We all know that practice is the only way to get better. Not all practice methods are created equal though. So how do you get the most our of your practice sessions? What’s the best way to structure them?
After years of devising complicated practice structures. I finally came up with a something simple and effective. It’s a practice plan that’s worked for both myself, and my clients over the last ten or more years.
My Simple Practice Structure
Divide whatever practice time you have into three equal parts:
Got 6 minutes? Do two minutes of each. Got an hour, do 20 minutes of each. It’s as simple as that.
If you’re not in the mood for practice, I’d recommend doing just sections 1 + 3. Do a little bit of technique to keep you progressing, and then just play and have some fun. That’s why we do this whole music thing after all, right?
Here’s what I do in each part:
Practice the skills that you’ll need to improve your ability to express. If you have difficulty saying a word, your less likely to use it in a sentence. That’s what technique is for, to give you freedom to express yourself. Work on making playing your instrument (or singing) effortless. As soon as it’s easy it will be good. As a guitarist, I work on string crossing, position changing and synchronisation. What you work on will depend on your instrument.
Scales, chords, scale sequences, chord patterns. Any vocabulary that you use to express yourself. You may use this vocab as a performer, composer or improviser.
Why learn scales? They’re great ear training (as well as good for the fingers). You can use them to improvise or to compose. Scale patterns are even better. Chord patterns are great to know too if you play a chordal instrument. They’ll help you figure out songs by ear with ease.
Connecting your ‘internal ear’ to your muscles is critical. That way, when you hear a sound you can play it without having to think about it. Your brain will know the finger patterns that a particular sound makes on your instrument.
No one wants to listen to a good practicer, they want to listen to a good player. As such, it’s something that you’ve got to work on. Practice playing pieces, getting the emotional content of a piece across to the audience.
Try recording a chord progression (or using some software to create one) and then try improvising over the top.
Figure out a piece of music by ear. The more you do it, the faster you’ll get at it and you’ll also become a much better musician. Having a good ear is the most important skill you can have as a musician. Transcription, or figuring things out by ear is one of the best ways to develop that.
Any of these make great things to practice during that ‘Application’ part of your practice.
Practice Every Day
Don’t forget. You don’t need to practice for hours. You’re better off doing a little bit everyday. You’ll get much more benefit that way. Especially if you use the method above. It will help you develop into a well rounded musician.
If you’ve got questions or your own awesome practice methods, feel free to share them in the comments.
Many people who want to learn to play music are put off by the fear that they “Don’t have it”…. that they’re not “musical” or “talented” or that they just can’t learn music. We know this isn’t the case.
We know that everyone can learn music because we see it everyday. Every day, complete beginners come to us for mentoring, and they all end up being able to learn music.
In Other Cultures, Everyone Plays Music
In traditional cultures, everyone sings, dances or creates music in one way or another. When travelling to an African country, one of our staff was asked what she did for a living. When they were told that she was a singing teacher they were confused. They had no singing teachers in their community, everybody just sang. This is because it’s a normal part of life and they had grown up surrounded by it. In much the same way that we learned our first language, children growing up with music just learn it. No one in that community had any doubts about their “talent”.
Excuses For Not Learning Music:
Everyone seems to have their own special reason why they can’t learn music. Here are some of the more common ones.
I’m Not Talented
I’ve never met a musically talented person. Never encountered someone who learned music per hour faster than anyone else. I’ve met people who are passionate and obsessive about music and practised 8+ hours per day and thus learned quickly. Never have I met anyone who did a limited amount of work who made great gains in their musical ability. Working as professional musicians, we’ve not met anyone who was amazing who hadn’t worked really hard.
I’m Tone Deaf
If you can hear when someone inflects upwards when asking a question, then you’re not tone deaf, as simple as that. We’ve had clients express a concern that they may be tone deaf. To this date we’ve not encountered anyone who was. It does exist, but it’s extremely rare.
I’m Not Musical
What does this even mean? Does it mean that you can’t play or sing instantly without having done any practice? If that’s the case, then no one is musical.
I Don’t Have Time
Can you find six minutes per day? We’re pretty sure that you can. If so, guess what! You have enough free time to learn music. Doing regular playing or practice is more effective than doing a long practice once a week.
In 20+ years of teaching we’ve not met anyone we couldn’t help. Depending on your prior experience and the amount of free time you’ve got. The time it takes to learn will vary (see How Long Will It Take to Learn Music ).
