band performance vocals
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Vocalists are often at the receiving end of negative stereotypes about their abilities, particularly when they are in competition with instrumentalists. However, vocalists are just as musical as their instrumentalist counterparts, and their skills are just as difficult to develop. The major difference between the two groups of musicians is in their approach to music.

A good example is discussed by Michele Weir:

Singers can express emotion through lyrics, while players must express all feeling through other musical elements. This is a primary reason that singers are oriented to hearing melodies while players are generally more attracted to harmony. Singers can be like a fish out of water when they try to improvise on chord changes and invent new lines which reflect the harmony. It’s been my experience time and time again that vocal students have great difficulty transcribing bass lines and don’t easily hear thirds and sevenths of chords–even on what would be considered the most simple jazz standards. Singers simply aren’t accustomed to focusing their ears on what’s underneath the melody.

Conversely, players may be lacking in the expressive elements of their playing because their practice habits encourage them to play a pedantic array of scales and arpeggios without attention to the construction of a cohesive melody. Via Garcia Music

To their credit, vocalists outperform instrumentalists on foreign accent imitation – a worthy point in their favor during a debate. This is according to research from the University of Vienna.

Even so, there are important lessons that both groups of musicians can learn from each other. Today we look at the lessons vocalists can learn from instrumentalists to enhance their performance, as discussed by Gwendolyn Hoberg:

  1. Pay attention to string vibrato
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In many cases, the same concepts that apply to modern Western string instruments also apply to the human voice. A good example is how singers can improve their phrasing for a more desirable sound by paying attention to string vibrato and bowing.

According to Peter Burroughs, an opera singer and vocal teacher based in Washington, D.C., “vibrato is supposed to be a natural part of our voice, but a lot of singers have that trained out of them, so listening to string players can help get that back.”

Burroughs noted that varying your vibrato is important, and Virginia Sublett, a colleague of mine at North Dakota State University, agrees. “Having a flexible attitude toward vibrato, rather than employing it consistently, offers more coloristic and ornamentation options.” Via Classical MPR

  1. Watch the bow

Vocal students can also learn when to take a breath by watching how string player’s bow as this provides clues on how to phrase shapes. Although vocalists tend to have a better sense of how and when to breather, they also need to learn how to make choices concerning when to breath based on melodic phrases, lung capacity and text. Watching instrumentalists in action may help a vocalist learn how to balance these three to sharpen his or her melodic phrasing.

  1. Vocal embouchure

Strings weren’t the only instruments Burroughs mentioned. He said the low brass instruments are a good model for a relaxed vocal embouchure (oboes and trumpets, not so much). He also agreed with my suggestion that the colors and timbres of different instruments could inspire vocalists to try different things. Via Classical MPR

  1. Rhythm
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One major area that vocalists really struggle compared to instrumentalists is in rhythmic dictation. This is often evident in most any aural skills classes. However, this can be explained by the fact that vocalists have to sing with words.

In defense of vocalists—not all of whom struggle in this area, of course—Burroughs said they tend to consider word rhythm more than metronomic rhythm. It’s rare that singers sing without words. In 20th- and 21st-century music, word rhythm can be challenging because “getting the diction across is more difficult,” Burroughs argued. “It’s written more instrumentally, so it’s hard to fit in the words in the right amount of time.” Via Classical MPR

Ultimately, it’s important that both groups of musicians learn to appreciate each other strengths if they are going to help each other improve on the areas in which they are weak.

In the end, I don’t think it’s helpful to make too much of the differences between those who play instruments and those whose instrument is their voice. As classical musicians, we have many of the same goals and methods and face many of the same challenges.  Via Classical MPR

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