Why (jazz) guitar players should take singing lessons

John Pizzarelli

John Pizzarelli

I’ve been taking jazz guitar lessons for about 8 years. More than one year ago, I was wondering whether I should take (jazz) singing lessons. Becoming a singer was not a goal for me (I didn’t even consider it achievable). But I was curious about what vocalists do, and in addition I thought approaching music from that point of view could be enriching. So I finally started.

First of all, I must put some perspective. You’ve probably done all the training and the long hard work it takes to become a true professional musician; if that’s the case, most of this will be nonsense for you. But if you’re like me, you didn’t really do the serious work first; you actually learned music through the guitar. The strings are your friends, but the notes are your enemies; maybe you can’t even tell which note will sound in every fret and string. And I’ve met lots of guys out there that did exactly the same: all the music they know is bound to the guitar, and there are lots of things they can’t separate from the guitar.

And now, if you are a bit like me, I’m going to tell you two things: how you should take singing lessons, and why you should definitely do it.

 

HOW

The first, most important thing, is to find the proper trainer. And there are two things involved: musical tools and strictly vocal tools.

As for the former, studying jazz implies finding a good jazz trainer. Someone that understands the genre, that masters and is able to explain the many skills needed (improvisation, storytelling, pronunciation, acting, modern harmony, rhythm, style…). Studying jazz singing with an operatic teacher is not a good choice, in my opinion (you can learn tons of things anyway, that’s for sure).

As for the latter, the pure vocal technique, let me state a strong opinion of mine. Forget religion. Forget beliefs. Go for a trainer who only accepts scientific evidence and understands everything he’s teaching.

The vocal training world is full of, so to speak, alchemists. There’s a good reason for that. If you take dancing lessons, your teacher will probably refer to your left foot or ask you to raise your elbow. If you take singing lessons… your feet and elbows are, in this case, hidden inside your neck. Teachers are usually reluctant to cut your throat open in front of a mirror just to show you how to reach a high note. And let’s face it: even if they were allowed to use the scalpel, lots of singers (I suspect teachers included) do not have anyway a clue about the real anatomy of singing (science itself is still studying many aspects of it).

To get to control those unknown organs, people resort to metaphors, or to sensations, or just invent things. So the singing world is bloated with contradictory schools of thought, keeping endless discussions about names, about whether something exists or not.

Don’t allow anybody to teach you with metaphors only. They must prove that they know and understand the real stuff. And for me, this means only one thing: your trainer must follow EVTS or some similar method. Something based on biology, physics, with a consistent nomenclature based on sound scientific principles. Singing is just producing sound; the only allowed magic involves emotions. Reject myths. Flee alchemists, embrace chemists.

I was lucky enough to have a local singer which is proficient in both musical and vocal tools for jazz singing as I’ve described above (in addition to being a superb musician whom I admire).

 

WHY

After my singing lessons, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important reason is this one:

You must get your guitar out of your way for making music.

Guitar is a jealous beast. No matter who you are and how long you practice, I can bet you need to practice more. That’s true, and will always be. But eventually you must realize that guitar is -literally- an instrument for producing music. The music is somewhere else.

George Benson

George Benson

Most guitar players I know are aware that they are barely able to read, or not able at all; that they are not fluent computing intervals, or naming the notes of a particular scale. Many of us never stop playing during a solo. We don’t pay much attention to the story a song tells (not to mention the lyrics). We forget dynamics, we don’t use them (in spite of their being a particularly powerful emotional resource). We choose and play rhythmic and melodic patterns, but they are bound to our fingers. In fact, very often we are not sure how our own patterns sound; we don’t really have the sounds of the notes in our head, in spite of being able to play them. We are producing music that reflect our artistic decisions, but only to a certain degree; a part of it is not stored in our mind, but in our hands and eyes. Even worse: we are not even aware of this… until we try to sing some pattern.

If you keep relying only on the guitar, you’ll be able to improve your playing. But if you’re like me, you’ll probably never find the motivation to really sit down and study intervals until you master them. Or to really use written music as a valuable tool for transmitting, receiving and processing information. But above all: you’ll never realize that, after all, you don’t really know how that chord, or that scale, sounds. You’ll be relying, consciously or not, on your eyes and your hand.

Singing is a revealing experience. You can’t hide behind the guitar, but most importantly, you must make your music with your head. Step aside the guitar several times a week, face the music, try to sing over a dominant chord, and then return to the instrument.

I keep taking guitar lessons, of course. Last week, I worked harder on the vocal lessons, and let guitar a bit aside. The next guitar session, my teacher and I played three tunes I’ve been studying for weeks. I was afraid of the results, having practiced even less than usual. Of course I noticed the lack of practice, but actually my guitar teacher was quite happy with my playing (and believe me, that’s not easy to achieve). Phrasing, rest management, several of these things were better. My singing practice had emerged while playing the guitar. For instance, when you sing you get acquainted with rests… you need them to breathe!

I’m not saying that I’m a proficient improvisor now (nor an excellent singer, by the way). I devote only a handful of hours a week to music, and most days (literally) I don’t event grab the guitar at all. My progress is very, very slow (but constant). So I cannot tell how this will result in the end. But I’m just starting to see the benefits, and I think it’s worth it.

Problem is, you could easily die from a sudden handsomeness overdose.

Problem is, you could easily die from a sudden handsomeness overdose.

In addition to producing notes, singing will make you a better musician in many other aspects that your guitar is making you forget. You’ll start to get interested in lyrics, in storytelling. You’ll face the fact of producing music without hiding your body; you’ll probably improve your stage presence. You’ll probably start expressing some more things with your face, as you think about what you’re telling (never, ever, underestimate the importance of a smile or a way of looking). While singing, you’ll discover that you can whisper, you can shout, the music changes completely around that, and you’ll realize that dynamics are probably the most underrated, forgotten resource of your playing. The list goes on and on, but to summarize: with a guitar, you can play with little intention. When the instrument is your own body, you can’t work around your intention, so you take a more involved, conscious approach to music. And your intention, your conscience, your feelings, is what this business is all about.

There are very many other reasons to take  singing lessons. For instance, I suppose you’ll be much more valuable as a professional if you’re able to sing (in my case, this is just a hobby), you’ll be more versatile and independent (you’ll be able to gig alone, you’ll be able to do backing vocals, you’ll write and play vocal duo arrangements, you’ll use your voice as another instrument, combined with the guitar or not…). Also, you’ll be able to better understand singers (yes, that’s actually possible!) and help them with your comping.

And there’s another important reason: you can enjoy singing itself. It’s very interesting, and after all… let’s admit it, it’s fun!

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Una respuesta to “Why (jazz) guitar players should take singing lessons”

  1. Leer con la guitarra | Diariu de Guti Says:

    […] Por cierto, dice otra cosa interesante sobre cantar, otro tema que me interesa. […]

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