The sooner you start the sooner you’ve be up and playing.
“How Long Will It Take to Learn (insert your instrument of choice here)?”
That’s one of the most common questions we’re asked. Beginners want to know that they’ll be able to play something in a reasonable amount of time. They’d like to know how long before they’ll be able to share their playing or singing with a few friends. I have good news! It only takes a short period of time to be able to play a song.
10,000 Hours To Learn Music?
You’ve heard it before. It takes 10,000 hours to learn to do anything. Well, the actual research is about how long it takes to get to a professional level at something. We’d agree with the 10,000 hours idea for professionals. It takes a at least 10,000 hours to even think about becoming a professional player or singer. We’ve worked in the music industry, at a national level for the last 20+ years . All the outstanding players we worked with had worked that hard. None of them had clocked less than 10,000 hours. Most before they’d left high school.
300 Hours To Learn Music?
Very few of our clients are interested in working towards playing professionally. The large majority play for their own enjoyment. For most, it’s a hobby and they have careers outside of the music industry. They’d just like to be able to play the guitar with some friends around the BBQ. Some want to sing with a choir, others to play piano by themselves. At IMA, these are the people we’re extra excited about helping. We want to see more recreational music makers in Australia.
That being said, a lot of our clients like to do their hobby really well. We suggest something like 300 to 500 hours as a benchmark to work towards. Work towards this goal if you’d like to be able to play extremely well for your own enjoyment.
Just clocking 300 hours isn’t going to get you to where you want to go though. That’s where having a great music teacher comes in. You’ve got to use your time wisely and practice the right things with the right technique.
20 Hours To Learn Music!
If you’re starting from scratch, all it takes is about 20 hours. 20 hours to be able to play a simple song. Check out this great TED Talk about 20 hours of practice. We’ve seen people clock 20 hours or more without getting to where they want. They were usually self taught. They hadn’t had the guidance to give them the correct technique to make it easy for them to learn.
How Quickly Do You Want To Get There?
So how long is it actually going to take? It’s pretty straight forward math. If you want it to take:
20 days: Practice for one hour a day.
40 days: Practice for half an hour a day.
What we’d recommend though is something like this:
24 weeks: If you do 6 minutes a day with one half hour lesson a week, it’ll take about 18 weeks. (just over 4 months). We’re allowing for days off here. Also, all the other disruptive things that get in the way of your regular practice.
Everybody is busy. Finding an hour or half an hour per day is difficult in our busy adult lives. We suggest scheduling just 6 minutes a day. You’ll always be able to find 6 minutes somewhere in your schedule. The great thing is that your practice time may blow out into half an hour if you get lost in it. If it doesn’t, at least you’ve done your six minutes practice for the day. Why 6 miutes? We’ll cover that in an upcomming blog post.
Practising everyday is the trick. Music practice is like filling a slowly leaking bucket. If you top it up everyday, you’ll get ahead of the ‘leak’. Once you’re bucket is quite full, you hardly notice the leak at all. It’s all about getting the habits into place to do some regular practise.
Once you do that, learning music becomes a breeze.
We often meet new clients who’ve come to us with some terrible habits. This is thanks to the inexperienced music teachers they’ve started with. To fix the problems, we have to take these clients back to basics. They then have to relearn skills that they thought they’d mastered. Save yourself the wasted time and physical pain. Find yourself an excellent music teacher, not just an OK one.
Music Lesson with an IMA Music Teacher
Why Waste Time
We hear it all the time:
“I wish someone had shown me this ten years ago.”
“Doing it this way is so much easier”
“It doesn’t hurt any more when I play this way.”
Learning an instrument takes time. Having someone teaching you great technique will help you learn a lot faster. You may shave years off becoming a great singer or player.
“I don’t need an amazing music teacher, I’m just starting out.” That’s the sentence that makes me cringe the most. You need the most experienced and awesome music teacher you can get when you’re starting out. Get some great technique in place right from the beginning. It makes everything easier and makes learning faster.
Learn it right once.
Good technique makes it easy from the beginning.
Saxophone Lesson with an IMA Music Teacher
Don’t Risk Injury
If you’re playing or singing, and it hurts, then you’re doing something wrong. The closer you get to completely relaxed, the better your technique is. The more relaxed you are, the less likely you are to injure yourself.
