A world where singers and instrumentalists coexist as equals can lead to amazingly creative contributions to music. However, although there are some examples where this type of working relationship exists, in the vast majority of cases the musical divisions between vocalists and instrumentalists are quite prevalent.

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While this may be attributed to human nature – like with like, it could also be the result of negative stereotypes that have developed in the music world over the years, particularly concerning vocalists. Michele Weir highlights some of them:

  • Singers are more concerned with their performance than they are with the music.
  • When singers are present in an ensemble, they tend to get top billing and more audience accolades than players—despite inferior musicianship.
  • Singers spend more time hustling gigs or developing their “show” than practicing.
  • Singers are often dependent on instrumentalists to write their charts and run rehearsals, yet they’ll be downright indignant if one or their “accompanists” makes a mistake of any kind. Via Garcia Music

Although some of these are actually founded in a certain amount of historical truth, the divide between the two groups of musicians is not helpful. In fact, it takes away from great opportunities to learn from each other.

In fact, as Gwendolyn Hoberg argues, there is much that instrumentalists can learn if they would only observe and talk to their singing counterparts without prejudice:

1. Phrasing and expressiveness

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

One of the skills in which vocalists thrive is that of phrasing and expressiveness; something that is not as easy to come by among instrumentalists. There is a lot of emphasis on the technical aspects of playing such as bowing or fingering.

Technique is essential, but it’s a means to an end. Without attention to phrasing—rise and fall, going somewhere and coming away—musicians can’t be very musical. Not every singer is a model of musical phrasing and persuasive expression, but it does seem to come more easily to singers than to those who play instruments. Via Classical MPR

2. Breath support

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Vocalists get lots of training in breath support and sustaining sound. In contrast, the importance of taking a deep breath and sustaining good sound through the length of a phrase or note may not receive the same emphasis for an instrument player, but that should not diminish its importance when performing.

Some of the string faculty at the festival here informed me that breathing before a piece begins is crucial for producing the best sound. Yesterday in our opera orchestra rehearsal, the maestro told the violins, “Every inch of the bow should be singing, singing, singing. Always.” Many instrument teachers, in fact, advise their students to “sing” when they’re playing. I write the word in the margins of my Mozart horn concertos to remind myself that in addition to precise rhythm and intonation, I need to take deep breaths and sustain a beautiful sound throughout the entire piece. Via Classical MPR

3. Using metaphors of syllables and consonants

I also learned from the string faculty that string players borrow from the vocal world by using metaphors of syllables and consonants. One violinist said that to avoid mushy playing with a long run of notes, he plays as though there is one syllable for every note. Another violinist talked about the initial bowing of a note as the initial consonant of a word: it must have a clear beginning. Via Classical MPR

4. Stage presence

Cellist Buenos Aires
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Although many instrumentalists will dismiss it as showing off, vocalists will more often display excellent stage presence than instrumentalists. Admittedly, they do tend to be more comfortable in the spotlight and display more dramatic personalities as well. Even so, it is important for instrumentalists to understand the value that stage presence adds to the music during a performance. Whether a musician is playing or singing, every gesture contributes to the overall performance effect, and every facial expression matters.

Even so, it is important for instrumentalists to understand the value that stage presence adds to the music during a performance. Whether a musician is playing or singing, every gesture contributes to the overall performance effect, and every facial expression matters.

Cellist Sally Dorer of the Minnesota Opera Orchestra told me a story today about a solo passage of hers in the opera Silent Night. The solo was somewhat treacherous, and the performance was going to be recorded for television. What helped ease her anxieties was thinking of her cello solo as part of the drama of the scene, which involved a soldier burying another soldier. As Sally explained, “I realized the moment was larger than what I was doing with it.” Via Classical MPR

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