There isn’t anything much more rewarding than breaking out a guitar by the campfire, and crooning your favorite ballads. But to most, singing and playing an instrument seems as far off as juggling fire while reciting the Greek alphabet backwards. Good news: there’s absolutely nothing magical about those who can play and sing at the same time—if you can play, and you can sing, you can play and sing. Bad news: learning isn’t easy, and requires time and commitment. The following method will help you learn to accompany yourself, whether your instrument is piano, guitar, bass, or something else.
Learn and Practice Your Instrumental Part and Vocal Part Separately
This goes without saying, but I still see impatient people trying to take on everything at once, stumbling over words, and muddling up riffs. You’ll have a much cleaner finished product if you Practice each part separately and meticulously. Whether you’re accompanying yourself on the piano, guitar, bass, or any other instrument, it’s important that you get to a point where you can play on autopilot.
The Instrumental Part
It was a wise man (okay, it was Sting) who said, “You can do anything if you slow it down.” Chances are, if you’re playing anything other than a few block chords, you’ll have spots in your song where you can play bullet-train fast, and spots where you can only play sedated-sloth slow. Learn to play everything cleanly, even if it isn’t at a breakneck pace, by targeting problem areas and playing through them. Then, Grab a metronome, and set it to your sedated-sloth pace, and practice the entire song. If that’s easy, speed up the metronome a few BPM, and do it again. In less time than you might think, you’ll get the whole song up to speed, and it won’t have annoying hot and cold areas to mess you up when you throw the vocal part into the mix.
If you think you’re as comfortable with your instrumental part as you can get, challenge yourself with these exercises
1. Play your part while watching TV
At first, just try to cope with the background noise. Then, try to follow what’s happening.
2. Play your part while carrying on a conversation
This is incredibly difficult, but if you can do this, you should have no problems playing and singing.
The Vocal Part
The better you know your vocal part from the outset, the better luck you’ll have putting everything together. Know the rhythm, melody, and lyrics of your song well. The first thing that’s going to happen when you pick up your instrument is you’ll forget half of the lyrics, and your vocal rhythm will change. You’ll want to sing everything on the beat, because syncopation trips up your brain. Resist this urge to avoid severe “vanillafication” of your song. If you’re concerned about your vocal quality and timbre, make most of your “tweaks” before adding your instrument; the last thing you’ll want to do when you pick up your instrument is think about vowel modifications and phrasing.
Put It Together
Now comes the fun part. Play the song at a moderate pace (not as fast as you can, but not too slow to reasonably sing), and just “mark” out the vocals. Don’t think too much about your vocal quality, or getting everything perfect. Just put the two together to gauge where you need work.
If you find that you easily forget lyrics, try playing the song and reciting the lyrics without the melody. If you find you’re tripping up on the rhythm, hum the melody with the correct rhythm without the lyrics. If you can’t find your melody, well, put down your instrument, and learn it. Find the choppy traffic-jam areas and practice them slowly before resuming practice of the whole song.
The ultimate goal is to commit everything to muscle memory so you can focus on self-expression, and not individual notes or words. Like I said before, there’s no magic to learning how to sing and play. It’s all about effective practice, and maybe a few fun exercises along the way. Enjoy yourself, don’t expect too much, too fast, and watch out for coyotes.
Notes About Specific Instruments
The above method still applies, but here are some additional notes about practicing specific instruments.
When first practicing a piano part, play each hand separately, and then slowly combine the two. It may be easier for some to reduce any intricate piano parts to their basic chords; however, having had a stringent “play-what’s-on-the-page” upbringing, I still find it easier to practice songs note for note, until everything is committed to muscle memory.
Reduce any riffs down to their chords. If there is a lot of repetitive finger-picking, practice the finger-picking pattern by itself until you don’t have to concentrate too much on your right hand. Leave any unnecessary flourishes like hammer-ons for last.
Playing the bass and singing is particularly difficult because basslines usually counterpoint the vocal melody. This means the bassline and the vocal line move in opposite directions. Basslines are also frequently syncopated to make matters worse. Committing a bass part to muscle memory is perhaps more important than on any other instrument, because not doing so effectively means splitting your conscious mind in two opposite-traveling streams.