CAN sing it?… CAN play it better!

February 2, 2010 4:29 pm in Drumset by Jon Wilson

Have you ever heard the expression: “can’t sing it, can’t play it.”? It sounds negative telling someone they CAN’T do something, but I believe it’s true that if you CAN sing something, you CAN play it better. I’d like to share some ideas on this.

Since our voice is part of our body I feel it is the instrument closest to our soul – where the true expression of our musical ideas are rooted, and if you can sing a musical phrase or dictate a pulse or subdivision with your voice, you OWN it – it’s coming from WITHIN.  Also, when you sing something, your ears hear it, giving you something to copy or accompany on your instrument.

When a student of mine is having trouble playing a rhythm or phrase, I’ll sing it to them and have them sing it back. Most of them are very shy (after all, they’re not at a voice lesson!) so I assure them vocal tone is not important and I too feel uncomfortable singing in front of people. (Using a goofy lyric or expression can help too.) Once they overcome their vocal insecurity and sing or say the passage, 9 times out of 10 they are able to play it. One reason is that they’ve heard the phrase, but another is that they now begin to take ownership of it, and perhaps have something memorable to attach to it (the goofy expression).

As a bonus, sometimes drummers tend to see rhythms as they will sound on a snare drum (little if any sustain to the note), so singing the full duration of the note values and articulation helps us hear the phrases as MUSIC – not just rhythms.  We ARE musicians, right??

Another example is to internalize the pulse by singing it. This isn’t a new concept. In Gary Chester’s drum set book, The New Breed, he advocates singing the pulse as well as various parts of the drum set as part of the study.

Benny Greb illustrates in his DVD, The Language of Drumming, how beneficial singing can be when mastering rhythms. He also mentioned in a clinic that the single most helpful exercise he ever practiced was singing the pulse through anything he played on the drum set.

Try this:

While playing or clapping a simple rhythm, sing a crisp sound on the pulse (in 4/4 this would be the quarter note).  Doing this helps you really feel (not just hear) the pulse relative to the rhythms you are playing. You might also try singing long tones (similar to a walking bass line). This helps you hear the DURATION of the pulse beat and give each one its full value.  Does this feel awkward to you? I feel it’s more challenging than listening to a metronome or tapping my foot.  What do you think??

You can also practice this while you play your favorite drum grooves. It may feel a little weird at first since you might play what you’re singing and vice versa. Take it slow, be patient, and eventually move on to more complex patterns. From there, move on to singing subdivisions, melodies, or even rests!  I feel more “grounded” when I do this… Try it yourself or with your students!

Another exercise I’ve found helpful is to sing along when listening to, learning, and even performing music. Knowing the melody and form of a song are essential.  So being able to sing along helps you memorize the music and really become one with it. Your familiarity helps keep your place in the song form – especially during solos (drum or otherwise) and gives you a reference for maintaining a steady tempo throughout the song.

Don’t limit yourself to the melody/lead voice either. Learn and sing along with the bass part, or any other instrument you want to lock into. Heck, sing the drum parts too! Dare I admit I was a fan of “beat-box” music in the ’80’s??

Again, vocal tone isn’t the important thing here – you don’t have to be a good singer to try this stuff. These are things that have helped my playing and teaching, and I’d be happy to hear your feedback or any other examples you have to share!