just sort of happened.

A lot of my other musical skills, I distinctly recall learning them and having to practice until they were any good. But singing along? Not sure. It might have helped that I had Beatles songs memorized (the vocals) and while I was struggling through the chords lo those many years ago, my automatic memory just sang along. But that doesn't explain how I did it with my own songs that same first week.

So, to sum up: I'm stumped. But I'm glad other folks have provided some insight into how they did it.
posted by grubi at 7:46 AM on July 10, 2010

When I first started to play my stuff live it was a struggle since I recorded all my songs myself with a multitracker, never having actually performed them. I was okay with simple strummy stuff, but if I had to sing a different rhythm than I was playing it was very difficult.

I had many times wondered if it was even possible.

Eventually I stumbled upon a trick I still use when I'm getting used to playing a new riff while singing. I concentrate on playing the riff and then I just try to make any noise with my voice over it. Usually I try and hold one note. So, play the riff over and over and try to sing "ahhhhhhhhhhh" without screwing up the guitar.

After I feel comfortable with that I can start making small variations in my voice. I keep making it harder and "stretching" until I can play the riff and sing at the same time.

These days it takes me about half an hour to an hour to get the hang of a difficult one ("difficult" by my standards) but it used to take much longer.
posted by frenetic at 8:58 PM on July 10, 2010

I play bass and sing, and it was definitely a learned skill for me. When I was first starting out, I really had to focus on learning the bass parts, then once I felt comfortable, I would add in the singing. I paid special attention to where the changes synced up with the lyrics so I could use those as cues. It also helps to try and simplify your playing somewhat, saving the fancier stuff for solo and other sections of the song where there are no vocals. But in short, yes definitely something you can learn with time and practice!
posted by platinum at 12:51 AM on July 12, 2010

Thanks everybody for all of the great insight and advice! I'll add that for me the #1 biggest obstacle was getting (mostly) past my singing hangup. #2 seems to be having played and/or sung a tune enough to know the chords & words in my sleep.

Combined with all the other brain multitasking hacks mentioned in this thread, it all comes back to the same old thing: practice, practice, practice.
posted by usonian at 4:45 PM on July 12, 2010

Singing hangup: that is a really big thing to get past.

Car is good. Once you get used to the feeling of singing LOUD in the car, a big empty room is next.

It's psychological. You are used to talking/shouting loud in a big room, or when there is loud music (eg car) playing. You are not used to doing this when wearing phones (especially with one ear off, which is typical for recording) or when the mic is six inches from your mouth. So it's really important to get used to opening up your voice in the absence of all that stuff.

I say this because I've been going through it recently. It's amazing how much louder you can sing once you are not treating the mic as a person. On the other hand, treating the mic as a person's ear is sometimes very effective. But singing loud in an empty room while accompanying yerself on acoustic guitar -- a whole lot of catharsis in there.
posted by unSane at 8:15 PM on July 12, 2010

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