Learn an instrument for Self-accompaniment

I’ve recently had a lot of discussions around how to learn an instrument, especially in the context of self-accompaniment for singing.

I play a handful of instruments and self-accompany on a few of them, so I thought it worth putting together some suggestions for those who are perhaps interested in learning an instrument. Or perhaps you have a child/teenager who is looking to take up an instrument.

Learning any instrument

When it comes to the voice and voice training, the voice as an instrument is incomplete. We have to both build the voice itself to be functional, as well as learning to play the instrument as we build it.

In contrast, when you buy a good piano, guitar, ukulele, etc, the instrument is already finished by the instrument maker. The better the instrument, the fewer the flaws, but all are typically playable from the moment of purchase.

Therefore, all the work of learning a physical instrument (other than the voice) goes into learning the ins/outs and idiosyncrasies of the instrument. You simply learn how to play the notes and create music.

Ukulele: Easiest instrument for self-accompaniment

To self-accompany, we want an instrument that provides avenues for at least:
(i) rhythm – this involves setting the speed, tempo, or meter of the music. This is that sense of driving and pulse that makes someone tap their foot along with the music; and
(ii) harmony – this lays down the framework of chords and chords changes, and becomes the musical foundation upon which the melody to be sung/played can then sit.

PROBLEM: There are hundreds of instruments in the world, but relatively few perform both of these functions well.

Some provide purely rhythm (e.g. drums), some provide melody and some level of rhythm (wind instruments), and some provide harmony but not such strong rhythm (accordion), etc.

LIMITED OPTIONS: The three core instruments that provide strong rhythm and harmony are:
– the piano;
– the guitar; and
– the ukulele.

Each of these instruments enable harmony by way of chords to played and a rhythm to be established through those chords. However, if you don’t already play an instrument, there is also a hierarchy of complexity that people often don’t realise, as well as a physical difficulty and a cost difference. Let’s start with the best option:

Ukulele: First choice

The ukulele is by far the easiest instrument to begin learning. Canada and Japan both have their own musical literacy programmes based on the ukulele as an instrument.

The way the ukulele works enables players to finger chords to provide harmony, and strum them the denote the rhythm of the music. By changing the chords being fingered and rhythm being strummed, an easy backing is created for people to sing over. There are only 4 strings on a typical ukulele, whereas a typical guitar has 6 strings. Fortunately, the tuning of the ukulele is identical to the highest 4 string on a guitar. As such, people who start out on ukulele build a foundation that enables them to translate their skills onto guitar.

The strings are very light nylon, which makes them easy to depress to the fingerboard with no pain in the fingers. This is unlike guitar which can be quite painful or abrasive to begin with.

What is also ideal about the ukulele is it’s affordable price point. Many wanting to start an instrument are faced with a dilemma: buy a cheap instrument that you may not enjoy and give up playing, or spend more money on a decent instrument but find you don’t stick at learning the instrument. Hmmm. Piano and guitar generally don’t have the same advantage.

Fortunately, a good starter ukulele is remarkably affordable (typically £20 or so, and many others well under £50). That way you don’t have to break the bank getting a good instrument, but if you find you don’t stay the course, you haven’t spent an awful lot. This works especially well for young children looking to learn an instrument.

Guitar: Second choice

Guitar is actually not much more difficult than ukulele, but there’s a wider range of options (e.g. electric, acoustic, classical), and often requires a little more care and attention to make it playable. I know countless adults and children who have ended up with a guitar that they love intensely for a month, then goes to gather dust.

It can also be painful on the fingers at first, which is another reason that impedes progress. The generally larger size of the guitar (compared to the ukulele) also makes it a little less wieldy for younger fingers or smaller individuals.

Piano: Third choice

IMPORTANT NOTE: I love playing piano. I spend 5-10 hours a day in front of my pianoes, and I think it is by far the most versatile instrument. It is so incredibly capable, and I can easily go weeks without playing my guitars, basses, or other instruments.

But what makes it so capable, is its enormous complexity.

With guitar and ukulele, one hand fingers the chord and the other strums it. The harmony is formed in one hand, and the other generates the rhythm. In contrast, the piano requires a lot of hand independence, and even finger independence to articulate different chords.

Every key you could play in on a piano requires you to learn different fingerings for the same chord, whereas guitar and ukulele you can often shift the same finger shape up the neck to achieve the same chord in a different key.

Pianoes are even more expensive than guitars. Yes, there are cheaper versions available, but they are typically so bad to play and bad sounding, they do not in any way resemble a real piano. However hard a piano is to play when you’re a beginner, nothing will turn you off playing quicker than a cheap piano – they are nasty things indeed. But the cost of a piano that is a joy to play is prohibitive at the beginner stage.

They are also much much larger than guitars. Many lack the physical space to house even a beginner piano, let alone a bigger more fully-featured option.

For accompanying your voice

When it comes to accompaniment, the potential of the piano far exceeds that of any other instrument. However, it is this near infinite potential that makes it a lot to break down. Whereas guitar and ukulele have much less steep learning curves, and yield comparatively quick progress.

Add on top of this difficulty of learning, is that if you want to accompany yourself you also have to sing along with whatever you’re playing. This is yet another layer of complexity that compounds the difficulty.

As such, if one is looking for basic accompaniment, ukulele and guitar are the best bet. You can always graduate from ukulele to guitar, or migrate onto piano in the future once a foundation of music theory is established.

My favourite quotes for 2022

Happy New Year to you! I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and a lovely start to 2022.

I received a LOT of books for Christmas. This is good news for me, as I love digging into a good book. I’ve recommended a fair few of my favourite books this year, but I thought I might share a few choice thoughts that had been spurred on by my favourite books.

