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Singing and the ability to improvise are they linked ?

wol916

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I have noticed when playing assorted instruments that all the people I have known who are great improvisers could also sing well, in fact it seems to me the better the singer the better the improvisation. I know you can have one without the other but is there a link in the brain where it just "gets it" and does not have to think about what's going on? I myself can not carry a tune in a bucket and likewise take so long thinking about what to play the moment has passed before I get a note out. I had the same thing playing guitar in a rock band I had to learn the "improvised" solos note for note before playing in a live setting.

So back to the question does being able to sing mean that you have a built in sense of harmony and make improvisation easier. Thoughts please.

Warren
 

wol916

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By sing I'm not suggesting they go on tour fronting a band just an ability to hold a tune. But people who can naturally harmonise seem to be better improvisors and I believe most of the great composers could sing, so I feel it may be relative. Or is it all in the ears?
 

Jamesmac

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It may not be exactly about improvising, and more about the ability to interpret a sometimes complex musical piece, but something that an orchestral conductor must possess. But its a well documented fact, that most of the top Conductors also can't sing.
 

Pete Thomas

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It may not be exactly about improvising, and more about the ability to interpret a sometimes complex musical piece, but something that an orchestral conductor must possess. But its a well documented fact, that most of the top Conductors also can't sing.

I think we need to clarify the difference between being a good singer as in having a nice vocal tone, and being a good singer as in being able to pitch notes and have them in tune.

An improvisor or conductor does not need the former (which may or may not be learnable) but does need the latter.

I have worked as a conductor, and it is absolutely imperative that you can sing any part, especially when conducting choirs or solo singers. I remember conducting one concert where a famous Irish tenor was struggling to come in at the right place, I found myself singing his part to him so sometimes the first word of each entry the audience were hearing my voice.
 

Jamesmac

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I think we need to clarify the difference between being a good singer as in having a nice vocal tone, and being a good singer as in being able to pitch notes and have them in tune.

An improvisor or conductor does not need the former (which may or may not be learnable) but does need the latter.

I have worked as a conductor, and it is absolutely imperative that you can sing any part, especially when conducting choirs or solo singers. I remember conducting one concert where a famous Irish tenor was struggling to come in at the right place, I found myself singing his part to him so sometimes the first word of each entry the audience were hearing my voice.


Thats interesting , if you remember back to the rehearsals for West Side Story, that were filmed, with Jose Carreras and Dame T.
And conducting Lenny Burnstein , there was a bit Jose had trouble with. ie he couldn't get the feel of the music. ( ie. singing very classical if you like) and Lenny had trouble getting across to him, what he wanted, mainly because he couldn't sing.
 

thesaxman71

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I have noticed when playing assorted instruments that all the people I have known who are great improvisers could also sing well, in fact it seems to me the better the singer the better the improvisation. I know you can have one without the other but is there a link in the brain where it just "gets it" and does not have to think about what's going on? I myself can not carry a tune in a bucket and likewise take so long thinking about what to play the moment has passed before I get a note out. I had the same thing playing guitar in a rock band I had to learn the "improvised" solos note for note before playing in a live setting.

So back to the question does being able to sing mean that you have a built in sense of harmony and make improvisation easier. Thoughts please.

Warren
I am also a singer and can also play some other instruments and was a lead singer fronting a band for quite a few years and also used to sing solo (with backing tracks, and or a band) all around europe but this is the 1st time i mentioned it on this site, never really came up til now.
There is a link between being a singer and an accomplished improviser, as I see it but you don't need to be a singer to be a good improviser.
From my own playing i can hear melodic and technical lines and indeed sing them if i need to and can translate them to my saxophone or vice versa (roughly sometimes). My ability to sing has definatly helped me progress on my improvisation but the main thing here is in my mind I am a sax player 1st and foremost and the singing came years after so i guess my singing was born from my sax playing, and it is no coincidence i am a musician/singer as my father, his grandmother, my brother are all musicians/singers in some way.
Was i a singer all along on the inside and the sax playing merely awakened it? aaargh, its all a blur now, which am I? singer ? sax player? both, and why not huh... what came 1st chicken or egg kinda argument etc etc haha.
 
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Pete Thomas

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Thats interesting , if you remember back to the rehearsals for West Side Story, that were filmed, with Jose Carreras and Dame T.
And conducting Lenny Burnstein , there was a bit Jose had trouble with. ie he couldn't get the feel of the music. ( ie. singing very classical if you like) and Lenny had trouble getting across to him, what he wanted, mainly because he couldn't sing.

That is slightly different, in my case I wasn't trying to convey a style or genre to the singers, purely when they start singing. I'm sure that even though he may not have been the greatest singer, he could actually pitch a note in tune.
 

Jamesmac

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I have always thought that to be a successful singer you need to have a voice that sings within the acceptable keys that most songs are written in. Even when I was in primary school, I couldnt sing any song in the key that the rest of the class did, I found myself changing octaves in the song. Boy was I glad when I could use an instrument to make the notes. But occasionally I can get the feel of a melody by singing a phrase that I then try to achieve with the instrument. But I think that expression comes from what our inner ear hears. Perhaps we will be able to record that:)
ps.as technology progresses
 

Jamesmac

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That is slightly different, in my case I wasn't trying to convey a style or genre to the singers, purely when they start singing. I'm sure that even though he may not have been the greatest singer, he could actually pitch a note in tune.

