Episode 44 – How to Sing and Play an Instrument at the same time!
Updated: Sep 13, 2022
Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of singers who play an instrument while performing.
If you do this, you know how challenging it can be to do both well.
In this episode I share what my years of experience working with these folks has taught me and how I’ve been able to assist them in becoming freer with this process.
This episode may not appear to be for everyone, however, even if you think you may want to play and sing at the same time some day, I think you’ll get a lot out of this.
Frankly, even if you never intend on playing and singing at the same time I feel this episode will still hold some nuggets you can use.
The Inner Singer Podcast
Episode 44 – Transcripts
How to Sing and Play an Instrument at the Same Time
Well, hey there, everybody. This is Mike Goodrich. And thanks so much for tuning in to the Inner Singer Podcast. Welcome on this beautiful day in March. I don’t know when you’re hearing this, but it’s a beautiful day on March here in Southern California 2016.
I probably shouldn’t date myself. But luckily, the thing about the Inner Singer Podcast, and most things singing, is that they are not trendy or timely. They pretty much transcend all of that. It’s not like a hit song or some trend going on on Facebook, or teaching Facebook ads where, all of a sudden, you tune into this and say, “Oh my gosh! This guy recorded this on March of 2016. That’s a year ago.” All of a sudden, it’s not relevant anymore.
Well, the nice thing about this is this stuff is pretty much always relevant. So it never goes out of time.
So, I’m not terribly afraid of saying what the date is as I look out in this beautiful day, sunny March in Los Angeles. Wow! There’s a surprise.
Anyway, I hope you guys are well.
I get this question all the time. I work with a lot of singer-songwriters. I’ve gotten this question for years and years, and helped people with this for years and years. And so I thought I would address it in a podcast.
A lot of you may not be interested in this, I’ll warn you right away. Let me tell you what the topic is in case if you just want to turn this off and don’t feel like this is pertinent to you. But this is going to be about playing an instrument and singing at the same time.
Now I know a lot of you do that. I do it myself once in a while of course. But I know probably some of you don’t do that at all and probably could care less about this. If you have any desire to maybe one day do it, then you may want to take a listen. It will be short and some good information.
But for those of you that play piano, or guitar, or whatever, drums, and sing at the same time, and ever had a challenge doing that, then hopefully this will help a little bit. So, let’s jump right in.
Usually, what happens is I’ll have somebody come in, and they will have their guitar or they’ll sit behind the piano. Let’s take guitar just for fun. So they pick up their guitar and they’ll say, “Yeah, I’m having a little trouble singing this and playing at the same time.”
And the first thing that I notice—I know this is going to be like Capt. Obvious here really, and I know you guys really don’t do this, you guys would never do this—but the first thing I notice is they just don’t know the song very well. They don’t know the guitar part very well. And they don’t know the lyrics necessarily very well.
So again, this is the silliest case scenario and complete Capt. Obvious that we should all know that, but oddly enough a lot of people don’t feel into that, and think, “Wow! The main problem here is that I just don’t know this song well enough.”
So, number one on the list, know the song cold. And that means know the lyrics, know the melody. As far as singing goes, just know it cold.
And if you play guitar or piano, know the music cold. Don’t be reading the music. Don’ tbe looking at the chord chart.
So, my next idea for really mastering this is—again, Capt. Obvious, but its incredible how many people don’t actually do this—because they think that they’ll be playing and singing at the same time, they think that’s the only way to rehearse.
Unless you are an absolute master of your instrument, or an absolute master of your singing, then I do not suggest putting those two together right away.
Now, obviously if the stakes are low—when I was in high school I would play and sing James Taylor songs, or Jethro Tell, or Kath Stevens, I‘m totally dating myself, and I do all that stuff, I didn’t expect that I was great or anything, but I played well enough and I sang well enough that it wasn’t a big deal.
But if you have some complicated things that you’re doing, and the stakes are a little bit higher, then you really want to know that you know the song really well, totally cold, that you can sing it independently of playing it, and that you can play it beautifully, independently of singing it.
