by Jaime Babbitt
Wait a second: let me start by saying that the title of this article needs to be: “Three Reasons Why Choir Singers Should Learn an Instrument That Plays Chords, Like Piano or Guitar.” Flutes and saxophones are great, but they can’t offer the polyphonic breadth and advantages that singers need to amass their mad skills. Alright then, onward.
Singers who know how to sing well are good singers. Singers who can understand and speak the vocabulary of music are even better singers. And singers who can play a chordal instrument (even at a beginner’s level) have a large advantage over the others.
Why? Why can’t we just sing? Well, you can. And sing you shall. But if you love singing and want to expand your horizons, you might consider these observations:
You can be a self-contained music-making machine
Let’s say that choral singing is your jam and that’s all you ever want to do. But, let’s say you’d like to read some sheet music or a chord chart for a piece you’re working on. Or perhaps you want to branch out and learn a song or two. Or 17. Or how about writing your own material, huh? Well, learning a polyphonic instrument means that you won’t always be on the hook to find someone to accompany you. And you won’t have to sing to some yucky karaoke track, in a key that maybe isn’t your key. Just sayin’…
Even if you’d rather just stick to choral singing, you can play your parts on a real keyboard or guitar, fine-tuning the notes you’re singing on an instrument that has fixed pitch. (Human voices vary, as we all know.) Have you ever had recordings given out by your choir director with someone from your section singing your parts? And maybe they weren’t Auto-Tuned? Or maybe they were and now you’re trying to learn from a not-so-perfectly tuned, human robot-voice? All this goes away when you play your own parts with your own hands.
Musical knowledge is power
Pitch, rhythm and melodic and harmonic structure are the cornerstones of singing and making music, right? And, like any worthy endeavor, getting a solid foundation in these areas takes diligence, patience and time devoted to practicing. When we learn piano or guitar, we increase our chances of improving in all the way around. Again, we’re on fixed instruments so our ears become used to pitch as rendered by said instrument (Yes, I know regular pianos go out of tune. That’s why we pay people to tune them. Electronic ones, however, do not.) Also, our rhythmic capabilities will get a fantastic workout on both piano and guitar; both instruments will require you to create tempo using your own body, holding you to a higher rhythmic standard than if you’re singing acapella, or to a track that you yourself aren’t playing. Melodically, you’ll start to feel the relationships between intervals in your bones more fully (For those who speak solfege: Do to Mi jumps, Do to Fa, Do to Sol, etc.) and more importantly, in your muscles, firing new synapses and making new muscle memories. And don’t get me started about harmonies, you can pick them out slowly, find more typical ‘third’ and ‘fifth’ harmonies above/below, then create fancy, not-so-run-of-the-mill ones yourself…the possibilities are almost endless. Also, learning how to read music as well as chord charts, number charts and even guitar tablature takes me to my third and final observation:
Learning piano and guitar makes for healthy minds, bodies and spirits
Learning how to learn, in and of itself, is supremely beneficial at any age. For younger folks, you can use your sharp, yet sponge-like brains to get 10,000 musical hours under your belts in warp speed, improving hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills (nod to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” here). For older folks, please know that it’s perfectly okay to begin studying at your own personal college of musical knowledge at any time. Learning and playing a musical instrument keeps all your parts in great working order: relaxing nervous systems, increasing endorphin and serotonin production, lowering blood pressure and taking off at least 15 pounds. Okay, fine. I lied about the 15 pounds. But the more I practice piano and guitar, the busier my hands are so they’re not grabbing chocolate. Or pretzels. Or chocolate covered pretzels, you know, the ones with the dark choc…
But I digress.
In my humble opinion, possessing curiosity and continuing to learn new things is truly the fountain of youth, no matter what you’re learning. Opening your mind and body to new music, sounds, feelings and experiences…priceless. And that openness and curiosity about life we’re talking about? It will help you become a better singer. See, singing isn’t just about what comes out of your mouth. It’s about what you put in to your heart and mind. It might sound crazy, but trust me on this one.
Jaime Babbitt coached voice/performance for Disney and wrote Working with Your Voice: The Career Guide to Becoming a Professional Singer (Alfred Publishing). As a session singer, she’s “jingled” for Coke, Pillsbury, Chevrolet and hundreds more. She’s sung thousands of gigs and toured with Leon Russell and Sam Moore. Jaime sang BGVs with George Strait, Courtney Love, Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Webb, Miley & Billy Ray Cyrus, Johnny Mathis and more, performed off-Broadway and coaches voice in NYC, LA and Connecticut. For info, workingwithyourvoice.com