Good technique comes down to having everything in the right place. A great music teacher will have spent countless hours on their own technique. They will have a good knowledge of physiology. Problems that you could encounter will be avoided by having an excellent music teacher.
You can damage yourself (particularly singers) if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Injury can slow your progress a lot.
Singing Lesson with an IMA Music Teacher
The reason we learn music is because we love it. It can be discouraging to not sound like your favourite artists at first. A good music teacher will provide you with the support and encouragement that you need. They’ll also be able to shape a course of lessons to step you towards your musical goals.
Getting there quicker makes it much more fun.
Learning the music you love makes it even more fun!
Find a music teacher who has the experience and knowledge to structure a course just for you.
Piano Lesson with an IMA Music Teacher
Good Music Teachers Will Have An Interest In Your Progress
There are many music teachers out there who are teaching as a way to make some quick cash between gigs. You can spot them because they’re more interested in their playing than yours. They’ll try to get you to learn the music they like rather than teaching you what you want. They’ll be more interested in showing you their playing than helping you improve yours.
Look out for music teachers that are more interested in you than your progress.
Theory Lesson with an IMA Music Teacher
It can be tricky to figure out who is a good or bad music teacher. Particularly if you’ve not ever had lessons before. Teachers offering a free trial are a good start. Have a few different trial lessons with different teachers and compare the difference. Are they discussing your goals? Are they finding out what music you’re interested in learning? Are they concerned with your posture and how you hold the instrument (or your body in the case of singing)? Try not to be influenced by price. Feeling price conscious? Be aware that you could save a lot of money by going with the more expensive teacher. You’ll save yourself a lot of time learning the best way the first time.
Learning to play music is one of the most fulfilling things you can do. Don’t be put off by bad teaching experiences. Find someone great who cares about your music and get started now!
A brief comment on where I left off at the end of part 1.
Let’s talk for a quick second about working hard. We’re not talking about 6 hours practice everyday or anything like that (though Labrat did go pretty hard early on).
These guys were just too busy. But we’re talking about a few weeks of focused daily work. That’s all. More than a lot of people with goals to play in successful bands do – and look at what Stavulous achieved in three weeks!
While this was all going on, Stavulous explored some of the more disreputable sides of rock stardom – fake tattoos, hotel room trashing, cross dressing, underwear as outerwear and big, big hair. But they were achieving quite a bit where it was really going to count
We had some proper loud band rehearsals and apart from how amusing it was to see that group dynamics between the members of a morning crew are much the same as they are between the members of a rock band (except wittier and with less swearing) they actually did quite well.
Labrat’s right foot technique was pummellingly violent to say the least, and at least one kick drum pedal couldn’t stand the pressure and shattered, but I think his mentor Matthew had taken the sensible attitude of – the performance is in one week and it’s vaguely in time – WELL DONE!
Camilla was calmed after another session or two with Silas and could begin practising her pumping rock moves (there’s not a lot to do with your left hand when you play keyboard in a rock band).
Tash had reconciled her relationship with her Violin teacher which had soured somewhat after Labrat smashed her Violin on air, demoting her to Bass and her little solo bit before the Chorus was all sounding good.
And Stav was sounding like a singer! Which was very exciting for all of us (and thank God really).
On their very last rehearsal the day before the Ekka performance, they were doing ok and I wisely said “OK. Now on the actual day you will be coming in cold so you should take a ten minute break and then come back and practice playing it with no warm up.”
They took this very wise advice and came back after their break and managed to not play the song through once successfully. Not once. Five starts, five Labrat breakdowns. How very very exciting at this late stage…. They sensibly called it quits and invoked the famous “It will be right on the night, uh, day” attitude that has sustained many shaky stage performances in the past and off they went.
The setup on the day of the gig was the usual “Where is it meant to be?” “Bugger I forgot the X, do you have any?” “No, we’re allowed in there, truly” and “Can I have more of me in the foldback?”.
The morning crew were doing a live cross from the Ekka, and various fans arrived and received Stavulous t-shirts and autographs. Stavulous had a quick soundcheck and played through the song… and didn’t collapse in a heap (phew). The crowd warm up man did his “Now when I say the name Stavulous we’re all going to cheer… are you ready….”. And the tension built…. I’m pretty confident that it was brown trousers time for Stavulous, it must have been terrifying but they were busy working (which must have been a welcome distraction from the far more serious business of rock).
