Ask the Expert – Singing Whilst Playing

Lindsay Hiratzka sent us this question:

I am the bassist and I play mostly by ear.  As a result, my approach to playing bass is similar to my approach to singing, hearing in my mind what I want to play, then playing it.  I also love to sing, but I can’t seem to marry the two.  Is there a quick fix or is it just years of practice?

Tim Martin, who also covers this question in our worship keyboard DVDs, answers:
People often experience difficulty when learning to play and sing at the same time. There is no reason why this should be harder on one instrument than another (unless you have to blow the instrument!) so we can consider the main issues together.

Problems generally occur when you have to think too hard about more than one thing at a time (some would say particularly for men). This is definitely the case when singing and playing at the same time. Generally, the more natural and intuitive your playing is, the easier it will be to sing at the same time as playing. If it takes a significant amount of mental energy to interpret chord symbols or read music and then play the right note together with fitting in with the other instrumentalists then singing as well will probably be a stretch.

The simple answer to this is, unfortunately, practice. I took up playing the bass around two years ago and, until recently, it has been quite hard for me to sing whilst playing. This is precisely because I was having to think about playing the right thing. As I’ve got more used to the instrument and to where my fingers are likely to move I’ve become more able to sing at the same time. However, when I’m playing a new song or something with an intricate or difficult bass line this new-found ability suddenly deserts me!

The more you play an instrument and get used to the patterns that are likely to come up in worship, the more able you will be to sing at the same time. This goes for individual songs as well. The more you automatically play the line with your fingers, the less your voice will be affected by it. The best suggestion I can give is to start small. Have a go at learning a song you play a lot. Learn it really well so that it becomes almost natural to play it. Try having conversations with people at the same time as playing – that will test if you can separate what you’re doing with your hands from what your mouth is saying. Once the playing seems easy have a go at singing. If you need to simplify what you are playing then do so and then try again. It is often necessary to adapt our playing so that we are able to sing.

The biggest problem usually comes when trying to play and sing different rhythms at the same time. It is important not to simplify playing so far that we don’t fit in with the groove of the band. Often the tension and release of the melody using different rhythms from the underlying accompaniment is what makes a song interesting. Again the solution is to practice. In places where the rhythms become difficult, try to play the line slowly and then sing the contrasting part over the top. Make sure that your playing doesn’t  automatically follow the rhythm of the melody. This may take some work but if you persist on small sections of songs it will pay dividends for a lot of different songs. You’ll find that once you can sing and play a few songs, others will quickly follow. Don’t get sucked into trying too many songs or too much of one song too quickly. Persist with little bits slowly and you should start to notice the difference.

You’ll also find this question covered a number of times on our worship vocals DVDs.