Melody Above All: How singing while playing my instrument made me a better musician

I’ve often felt like a late bloomer because I didn’t come to jazz until I was 17 years old. You’d think that for someone playing the saxophone in school band that this would’ve been a given, but it wasn’t for me. I came to develop an interest in jazz my senior year of high school when my classical voice teacher leant me Ella Fitzgerald’s “Best of the Songbooks” as something to take my mind off being frustrated with my changing voice.

While I had studied voice and piano for years, in the beginning of my journey of becoming a jazz musician, I failed to understand how my years of classical lessons and “competitive” choral singing were going to benefit my new love and focus. A few years ago though, I made a recording on my phone of some things I was working on, playing and singing as was my usual way of doing things at the time: played an intro, comped and sang a head with lyrics, took a vocal solo with comping, took a piano solo, took the head out, made a lousy little ending. I made a variety of recordings like this, original tunes and standards of various styles and tempos. While I had managed, begrudgingly, to teach myself to listen objectively to myself as a tool for growth, I was so unhappy with what I heard back. There was no connection between my singing and piano playing. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought it was two different people….who didn’t know each other….who weren’t listening to what the other one was doing….yeah.

I noticed two other things as well. My piano solos were lacking melody or tunefulness, often full of arbitrary patterns and random splatters of whatever I could grab. My vocal solos weren’t as adventurous as they could be, but they were often very melodic, just not as interesting from a harmonic standpoint. I realized that what each individual component was lacking was actually the -strength- of the other component.

So on the following day’s practice session, I played the same tunes I had previously recorded. I played the melody with my right hand and sang through without lyrics, and then continued that simultaneous right hand/voice synchronization through several choruses of solo. I stopped after the first tune. What had I just done? How was that so…..easy…and why did it seem to make perfect sense to do that?

I’m not the first person to do this, obviously. Countless bass players sing while they play, guitarist George Benson is famous for it, and pianist Dena DeRose does it too. With the newfound success that I’ve had with it though, I wonder why more musicians don’t do it. I then remembered that when I first “discovered” playing like this that I didn’t want to do it in front of people either, and I am a singer as well as a pianist! So that answered that question. It’s interesting how those of us that constitute ourselves as creatives are still hesitant when we’re trying something that we haven’t really heard much of before.

At the same time, I get interesting and sometimes awe-struck reactions, even from other musicians, when I do this, as if it’s some kind of magic trick. The joke is that I just practice a lot and that’s why I can do this so efficiently. While number of hours is relevant, what’s more relevant is what I’ve specifically done in those hours.

Much of my teenage years and early twenties were spent in competitive festival and professional choirs with strict sight reading and learning the music before the rehearsal requirements. I was almost always singing an inner part (soprano 2 or alto) and because of my competitive nature, I didn’t just want to be good enough to be there, I wanted to be the best. I have distinct memories of 15 year old Lauren practicing singing the middle note of a dissonant cluster in preparation for a district choral competition. I remember 17 year old Lauren singing the alto 1 part and playing all 7 other parts in preparation for a state-wide choral audition. I remember 19 year old Lauren dipping her toes into scat singing on a blues during a school jazz choir rehearsal and moving her fingers as if she was playing the piano to help feel control over what notes she was choosing. I remember 20 year old Lauren in a professional symphony chorus being selected to sing extraordinarily difficult modern classical music for 16 voices and sitting at the piano before the first rehearsal playing all parts, most a half step away or –less- , and picking out her part.

When I questioned why and how it made so much sense to me to combine my voice with the piano this way, it took me a while to realize that this is something I had naturally done all along, out of necessity, because of my background. I was too busy trying to fit into boxes that weren’t quite right as a young musician to realize that leaning into a natural strength was the right fit for me. Dropping that need to “fit in” has been difficult and is still certainly a work in progress, but I feel like the work I’m putting out sounds better and is much more true to who I am as a person and musician.

My current practice hours are divided into three main areas, but I do spend the bulk of my practice time using the piano and voice simultaneously. My focus in practicing both simultaneously is agility. Improvisation is usually (hopefully) surprising, especially for the listener, but my goal as an improviser is certainly to have control over the things I can have control over. That means practicing all concepts as many ways as possible. How many ways can I invert a 13th chord? How can I focus my soloing to include lots of upper extensions? Can I get as melodic and interesting in my solo in the key of B as I can in the key of F? I can play and sing this pattern ascending, but how can I be as comfortable playing and singing it descending? Practicing this way is limitless because there are always holes somewhere, in a certain key or on a certain chord or in a certain inversion and every day is like opening a new door to a room I didn’t know existed.

In my own experimentation, I have found that I retain information and better understand how to apply it if I sing it instead of just playing it. Despite how connected I feel to the piano, it is not part of my body. I can hear if something is melodic or interesting, but I can’t actually feel it because it’s not coming from inside my body.

In my current teaching, I work with instrumentalists, teaching them to think and breathe and phrase like a singer and play the small licks they can grab from recordings they love by playing along with their own singing. I also work with singers, essentially teaching them the opposite, by encouraging them to think like an instrument that’s agile and capable of recreating anything they can hear. It has been an interesting journey, and while I and others have been conditioned to think that singing and playing an instrument are two separate entities, it is my experience and belief that they are stronger together, especially when it comes to improvisation.

adventurous jazz singer/composer and angry young lady