At lunchtime the IMA crew all wandered back to the B105 stage, one final check of guitar tuning… and it was time! They were announced, and the crowd cheered (it was the best attended outside broadcast they had ever done apparently), and they played and…
It was ok!
It was only ever going to be to a certain standard, but they sounded like a capable garage band.
After 3 and a half weeks of music lessons. Unbelievable.
The mix that went to air was not particularly sympathetic (which I knew it wouldn’t be… sigh…) but they sounded pretty good. Labrat played drum fills that were actually rhythmic for the first time ever, Stav loosened up in moments and sounded like a proper rock singer and no one fell over, broke a string, forgot their part or froze and it was actually pretty good.
The second time they played as an outro to their morning show was actually pretty bad… but it didn’t matter. They had proven to themselves (and to us) that with some motivation, ANYONE can play music. And play it in a very short amount of time. We were immensely excited about that and were very pleased to have been involved in a project proving it to be true. Anyone can play!
Later that month we received a slightly panicked call from Andy at B105 (he said that if I could hear ANY panic in his voice, we must be in real trouble) – Stavulous were doing a world tour of Brisbane. It had originally been conceived that Stavulous could play every hour, on the hour for 24 hours, but cooler heads prevailed (though that would have been kinda interesting and very amusing sleep deprivation wise).
The plan was Stavulous were going to do a world tour of shopping centres throughout Brisbane, playing their one song and would we like to be involved? We were happy to once again, while the promotional side of the project was doubtful in it’s impact for us, we thought it was a great social experiment and the B105 cast and crew were just fun to work with. And it was a good thing that we were involved as no one at B105 had any idea of how to run a rock band! So we helped them to organise a PA and an engineer (and thanks to Billy Hyde for sending along John as a drum tech who was a machine and a very very good drummer) then the next Friday we followed them around as Stavulous rocked the four corners of Brisbane one song at a time…
It was a very successful day, plenty of fans turned out to watch them play (just one song!) and the band had reached the stage by half way through the day where they could recover from disasters mid song (small things like Labrat forgetting how to play drums for half a verse…).
It was fascinating to watch how their playing improved as the day wore on. By the end of the day they were listening to each other – holding pauses for slightly longer than was metric (not ideal) but then crashing into the next bar very together (which sounded great!). Every time they played again they became a better band and better musicians. More and more proof that
everyone can play music.
We were VERY pleased when the day was finished but it had been fun. The whole project had been very encouraging to us as mentors, a ratings success for B105 and actually enjoyable too!
I think I should take this chance to thank everyone who was involved in the project – Andrew, Silas and Matthew from IMA, Donna, Andy, Dan and the technical crew, street crew and support staff from B105, Kevin, John and Gareth from Billy Hyde, Danny for FOH on the tour and Stavulous for not letting us down and proving us right…
The B105 (a local Brisbane radio station) morning crew decided that they would form a rock band and perform at the Royal Brisbane Agricultural show, the Ekka.
Now that would seem quite reasonable except…
Stav (vocals and guitar) had played guitar for 18 months and had sung on stage once or twice (but no way that he could sing and play at the same time), Camilla (keyboards) had piano lessons up until the age of 5, Tash (bass guitar) had recently begun to play the violin (she had been playing for three months) and Labrat (drums) had never touched a musical instrument in his whole life…. never ever.
So, really pretty much complete beginners. But that’s ok because everyone can play music yeah? But the Ekka was only 4 weeks away….
4 weeks to prove that EVERYONE can play music. What an outstanding opportunity for us to walk the walk and prove that it is true what we believe – everyone CAN play music.
Now it was not an ordinary situation. Labrat, Camilla, Stav and Tash are overachievers and pretty determined individuals… that is how they have reached the level of career success that they have. They also know how to work hard. And they had great potential for utter public humiliation looming very fast indeed.
Ideal music students!
So here’s the story proper.
We received a call from one of our staff (thankyou Anthony). He had heard on the radio that the B105 breakfast crew were forming a band. They were looking for music teachers to help them to learn to play.