Now, the best case scenario and the thing that will make this the easiest for you is to at least be almost able to go automatic pilot on one of those two activities. If your focus is totally divided, you’re thinking about the instrument, and you’re thinking about the voice, that’s a recipe for it not going terribly well.
You’ll notice that these really wonderful people that we admire—the Billy Joel’s, the James Taylor’s, the Elton John’s, whoever you may talk about, McCartney, Sting, these guys that play and sing at the same time as if it’s nothing—are generally pretty automatic pilot with their instrument. In other words, they’re not looking down at their hands. They’re not worried about chord changes. They’re not worried about timing. There are a whole lot of things. They’re just kind of in their implicit memory system.
So, from the brain stand point, if we are thinking about our hand on the guitar or on the piano, and we’re thinking about our words, and we’re thinking about our notes, all of this is working explicitly. It’s in the explicit memory system like when we’re learning how to drive, and we’re 10 and 2 or 18, whatever it is now—they changed it since I was a kid—there’s nothing that’s automatic. Everything is conscious. We are thinking about everything.
Now, how much attention do we actually have? Well, let’s just use the round figure of a hundred percent. We have a hundred percent attention that we can give something, a hundred percent focus.
Okay, so now we are playing guitar and we are singing a song at the same time. So what is now the division there?
Well, if it’s equal it’s going to be 50% of our attention on the instrument, and 50% on the voice. That’s already not going to be going terribly well. If we need to give our instrument more than 50% attention, or our voice more than 50% attention, somethings going to go out the window.
So, if we practice these two activities independently of each other, so that we can really begin to master this particular song, whether it’s the guitar, the piano, the chord changes, the timing, the feel, all of that, so that we aren’t even thinking about singing, we are just feeling into it, and we do it, and we do it, and we do it until it begins to work its way from our explicit memory system into our implicit memory where we don’t have to think about it anymore, like driving.
Now, the changes are happening—our hands, our body. The music is in our body. We are there kinesthetically. We feel into it. We’ve got it. Emotionally, it’s all there. We don’t have to think about it anymore. Then we want to do the same thing with the song, with the voice.
Now, I’m not being unrealistic because I know since most of us can’t necessarily go a hundred percent automatic pilot with our voice yet. That’s all the more reason to really seriously get the instrument as automatic as possible, so that we can afford to give some attention to the voice, the difficult passages and what have you.
The thing that you want to take care of is that you don’t want to have to give yourself any undue wasted attention on remembering lyrics or melody. So these are things that you can go over and over by a rote explicitly until they become a part of your implicit memory system like an old Beatles song.
I mean, if you guys are anywhere my generation—I’m sure some of you are somewhere in my generation—anytime of Beatles song that comes on the radio, you just sing along with it, you know the words right away.
I know the words to every Beatles song. Why? I haven’t sung them in years. But I heard them so much and I sang them so much when I was a kid that they’re now in my implicit memory system filed away, ready for the next time Day Tripper comes on the radio or my family and I go see a Beatle band cover. All of a sudden, we’re singing along with everything. I’m wondering, “Wow! It’s been like how many years and I still remember those words.”
It’s filed away in the implicit memory system. That’s what you want to do with the song that you want to learn.
So, we’re just looking at this one song. I’m going to learn the melody. I’m going to learn the lyrics until I can say the lyrics so—
Here’s how you really know you know. What I want to do is I want to talk to you a little bit about how to not sabotage yourself. So many people come in and they say, “Well I can’t play this and sing at the same time.”
Number one, you don’t know the song well enough on your instrument or on your voice. So if you have convinced yourself that you know this song well enough—which you seem to be doing because of your wiring has now told you, “Okay, I can’t play and sing at the same time. Oh, I’m not good enough to do that”—well, what your wiring isn’t telling you is, “You don’t know the song well enough.”
And that’s why your wiring is tricking you into actually trying to do this before you’re ready, so that you can fill the prophecy of, “I’m not good enough to do this.”
