Photo by Corey Brown
Q: I’ve been reading your columns with great interest for the last year or so, but here’s a question I haven’t seen addressed yet: How do different bass players approach the problem of playing and singing at the same time? I’ve been playing for going on forty years now – both professionally and as a weekend warrior – and this particular aspect still eludes me for the most part. The thing is, fellow bass players I’ve talked to about this seem to fall roughly into two categories: 1) those who do this seemingly effortlessly and hardly understand the question, and 2) those who, like me, find it nearly impossible. Is it a matter of practice, or is it just the way we are wired? I can manage some songs, mostly rock tunes where the bass lines are simple and follow the melody or consist mainly of straight eighth notes. Most of what I play, though is blues and soul, where the bass lines often are more rhythmically complex, and here I just can’t seem to “sever the connection” between my fingers and my mouth. Any thoughts or tips?
A: Disclaimer: I don’t sing whether I have the bass in my hands or not. But the short answer is that it’s really is a matter of independence. Just like the old rub-your-head-and-pat-your-belly demonstration, it just comes down to muscle memory. The more we have to think about doing X, the harder it is to do Y at the same time.
Speaking from personal experience, I was pretty unable to speak even the simplest of sentences while playing, because I was unable to operate on autopilot playing music. It is still hard for me as it seems like human speech and musical expression use slightly different parts of the brain (I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it sure feels like it).
Singing while playing is particularly tricky for many because it’s not just moving our mouths and pushing air. We’re focusing on pitch, tone and articulation – all while focusing on our bass lines pitch, tone and articulation.
You are also thinking of two separate (although hopefully complimentary) rhythms. I think that the challenge may be different for everybody but for me, it was the rhythm that got me. I discovered that if I spoke using the same rhythms I was playing, it became much easier to say, “I-need-more-kick-drum-in-the-monitor”, or whatever it is I was trying to say. If this is your case, the answer is fairly simple: you need to practice rhythmic independence with your voice and bass. It would be fairly easy to invent some exercises for yourself that vary in difficulty level.
- Try a simple quarter note pulse on your bass and sing a dotted quarter pulse. Now try switching back and forth, altering which pulse you play on either instrument (voice or bass).
- Try using your voice to create a drum groove and play along with yourself (start with a simple boom-bap type back-beat and then get more and more intricate with your grooves both with the bass and your voice
- Try playing a bass line and using your voice to play different kind of rhythms underneath (quarters, 8ths, triplets, dotted quarters, dotted 8ths, quarter note triplets, etc..)
- Try playing a basic tumbao and use your voice to play clavé (this is hard for me). I’ve also seen people use just their voice to make a click sound for the clavé and sing a tumbao underneath it. Then you could try and play a melody or improvisation over that! (eek)
- I heard Raul Midon speaking of practicing singing with himself: first unison lines, then harmonies, then alternating diatonic pitches (3rds off of each note but changing them to fit the harmony. ie: major and minor). Then he got into singing and playing different types of lines together. Each step leading to another evolution in his abilities but only by passing through them one by one, over time.
As with anything, all is possible if your work is both diligent and smart. Whatever it is, break it down into its simplest form and make sure that you can do step 1 before trying step 2. Most of us make the mistake at trying to start at step 10 simply because we have gotten that far in other ways. Anything new requires us to build a foundation before we can really own it. Focus on your foundation: rhythmic and harmonic independance. I would start with scales and basic rhythms and experiment with the layering of ideas between your voice and your bass.
If you are playing a bluesy bass line (8th notes) and can’t seem to sing without losing it, switch to whole notes. Then progress to quarter notes before jumping straight to 8th notes. The progression will happen more quickly than it would if you just kept practicing not being able to do it as you want it for the end result. Simplify and take your time.
Okay readers, like I said – I don’t sing and play at all, so you have to help me out here. How do you do it? Did it always come naturally or did you have to develop it over time? How do you practice singing and playing? Please share in the comments.