We got on the phone, then sent an email introducing ourselves and pointing to our youtube links so they could see that we could really play. We let them know that we were very excited about this as we could prove publicly what we believe very strongly – everyone can play music! And we could handle all of it for them – drums, violin (early on Tash was going to play violin), guitar, keyboard and voice – we could handle it
I should point out at this stage that things at B105 happen sometimes very quickly… They have hours of chatty time to fill every morning and when you have hours of time to fill daily you have a brilliant idea… and you go for it! This can mean that sometimes the people behind the scenes (hello Andy and Donna) suddenly have HUGE and alien tasks that they have to complete… “We need thousands of rubber ducks for a rubber duck race this friday…”. You get the idea…
They called back (possibly relieved) that they had found one place where they could have all the music lessons that they needed. Seamus did a live to air offering his services and made some lame jokes but was at least able to finish with “Yes indeed, everyone can play music – even the B105 breakfast crew!”
We had a first production meeting, where we delicately discussed things like – when on earth was this actually going to happen, could Tash play bass guitar instead, did they understand that the instruments so graciously donated by B105 listeners possibly weren’t up to the standard of instrument that they would require to play in public and did they understand that if they were doing it live to air they couldn’t rely on looking funny – they actually had to play half decent cause otherwise it was going to seriously suck. Be scared Stavulous… be very scared.
All this was quite easily sorted (thankyou Donna), Seamus showed Labrat a VERY basic drumbeat (he had been randomly bashing the kit and swearing for the last 3 days… he SERIOUSLY could not play…) and Stav possibly also had his first singing lesson that day but it is all a bit blurry 7 weeks after the fact…
And so it all began.
We contacted Billy Hyde Brisbane and asked them if they could provide some instruments for Stavulous to practise and perform on (they didn’t even have instruments… thankyou Kevin and Gareth for getting us out of that one).
Listeners were asked to choose a song and a band name. Within about week and a half the performance date was announced.
So Stavulous (very cute) were going to perform Green Day’s “When I Come Around” in 3 weeks time at the Ekka.
We started by seriously simplifying the song. Green Day can really play. There was no way Stavulous were going to be able to do an exact cover in three weeks. Labrat had a lesson pretty much every day for the first week. Camilla and Tash both had first lessons as did Stav.
And they worked very hard.
Camilla was a bit panicked, as she couldn’t have a second lesson for a week and a bit as her mentor Silas was away touring in West Australia with Women In Docs, but she was always going to be fine (she’s impressive under pressure).
Tash’s part was simplified so that she didn’t have to panic (and she picked up on it REALLY quick).
Stav is such a stage lover that he was going to pull it off just fine – he just had to learn some truths about rock’n’roll. Stuff like, “Rock musicians make it look like it’s a big effort to play – but the truth is that it’s very relaxed and easy”. He was truly shocked.
Matthew (Labrat’s drum teacher) had some very fascinating and expletive filled lessons with Labrat…
We were all a bit worried about Labrat. A rock band lives and dies based on the quality of it’s singer and it’s drummer. Stav would have a vocal mic so even if he totally sucked he could say something clever and possibly escape relatively unscathed… but Labrat only had the drums. And if he got confused and stopped in the middle of everything… well it would be dead air and a LOT of red faces for everyone.
And they worked very hard.
They broadcast their first band rehearsal one morning and heard themselves as a band for the first time.
And then they worked very very very hard indeed…
It did all end up happily – including a world tour of Brisbane a few weeks later but our next blog will fill you in on the gory details…
In the meantime – you can play music too! We’ve proved it now. Head over to our contacts page and leave your details. Look forward to seeing you soon!
Hello again everyone, just to recap, this is part two of the question…
Q. I sing in a band and I find that at the end of a gig I’ve got
no voice left and if I have to do two or three gigs in a row I’m really
in the shit. We’re touring soon and I’m worried.
A. We broke the answer down into four sections…
1. Be particular.
2. Be a diva.
3. Get equipped.
Now that we can be particular, let’s…
2. Be a diva.
It’s easy for singers to get a bad rap, because sometimes you
need to be fussy and demanding. Your voice needs to be protected or you
can’t sustain a tour, or sometimes even a whole gig. Protecting your
voice can require behaviour that may be irritating for those around
You have to fight for foldback onstage. Amongst all the
musicians on stage, your foldback requirements are critical. Guitarists
can turn up their amps, drummers can hit harder and while it may
fatigue (and potentially injure them), they can’t do the same damage to
themselves in 30 minutes that you can do in 30 seconds if you can’t
hear yourself properly. Try to be nice about it, but fight tooth and
nail for your foldback.