See how it works? We’ve talked about this many, many times in previous podcasts but that’s the idea.
So, what you want to do is and say, “Okay. I really need to learn this. I know a song where I can say the words at light speed without flubbing it up.” I said, “Flubbing it up.”There was an old movie called Flubber years ago. Wow! If you remember that movie, email me because you’re definitely my generation. Nobody’s going to email me because—
Anyway, if you cannot do that, you do not know the song well enough like you know the Pledge of Allegiance if you’re from this country or the Star Spangled Banner, “O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,” I mean fast, fast, fast, “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, happy birthday…” I mean so fast you can hardly get the words out without tripping over your tongue.
When I was doing Sunday in the Park with George—I’ve mentioned this, I think in the previous show—there was a Patter song called Putting It Together. It was 14 minutes live on stage, 14 minutes of all kinds of crazy stuff going on.
And the way that I rehearsed that is I rehearsed it acapella with Westside Story playing at the background. And the minute I could hold my focus and get through 14 minutes of that, well, “Boy, boy. Crazy boy,” Cool was playing in the background, Westside Story was playing in the background, I knew, “Okay, I know this. And I know it so well that if anything happens on stage,”—like it did in Sunday in the Park with George. I sat down in a stool one night and it just broke from under me. And bang, right down in my rear end, I went, and I tried to act like it didn’t hurt.
But anyway, if something happens like that, it doesn’t throw you with the exception of the brief pain that I was in. But if there was a loud noise in the audience, or a piece of scenery falls or lights don’t come on, or whatever, it doesn’t throw you.
So you really, really, really want this in your implicit memory system, so that you’re not consciously thinking about it. If something happens during your performance, and you’re consciously thinking about the lyrics or the melody, your attention would go to, “What was that sound? Why it didn’t like you happened? What’s going on? He forgot his line.” And all of a sudden, boom, you go up on your lines because they are not in your implicit memory system. There’s still something that you have to consciously think about.
So I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I really want you to understand that you don’t know it unless you really, really know it. And sometimes your wiring will trick you into saying and believing that you know a song better than you know it, so that you can fulfill the fact that you didn’t do it that well, “Oh, I know I couldn’t do this.”
Okay, enough said about that. So learn the song cold. Practice the instrument and the singing independently of each other, independently of each other, until they are both going really, really well. Then, and only then—for the serious ones out there—put it together.
And some of it’s going to go out the window, because again, unless you’re a master of your voice and a master of your instrument—you only have a hundred percent attention to give something. So even if you’re only giving 20% attention to your instrument, you now only still have 80% left to give to your voice. So obviously, you see how that divides up.
So what you want to do is learn these things independently, and then you put them together. And when you put them together, go slowly. Be really kind to yourself.
When you really start putting this together, if you put them together too soon—even if you don’t, even if you wait to really know the song cold, both musically and lyrically, melodically, singing in and playing it—the minute that you put it together, this is a new wiring that you’re creating in your brain. This is a new circuit for you. This is a new habit and a new pattern that you’re crating. And it’s going to now go from the activity of being implicit because now, “I can sing the song now. It’s in my implicit memory system” or, “I can play this song and it’s in my implicit memory system. I don’t have to think about it when I’m playing it. I don’t have to think about it when I’m singing it.” But now that I’m bringing these two together, all of a sudden, this activity is back at my explicit memory system because I am now doing this at the same time.
So, don’t expect it to go incredibly peachy right away. Give yourself some time to work back in to it, so that you can feel your way through it.
Where are those parts of the song where you can be just completely auto-pilot with your voice? Where are those parts of the song that you can be completely auto-pilot with your instrument?
And allow for that dance. Allow for that, “Oh, I’m thinking about my voice right now. Oh, I’m thinking about my instrument right now. Oh I’m thinking about my voice. Oh gosh, I forgot that lyrics. Oh gosh, I missed that note.” It doesn’t matter because now is when you have to bring it all together.
But the only time you have to bring it all together is when they’re both working independently of each other, then you can begin to confidently really, really bring them together.
