Singing While Playing
By Kimberly McInnis
Self-accompanying is a deceptively difficult skill to master. As someone who started playing piano at a very young age, it was something I took for granted until I began teaching and deconstructing the process. Today, it is the number one request I receive from new students, especially among adult singer-songwriters. In this post, I’ll talk about some common pitfalls when learning to self-accompany, and some practice tips that have worked for me and my students.
For my earliest performances as a teenager and through college, my main approach was to practice my piano parts hundreds of times, until my hands could play on “autopilot”. Once I reached that point, I didn’t have to think about my accompaniment, and I could focus all of my cognitive energy on the emotions I wanted to convey through my singing. It’s a wonderful feeling to know a song so well that you don’t have to think about it, but as my sets lists grew longer, it became harder and harder to reach that point of unconscious competence.
When I got the piano bar gig, my job as a new hire was to hit 70 songs within the training period. That worked out to learning 5-6 songs/week, with all lyrics and piano parts memorized. Fortunately, the suggested repertoire list was full of 4-chord pop songs. Unfortunately, my previous method of practicing was not going to cut it.
I now believe the difficulties of singing while playing can be summed up in three main categories: (1) rhythmic uncertainty, (2) effort spreading, and (3) faulty practice strategy. If you’re looking to improve your self-accompaniment skills, understanding the first two issues will help you practice more effectively.
No matter what instrument you play, coordination is key. Pianists may be juggling 2-4 (or more) discrete parts between hands. Guitarists need an elegant synchronicity between fretted hand and picking hand in order to keep time and play cleanly.
As singers, we usually react to the beat. Our melodies often blur over bar lines, and we further modify rhythms for emotional or stylistic effect, back phrasing or pushing as the text inspires us. This is grand, but when you are self-accompanying, you must internalize the beat. The melody you sing has its own rhythm that will interact with (and potentially confound) the rhythm of your accompaniment. So I ask you: do you really know the rhythms you’re singing?
I am a huge proponent of learning music by ear, and I think it’s wonderful to ad lib and change things up as the spirit moves you. But first, you must have the beat completely internalized and rock solid. The best way I know to achieve that is to clearly visualize how your rhythms interact with the beat. If you read music, jot down the count on your score. If you don’t read, set a metronome to subdivide 16th notes and tap along as you sing. You may be surprised what you find.
Getting your rhythms right is the mental game. Next, your body needs to behave accordingly. This is where the Effort Monitoring principle of Estill Voice Training is absolutely crucial. We know that there is a necessary physical effort to sing. EVT helps us localize that effort and reduce excess tensions with Relaxation Maneuvers. But have you considered the necessary effort of playing your instrument? It’s possible that effort from playing may spread to your vocal muscles and inhibit your singing.
Subvocalization is one example. I’ve borrowed this term from speed reading, where it’s used to describe the act of silently speaking words you read, resulting in slower speeds. If you subvocalize your accompaniment, it means you’re silently singing your instrumental parts, which may unconsciously move your larynx and sabotage your singing. My “autopilot” method busted rhythmic coordination problems through sheer repetition, but if I were to subvocalize, I might still have problems with pitch accuracy, since my larynx wasn’t properly calibrated. By monitoring larynx height as I practice my comps, I can effectively cut my practice time in half.
The way you sing when you mark a song in practice might also be an obstacle. Before EVT, I was prone to singing in a falsetto-like quality during coordination practice. My marking quality reinforced a mid tongue position. Then, I’d have to spend even more practice time to correct my tongue. While marking can be helpful to reduce vocal fatigue, I now advocate using the Estill Siren or Miren, especially if you have a mid tongue attractor state like me.
Finally, look at how effort from your singing may spread and disrupt your playing. I’ve definitely found myself slamming the keys when I’m belting a big power ballad, and I often flub pretty trills or rush the tempo as a result.
I recommend recording your practice sessions to examine necessary vs. extraneous efforts. Do you hold your breath or clench your teeth before that tricky piano passage? Do you stiffen your strumming hand and drop beats when you Torso Anchor? Once you know where your efforts are spreading, you can isolate and experiment with different Effort Numbers to get the results you want.
Step by Step
Hopefully the concepts above have given you some ideas of what to focus on when you’re practicing. To summarize, here are the general steps I suggest:
Do the mental work first. If you’re learning by ear, listen to recordings and internalize the beat before you dig into the parts. If you’re reading, spend some time alone with the score, away from your instrument. When in doubt, count out loud.
Schedule your practice time. Prioritize sections that are important or repeated, like a chorus or main theme. Also be on the lookout for sections that are technically challenging. There is no rule that you must start at the beginning of the song. Sometimes, it’s even helpful to start at the end; that way, you are always working towards parts you already know. Everyone’s schedule is different, but my preference is to work in practice blocks that are 20-50 mins long.
Practice parts separately. Depending on the song, it may be necessary to start with your instrument, slowly or hands separately. Other times, it will be wiser to plan your voice quality first, mapping out where you’ll breathe between phrases. Always use a metronome!
Put it together. Start with small chunks: a verse, a phrase, or even a few beats at a time. Then, gradually increase the size of your chunks. Use your metronome, and look for a rhythm trainer setting where the metronome intermittently mutes. I love testing my pocket with a rhythm trainer set to two bars of click, two bars of silence.
Simplify parts if needed. There’s no question that audiences are listening to your voice more than your accompaniment. Learning complex comps can be a fun challenge, but you don’t need be a hero. Capture as much as you can of the main accents, and relax about the minor details.
Record and review. Reviewing practice videos is not always pleasant, but it is always revealing. Watch for excess tension, and listen for pitch and rhythmic accuracy. To take things to the next level, record into a digital audio workstation with a metronome. You’ll be able to see how your rhythms line up against the beat grid.
Practice, practice, practice. At the end of the day, self-accompanying truly does take a lot of reps. My piano bar colleagues estimate that it takes 10-20hrs per song to reach true mastery. The good news is that mastering one song will prepare you for countless others in related styles. Eventually, your work will pay off. As an added bonus, musicians everywhere will be always thrilled to back you up!
Good luck and happy practicing!
About the Author
Kimberly McInnis is a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is a dueling piano entertainer at Howl at the Moon nightclub and creates original music as Kim Maverick. She also serves as Support Specialist for Estill Voice International and is the editor of the Think Voice Blog.