Yes its not the same, i was thinking along the lines, that even though he wrote the music, and is an improviser, he had trouble conveying what he wanted, as he couldnt sing the phrase, or chose not to, perhaps the cameras, or felt that the operatc voice couldnt do it. As there are not to many Opera singers that can sing popular songs. I Rene Fleming is the exception.
 

Colin the Bear

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The voice is just an instrument. No keys or buttons to pitch the notes. Just your ear.

Anyone can sing. The more you sing the better you get at it. If you feel you have an unpleasing voice then you won't sing and the voice gets neglected and singing remains undeveloped.

People who like to sing but don't have a solo quality voice, sing in groups, choirs etc. The combination of several average voices will blend to form a pleasing sound.

Most music courses include choir. You get placed in a section that fits you range.

If you have a limited range with your voice then , yes you'll have to jump octaves in certain keys when singing solo.

A very good singer can overcome the lack of a good voice. Perhaps Rod Stewart is a good example. Terrible voice , great singer, pleasing result. And who's that guy in the Dubliners? Voice like a rusty fog horn but conveys much emotion and feeling.


Playing a solo in a rock band is an odd one. Usually it's not an opportunity to free style more a break for the singer or an instrumental interlude.

You'd be amazed how many improvised solos are worked out in advance. A lot of mine are works in progress. Different elements for different moods, tempos, styles etc. A bit like lego. Fitting the pieces to make a ... something.

I like to sing a new song I'm learning, or whistle it. Then try to find it on the instrument. It's handy to be able to practice when you don't have an instrument or you hands are busy. Singing also lifts the soul. "Singing the Blues away"


I accepted long ago I wasn't going to be great musician. I do it because it makes me feel good. If the feel good is infectious then great. But I'll sing and play alone with the same enthusiasm.

Use what you have. Enjoy and learn from others efforts and sing sing sing lol
 

ellinas

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Singing <correctly not professionally> and being able to improvise is absolutely linked IMHO.

Being a multi-instrumentalist here's my advice:

What has helped me and many others is the following :

Whenever I listen to something I like I try to reproduce it. This means I transcribe it, I try to memorize it by humming it with my inner voice, and when I'm sure I got it in my head to play it in my instrument.

Then I try to reproduce it as much close as possible. Including articulation, type of sound etc.

This way I improved my understanding of melodic patterns and I think it's the hidden 50% of how to analyze music.

For example what sense does it make to know how to use 11 or 9 chords if I can't "hear" that 9 or 11?

Why has this artist used these chords in this song I liked, and how does he play his sax over them?

I discovered these things by studying my theory ( 50% ) and by seeing who uses that and why by transcribing songs ( other 50% ).

And why am I saying all this? Because this apparently has made me a better singer. 10-15 years ago I was really really false. The time between thought and actual singing was leading to really really bad singing.
Lately I can hum the correct root note or a whole melody of a song without listening an other one as a reference.
And people tell me that whenever I sing a tune playing the piano or guitar that I could well be a singer. ( Of course I cant. But using this technique I'm much better in achieving the correct pitch because I hear the correct one in my head ).

This has helped me an AWFUL lot in sax playing. I'm playing for almost a year and it was a lifesaver with my embouchure exercises, achieving really quick to play overtones, and to solo effortlessly in a band without "preparing" for a solo.

It saved me some money too. With my single mouthpiece/ligature combination, I'm trying to imitate as much as I can the feeling of sax players I like and I discovered this method makes me a lot more versatile than a good friend of mine that has a drawer full of Mpcs and keeps exchanging them. He's quite good. But not practical.

Sometimes when I improvise a solo I hear my inner voice singing a melody that I don't really analyse and play it, sometimes I think <hmmm ..... it would be cool to play some diminshed lines and break it with a minor blues scale bar etc.... >

So, summarizing,
listen to a lot of good music.
Spot a passage that is a little bit difficult for your level but you would really like to play.
Listen to it again and again. Let it get into your head.
Try to hum it correctly!!!! <recording your voice can help align those faulty notes there mate!>
Once you have it in your head looping, try to play it. <Isn't this the most fun part in music ?>

After the first 15-20 tunes tell me if this hasn't accelerated your skills or not :) ( In sax, singing or any other instrument ...)

Cheers.
Stelios
 

Tenor Viol

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I have always thought that to be a successful singer you need to have a voice that sings within the acceptable keys that most songs are written in. Even when I was in primary school, I couldnt sing any song in the key that the rest of the class did, I found myself changing octaves in the song. Boy was I glad when I could use an instrument to make the notes. But occasionally I can get the feel of a melody by singing a phrase that I then try to achieve with the instrument. But I think that expression comes from what our inner ear hears. Perhaps we will be able to record that:)
ps.as technology progresses

It sounds like the keys you were trying to sing in were not suited to your voice. There is technique to singing and this comes less naturally to some than others. I didn't "sing" until I was in my 30. I can now sing difficult stuff to a decent standard within a choir setting (even small chamber ensembles) but I would be unlikely to sing solo.