You don’t want to have to be thinking about this guitar passage, this timing, and this particular chord change, and, “Oh my gosh! Now I’m singing an F sharp in the bridge as a guy. I got to sing it on this crazy vowel. What was that vowel I was supposed to use instead?” It’s going to be a recipe for disaster.
Now remember too the previous podcast that I talked about mirror neurons and mental rehearsal,remember as well to incorporate the mental rehearsal activity through all of this. You can rehearse mentally, doing the activity of playing and singing at the same time. The more you do that the better, because your brain, when you’re really feeling it, and you’re really in the mental rehearsal, and believing it,gets that you’re actually doing that. So that will really expedite the progress when you really feel it.
Another thing that you can do is while you are playing the instrument and not actually singing, feel the singing pouring through you. You can feel the singing. That will begin to build the wiring that you need to support that as you really begin to sing.
You’re playing the guitar. You’re playing the piano. You just feel the singing. And maybe you’ll even sing just a little bit or softly. But mainly, you’re just feeling it.
And you can do the opposite of that obviously too. You can be singing and you can be feeling the instrument. You can be holding the instrument, you’re making the chord changes, you can just lay your hand on instrument. You can just be feeling the energy of it.
So, you just really want to get used to the activity of both of these things supporting each other. It’s a little like technique and performance where they really do support each other and complement each other once we have done the work independently.
From a performance standpoint, when we do the performance, the work, which we like to call experiential, we look at that and we say, “Okay, who am I singing to? What’s going on? Where did that come from? Where am I going from this moment in time?” we look at it from an acting stand point and emotional standpoint, “How is this moving the story forward?” in musical theatre or, “How am I telling my story in real life?” and we feel into that, we really get specific with, “Who am I singing to? What do I want from this? Why am I singing these words? Why am I having this conversation? What’s the outcome I’m looking for?” when we really, really get specific with that, and we really master the vocal aspect of it, the technique aspect of it, then the synergy of those two—performance and technique—really, really work together. And that’s where the magic happens.
And so, it’s the same thing when you’re playing an instrument and singing at the same time. Once they work independently of each other, and you can bring them together, that’s when all of a sudden the synergy of those two is magic. You can feel the guitar, you can feel the piano or whatever, and you can pour emotion through not only your voice, but the instrument.
And it’s really amazing when you feel in the flow of that.
Now, I’m not a master of that at all. I’ve done it for years. I don’t think I’m particularly great at it. But I also haven’t spent a lot of time developing it because it’s never been really my thing. I’ve spent enough time developing it, so that I know what I’m talking about. But basically, I do it for fun. I’m not really doing it in front of anybody. The performing I’ve done has strictly been singing. And that’s without an instrument because it’s basically been musical theatre, recitals or something like that. But for fun, I do it. And the better I get at it, the more fun it is. There’s no doubt about that.
But I’ve work with hundred over the years, hundreds of people, probably more than that (perhaps even thousands) that play an instrument and sing at the same time.
So, you really want to start at the beginning—and again, Capt. Obvious—know the song like crazy; number two, practice them independently of each other; number three, do the mental rehearsal, so you can bring it all together; and number four, bring it all together physically where you’re singing and you’re playing at the same time.
But just know when you start doing that—even though independently of each other they maybe in your implicit memory system when you bring them together—for a while, it’s going to take some thought and some focus until the two of those that aren’t working together in a very supportive synergistic way, now all of a sudden, the activity of playing and singing at the same time begins to go in to the implicit memory system. Boom! There’s where it really gets fun. That’s when it’s really fun.
So anyway, I hope you guys found this helpful if you play and sing at the same time. And if you don’t, and you actually listened to this, maybe you will play and sing at the same time sometime. It’s really a kick to be able to do it. It’s fun. You don’t need a karaoke track, you can be a big smash hit at parties.
Anyway, I want to sign off now. I look down here, we’ve been 21 minutes. Whoa! I thought it was going to be short. Okay, you know me.
But anyway, thanks so much for listening. And I will see you next week. Bye, bye.