After all, New Year is the time for reflections and good intentions to be posed for the coming year. As such, I thought you might like a sneak peek into the ruminations that have been going on in my mind as 2022 commences. I do hope there’s a few stimulating thoughts in there for you as well.

1. Do the stuff that matters / Routine

What I gradually realised was that the very same activities that had rescued me from failure, would also rescue me from [merely surviving] to success – if [only] I would just keep doing them.

This is from one of my favourite books, ‘The Slight Edge’ by Jeff Olson (on page 9). Olson ran many successful businesses, but before then, constantly found himself oscillating between failure and mere survival… and couldn’t figure out why. He wondered what was the next ‘magic step’ he was missing? What trick or career move did he need to find? Continue reading “My favourite quotes for 2022”

Practise Makes Permanent

Let’s talk about the concept of practise.

I was having a conversation with someone outside of sessions recently about the concept of “practise“. They are not a musician/singer, nor do they have a particular hobby that they have spent years practising, so do bear that in mind as I relay the jist of the conversation.

During the exchange, they made the following seemingly innocuous statement:

Practise Makes Perfect

Now, as someone whose entire career focuses on training people in acquiring a finely controlled skill such as singing, I happen to have a few thoughts on this. Namely, that this statement – if left unqualified – is not true.

Let me explain why, and we’ll look at both aspects of this statement:

1. Practise

When we talk about practising, we usually mean the following that someone is repeatedly doing a particular set of actiosn in order to ingrain such behaviour and make it permanent.

Often, there is also an implicit assumption, that the actions being repeated are actually improving someone’s skills. But is this always the case? Continue reading “Practise Makes Permanent”

What does voice acting involve? Can I start doing voice over work?

I’m a voice coach and singing teacher. The core of my work is about building, improving and fixing issues people have in their voices.

From that point, the primary and highest demanding application of this is for singers and performers using their voice in song. This involves using their voice over the widest range, at the most extreme intensities, often in sub-optimal situations where their performance needs to be dead-on first time.

Other applications of a well-built voice involve acting on stage, on television, voice-over work, stage speaking, professional speaking/voice use, etc. Many of my clients are even school teachers looking to maintain their voice. This is very much a classic example of a professional voice user – it just so happens voice training overlaps very well with their love of singing.

I’ve been getting a lot of interest lately in voice-over work and voice acting. I have had the odd client who goes down this road, but the majority of my client-base falls into the above camp. It seems that many are considering a career-change or even a side-gig in voice acting, so I wanted to pull together some pointers on what it is and what is involved. I will also briefly clarify the difference between a voice over coach and a voice coach like myself.

What is voice acting?

Voice acting is the art of performing voice-overs to present a character or provide information to an audience.

When you watch “Peppa Pig”, “The Simpsons”, or listen to radio shows like “The Archers”, the people providing the voice track for each of the characters are professional voice actors. Their bodies are not seen on-screen, so they are required to provide all the emotional intensity and meaning for the scene purely through using their voices. Voices need to be intelligible and of an appropriate character for the given project.

Projects can be extremely diverse. Radio shows, podcasts, animated films, cartoons, educational videos, pre-recorded corporate training, explanations within software, TV or radio advertisements, jingles, TV/radio segues, etc, all can involve the use of one/multiple voice actors. Because of the diverse range of possible voice acting avenues, you can understand why there is no “one size fits all” definition for what makes a good voice for voice acting. Continue reading “What does voice acting involve? Can I start doing voice over work?”

Five of my Favourite Books on Singing

I lend out my books fairly regularly, and 90% of the time, they find their way back to me. Of the 10% that don’t, very few are ones that matter to me that I have on my shelf.

But I’ve discovered at least two of my favourite books on voice and singing have gone walk-about, hence I’ve re-ordered them. These are number one and two on this list, and are incredibly easy to read, but contain a wealth of knowledge and story-telling from great singers and musicians.

Books 3-5 are reference books that I refer to reasonably often, but are very definitely not “read cover to cover” books. I’d suggest picking these up if you’re especially interested in either the history or physiology of singing.

1. Pavarotti Up-Close
Leone Magiera

Leone Magiera was Pavarotti’s close friend and accompanist for most of Pavarotti’s life. It’s the perfect story interwining actual events, music, singing, Pavarotti’s personal life, and escapades from his teens all the way through to his later years. I truly wish all books were written with this blend of biography and musical experiences. Continue reading “Five of my Favourite Books on Singing”

What happens when you force your way to the higher notes?

Look, we’ve all been there. We all want to sing higher notes, and we notice that if we can get to note X, X+1 seems somewhat achievable if we just force it a little bit more. Just hit it a bit harder. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, it happens.

But this approach is not harmless nor is it zero cost. It’s a very bad habit to get into, let alone an approach to singing that one learns to rely on. In more extreme cases it can cause damage to voices, especially as we are capable of delivering far more air pressure to our vocal folds than they are capable of withstanding.

I was chatting with a client this week about the problem with forcing notes out, especially under the adrenalin of performing live. It is undoubtedly a big and emotionally charged area, so I wanted to cover a few of the aspects of it here. If you find yourself blasting out higher notes, at least in part to try and make sure you make the notes, you should read on.

Let’s lay the framework for the ideal way of extending our range and making it comfortable:

How we acquire range and power

To sing low notes the vocal folds need to contract and shorten, to sing high notes the vocal folds need to stretch and thin. The larynx which houses the vocal folds has an upper half and lower half. These are made to tilt relative to one another (via laryngeal musculature) to achieve the length and corresponding pitch change.

All our pitch control needs to happen at the larynx/vocal fold level, and in a relaxed manner rather than under pressure. However, a common thing I notice is singers “giving it more welly” when performing live, in order to achieve the pitch. Continue reading “What happens when you force your way to the higher notes?”