Smoke machines and air conditioning dry out your voice and are
your enemy. You might ask (politely) to have them turned off. Try using
a humidifier in hotel rooms and dressing rooms where the aircon has to
If the people around you really care about the band and how you
present to the public, having audible vocals on stage, being a bit hot
in the car and not having the smoke machine on are pretty small
sacrifices to make for a great sounding show.
3. Get equipped.
Having your own quality microphone is very important.
Everyone else in the band pays a fortune for their gear, so
shelling out for a decent mic so you sound fantastic seems fair if
you’re going to be such a diva.
Go into music stores and try different mics. Compare handling
noise and choose one best suited to your voice (they’re all different).
Prices start at $400.
Consider wireless to allow yourself the freedom to really move.
Try in ear monitoring. It can dramatically improve control and
minimise damage, simply because you’ll hear yourself properly (maybe
for the first time ever).
Bite the bullet and try singing lessons. You won’t lose your
unique voice. A good teacher coaches technique, which you integrate
into your existing sound.
Your teacher can help you sing with your whole body and access individual muscle groups for effect (like distortion).
Be patient and prepared to work because if you want to use
distortion night after night you must have a good technique
(sustainable) mixed with a tiny bit of relaxed and carefully monitored
“bad technique” (for rock).
Finally, the best thing to help sustain your voice onstage is to relax and enjoy yourself… (God forbid!).
This was the first of a series of columns that we wrote for Rave, a local Brisbane music magazine. There is a bit of repetition with some of the other entries in our blog, but I thought that it was worth including.
As this is our first column and we don’t have any real questions
yet, let’s pretend that a singer has asked me how to maintain their
Q. I sing in a band and and I find that at the end of a gig
I’ve got no voice left and if I have to do two or three gigs in a row
I’m really in the shit. We’re touring soon and I’m worried.
A. You are the singer. You are the primary focus at the front
of the rock behemoth. The reputation of your band can live or die
relative to your performance. You must be good and you must be
consistent. My number one recommendation (unsurprisingly) is to find a
good singing teacher… but here’s some stuff to consider….
We’ll break this down into four sections.
1. Be particular.
2. Be a diva.
3. Get equipped.
1. Be particular.
Remember, singing is very serious stuff. Live or die stuff for your band…
Your body is your instrument.
So… eat well. Lots of wholemeal stuff and greens. No chilli
(sigh), no dairy and check that you are aware of any allergies that you
may have – maybe you feel like crap all the time because you can’t eat
wheat (or whatever).
Drink well. Lots of room temperature water (no ice – your voice
hates it). No diuretics (drinks that dry you out – think coffee, soft
drink, alcohol – even fruit juice can be suspect – water all the way).
Drugs are horrendous for your body and pot is the worst for
your voice – you can’t cool it and it rips the crap out of your voice –
you’re not Bob Marley either, so don’t use him as an excuse.
Get fit. If you can’t run for about forty minutes without
getting puffed, you’re not ready to really front the band. Mick Jagger
and Steven Tylers fitness is an embarrassment to everyone under the age
of 50. I also heartily recommend Yoga, Tai Chi and Chi Gung as great
Don’t talk over ambient noise (touring vans, loud music etc).
This is really tiring for your voice. Send the rest of the band out to
talk to punters after the gig if you’re touring, or minimise your
involvement (difficult for Indie bands I know, but you’re the singer –
you’re particular and a diva – it’s in your job description).
Get plenty of sleep! Your voice and body must have time to recuperate (tough on tour but it’s sleep or sing…).
And finally, do some simple, relaxing vocal exercises so that you know where your
voice is at before you hit the stage, warming down is also a good idea.
Next month I’ll give you some diva instruction, help you spend
money at your local music store (just like a guitarist) and point you
in some learning directions.
Secret number 1 – a lot of Singers have no idea what they’re doing.
There. I’ve said it. Speaking as a Singer myself, I can quite confidently say that we can be a pretty ignorant bunch.
Guitarists can talk for hours about modes, amplifiers and the relative merits of two seemingly identical brands of guitar string but if you ask a Singer about their craft – their instrument, tone production, equipment choice, practice regimes… well they might have a vocal exercise or two they picked up from a friend who “had a couple of lessons with this old lady who made him sing Andrew Lloyd Weber songs” and they will probably sing happily through whatever evil smelling microphone they are given at the gig… and that’s it.
