Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Why Singing Without Playing Your Instrument Feels So Weird

Singing sans your instrument can be excruciating!
NOTE: The audio player should appear below, if not, please click on the title of this post and go online to hear. 
Available also on iTunes , Google PlayTuneIn Radio, Android apps

People who usually sing while playing guitar, bass, keyboards, drums or other instrument often find it weird and frustratingly difficult to sing as well without playing. The reasons can be psychological and physical.

You can find yourself lost without your instrument on the live stage and in the recording studio:
  • Live, maybe you want to get out from behind your instrument for at least a song or two for a more direct and intimate connection to your audience, or just to change the optics and the energy of the show. 
  • In the studio, it's usually wise to do vocals as a controllable overdub instead of simultaneously singing and playing. 
Let me give you an interesting example. When I first moved to Nashville many years ago, I was sang a lot of background vocals in what they called "simul-sessions". These sessions were where the musicians, background vocalists and lead singers recorded together at the same time. It was a lot like live TV... if you messed up, it was painfully and publicly obvious and made others have to do-over as well, so there was great incentive (some might say stress) to get your part right the first time!

Anyway, this session was for none other than Johnny Cash. As we prepared to record, I remember that I watched a studio tech take the strings off his guitar and give it to him to hold while he was singing. His wise and legendary producer (Snake Reynolds) had noticed he sang better when attached to his guitar! At the time I wondered why that mattered; now I understand.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this post is only for those who are most comfortable singing and playing, and feel that's where they sing the best. It's not for those...

  • who are NOT confident playing at the same time as singing.
  • who play with bad, crunched posture.
  • who actually DON'T have good enough vocal technique to sing well while playing.

Psychological issues of singing without playing

When your brain learns to do something, it programs as much of the action into automatic as it can in order to accomplish the goal much more efficiently, easier and faster. The brain literally lays down myelin sheath fiber highways around the neural synapse pathways it wants to memorize. If you change a factor, especially as significant as what the side limbs of your body are doing, it can throw the auto button back to manual! Then you start thinking about the "how" instead of the "what" that you are communicating.

The result can be frozen or guarded stance, missing body & facial language, numbness and other performance fails. Vocal issues and limitations creep in, sabotaging your confidence even more. There's no way your voice can do it's best when your brain is occupied with so much conscious thinking.

Physical issues of singing without playing

When your hands aren't playing, they don't know what to do and tend to fall like dead weight. This makes your arms into 'ribcage anchors'. Then the dropped, tight ribcage allows too much slack and uncontrolled movement in the dome of the diaphragm. Think of this as the kiss of death to breath control!

Without the familiar instrument at your hands to brace against, your head tends to drift forward. This again adds to the collapse of the ribcage, and also the tightening of the throat. Then the chin starts coming up and forward to hit notes which had been easy when you were playing simultaneously. Think of this as the kiss of death to tone, range, pitch ... and say hello to vocal strain!

What you can do

There are some ninja tricks that can help you sing as well - if not better - without your instrument! Please understand that every singer is unique. You may not be aware of what you're really doing and it's best to work with a coach who can diagnose your particular issues and fine tune these tactics for you. That said, here are 3 suggestions:

1. Check your posture

Stand flexibly tall instead of crouched forward. Balance your head over your heels intstead of your toes. Make sure the upper curve of your back is flexibly straight instead of pronounced. On stage, use body language of the magnet instead of the blowhard (interesting term isn't it?). In the studio, know how to position yourself at the mic so you are flexibly tall.

2. Use your hands

As I mentioned, the position and action of your hands affects your breath control, and breath control creates vocal control. If on stage you have a mic or mic stand in your hand, learn to use your grip to widen your ribcage. Mostly keep the butt end of the mic 45 degrees down, and the head of the mic right at your mouth. Squeeze it - not continually, just as you articulate your lyrics. Done correctly, this should create a pulling sensation that makes you tall and wide, opening your throat and ribcage. Just don't pull it away from your mouth much.  If singing in the studio, hold a backscratcher or the equivalent stick-shaped object between your palms, which should replicate the ribcage widening that happens when you play your instrument. Gently squeeze the stick between your palms to open your ribcage and brace your head back over your spine.

3. Focus on the point of the spear... the message

Here's where not having an instrument can help you. If you don't have to worry about playing the right chords, and you use these other ninja tricks so your voice feels controlled and strong, you can focus your mind even better onto the message and the person to whom you're singing.

Why I keep giving away the farm

I'd like to take a moment today and tell you why I create All Things Vocal blog and podcast. I put so much into it I've been told by many people that I 'give away the farm'. Actually, they are right... if you can't afford professional vocal training at all (keeping in mind I have a course that's just $19.95) then it is my purposeful intention that you can improve your vocal ability for free from the information you read and hear on All Things Vocal. You can help by sharing it with others. You can sign up for my newsletter at judyrodman.com to get monthly blog updates so you don't miss one!

However, there's so much more I can help you with. If your voice is important to you, and you want to go farther with more proven techniques, look into my training courses and/or take one-on-one singing or speaking lessons with me in person or online. The improvement you'll experience is fast... even one lesson can jump-start you to your next level of ability.

Your questions, comments and suggestions are always welcome! Do you play and sing? What's your experience with/without your instrument?

Labels: , , , ,


  • At November 11, 2017 at 5:34 AM , Blogger Cash Banister said...

    You are truly a Godsend, Judy. I'm a singer/rhythm guitarist who has been struggling with my lead vocals in the studio. Typically, I start each track singing and playing simultaneously. Once I get a decent take of a guide vocal and guitar, I do a separate vocal witout playing my guitar. That is when all hell breaks loose. Without holding my guitar, I feel naked and it sounds like I'm trying to sing for the very first time in my life...no emotion, no control, no power, horrible tone, etc. I was beginning to think that I was a real mental case (which I probably am anyway). I had no idea why my guide vocals were so much better. Thanks to you, now I do understand. In my particular case, creating the guitar-driven rhythm for the song keeps me rooted and committed to an emotional performance. Without the physical motion of my arms, hands and feet, I just don't feel as involved emotionally in a performance. I get just as much out of playing the rhythm to a song as I doing singing it...and combining the two makes for the most gratifying musical experience. Conversely, singing with no guitar in the studio tends to be tedious, unfulfilling and quite limiting for me. However, after reading your enlightening article, I feel both inspired and excited to try your suggestions. After all, it seemed to work pretty well for Joe Cocker!

  • At November 11, 2017 at 8:03 AM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    I am thrilled you found this post so helpful, Cash... thanks so much for your feedback here! Yes, it's amazing how the feeling of our instrument in our fingers triggers emotional connection to the song. Let us know how these suggestions work for you!


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]