I have sung Bernstein's Chichester Psalms - they are TOUGH. Try the opening page.... congratulations if you can work out the time signatures...
 

wol916

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This is all good stuff, and I'm sorry to start a thread then go to bed but I'd just finished a shift.
I can tell when something is in tune no problem I can also learn a tune from listen to it. But when I sing (or try to) the note in my head is not the one that comes out my mouth - once there is a noise coming out I can vary it to correct the pitch. All this takes time where as people who sing the right note first time seem to be able to hit the right note first time on an instrument.

Or are we getting this back to front is it cause and effect, do people who start to sing at a young age naturally gravitate towards studying music, be it the church choir or formal lessons on an instrument. Does this create connections in the brain, hence good improvising and an "ear for music".

Warren
 

Jamesmac

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It sounds like the keys you were trying to sing in were not suited to your voice. There is technique to singing and this comes less naturally to some than others. I didn't "sing" until I was in my 30. I can now sing difficult stuff to a decent standard within a choir setting (even small chamber ensembles) but I would be unlikely to sing solo.

I have sung Bernstein's Chichester Psalms - they are TOUGH. Try the opening page.... congratulations if you can work out the time signatures...

As i said that was in Primary School. Ive moved on a bit since then. LOL. The interesting thing is that should have put me off, but even as a 10yr old i knew that there was more to music than singing. But when i was a single guy in the army Band I used to play guitar and sing pop/folk songs and also write the occasional one, in the barracks in the evening, it gave me a break from the Clarinet.
 

MandyH

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I would say that I cannot sing (except for Christmas carols and Gloria Gaynor's "I will survive" - the sign of a misspent youth!)
however, I can grunt/hum in pitch!

I grunt along to my backing tracks getting ideas of rhythm and pitch. The more I do this, the better my improvising is becoming.
That and listening to other sax players - I am still in my total Jazz immersion therapy!

Today I improvised Jazz for the first time in a few weeks. I thought I was a rather good for a change, a whole new set of rhythms with interest in my improv rather than just the same old same old.
 

kevgermany

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I think it's a bit simplistic to say anyone can sing. It's like saying anyone can be Lewis Hamilton... My first musical experience was as a choirboy. I was always out of tune, going up or down by the wrong intervals. Even now if I try to sing/hum something from memory, I get an interval wrong and change keys mid tune - without realising it. Drives my wife mad...

It's the same with sax. I can't hold the melody line in my head - it's just a series of steps, one after the other - a progression. If I get lost, getting back in is almost impossible. And as for harmonies/backing, forget it, the melody isn't there, and so neither are the harmonies/backing. If I follow a piece with a full score, no problem in picking out the different voices instruments. But - for instance - if I listen to the 3 tenors on CD, I can't tell which is singing, even though they have such different voices. I think true improvising ability requires you to be able to hold the tune and differing harmonies in your head at the same time, and this is sort of true if you're following a formulaic appraoch to improvising, much like the Burton method. But I think that relying on a formulaic approach to improvising loses the music - probably because the melody/harmonies weren't there in the first place.

Whether holding the tune in your head translates into being able to sing is a moot point - I've seen a few videos of Bernstein rehearsing an orchestra, and on the occasions he did 'sing' his pitch was very poor - timing/rhythm was spot on though. I've not seen a video of him rehearsing singers, though.

I sometimes wonder if the good instinctive musicians are aware of the size gap between the abilities they take for granted - and the guys who have to work really hard just to play the dots. I see the same sort of thing in my job, where an expert will start explaining things (even simple ones) to a junior (say) and takes so much knowledge for granted that the poor junior is lost from the first word..
 

wol916

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I have recently discovered a teaching method for the banjo on DVD, that works really well for me. No theory, no music, no tab, the song is played through then explained in small steps then played again slowly. This way it is forcing my ear to listen, as I still need to look at my fingers from time to time, and forces my memory to work. I have found that I have to play the DVD listen to a bar then grunt, sing , hum that bar over and over as I play until I get the hang of it. The difference is that I don't have the banjo in my mouth at the same time, unlike the sax so the "singing" is audible and not in my head, which makes a difference.
I will have to try but maybe if I record myself singing the part (heaven forbid) then loop it and play along it will have the same effect.
I definitely think I will have to start wailing along in the car on the way to work and see where that take me.
 

MandyH

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I definitely think I will have to start wailing along in the car on the way to work and see where that take me.

Be warned - Keep an eye on your speedo!

I sang along to a track that I was meant to be improvising along to for an exam - my teacher had suggested singing while driving. When I looked down at the speedo, I was doing 100 mph on the dual carriageway somewhere between Swindon and Cirencester!
I was so carried away with singing my improvisations that I had completely lost track of the speed of the car :shocked: :w00t:
 

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