It’s quite an extraordinary situation that we’re so ignorant, because onstage, Singers are the most important member of the band. We are the focus for all the energy (positive or otherwise) of the seething masses.
If we get a sore throat, the gig can be canceled, if we decide to croak our way through the set anyway (or worse, blow out on the third song), people demand their money back.
The audience copes if they don’t hear a Guitar solo all night, but they won’t listen to 45 minutes of instrumentals.
It’s a dangerous feeling having a Singer out the front who isn’t sure that their voice is going to make it through the show….
But Singers who are having trouble with making it through gigs or who can’t hit the notes they want aren’t alone. It’s practically an epidemic.
The cure is embarrassingly simple.
Treat your voice like an instrument. If you’re a Singer, get some lessons. If you’re an Instrumentalist, force your Singer to get some lessons, and if they won’t… have some lessons yourself (Singers hate that!).
If you can’t get lessons, look for help with the technical aspects of singing wherever you can. This can include YouTube, blogs and forums online and there are also some good books, CDs and DVDs available.
A good hint for what to look for in lessons (whether in person or on video etc) is to look for teachers who stress posture, breath, relaxation and sensation.
Posture is important as it takes stress off singing muscles, improves resonance and makes it easier to breathe.
Breath is important as that’s what makes your voice work! Breath is also the secret to getting high notes…
Relaxation is important as relaxed muscles are powerful muscles and relaxed singing is sustainable (gig after gig after gig).
And Sensation is how we learn to sing – we can’t see our instrument so we have to feel it instead.
Secret number 2 – Singers aren’t born (no matter what they say on Idol…) they are made, and anyone can be a Singer.
As always, if you have any questions, email us on firstname.lastname@example.org or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.
My “Get Low, Get Loud” technique discussed previously is a simple way to gain clarity in the band room. If you’re unsure about gear, tone and the sympathy of your bandmates/sound engineer, it’s a great place to begin developing clarity.
There are more sophisticated methods available – here’s three.
1. Experiment with a pick.
Playing with a pick causes the string to vibrate differently when struck. It can give your bass consistency and clarity in attack and tone that your fingers may lack (I personally prefer fingers though).
2. Modify band arrangements.
Les Claypool from Primus and Flea from the Chili Peppers are two bass players that you never have trouble hearing. Why? One clue is their guitarists. John Frusciante from the Chili Peppers might put down a lot of guitar tracks, but they are often texturally thin and rhythmically functional. Very few big strummy chords or monster multi-tracked riffs from John Frusciante, and the parts are considerate of vocals, drums and bass.
Primus is the opposite of a guitar heavy band. Imagine if guitarist Larry Lalonde or drummers Brain or Tim Alexander tried to compete with Les Claypool? It would just be a big unlistenable mess, where you couldn’t distinguish any instrument, let alone bass. Instead, the drummer keeps out of the way, Larry Lalonde might make a thin skronk noise every other bar,
and Les Claypool takes up all the room in the arrangement.
Consider your band’s arrangements.
Does each instrument have room (even if some instruments take up more room than others)? Does your keyboard player need their left hand strapped down? Or are you looking at making the next …And Justice For All… (is there a bass player on that album)?
3. Work with your sound engineer.
Beyond controlling foldback, your engineer impacts hugely on your clarity.
I saw Midnight Oil play The Woodford Folk Festival years ago, it was a great gig and eye opening from a live sound perspective.
I generally discourage bass players from using distortion. Poorly applied distortion steals your (sub) bottom end and presets and pedals are generally designed to sound impressive in the store, but the scooped mid-frequencies result in a bass sound that disappears once the guitars start.
Midnight Oil’s gig was impressive because all guitars on stage were distorted, bass included. What should have been a mess was entirely under control from the mixing desk. If one guitar had a bassier distortion, than the other guitars distortions might have more presence in different areas of the mids – each guitar had a distinct sonic footprint where it was distorted and loud, but didn’t sonically interfere with the other guitar’s sound.
You should get a regular engineer for your band (it really helps). Talk to them about where your bass fits in the mix. Work with them to develop a quality bass sound that fits sonically with the rest of the band.
For a good example of what we’ve talked about above check out At The Drive-In’s Relationship Of Command album and always make sure that you trust your own ears first!
As always, if you have any questions, email us on email@example.com or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.