One of the things I have noticed among my pupils this year is a reluctance to sing along with their music while they play. I’ve written a few blogs on the importance of singing when learning music, but I think it is one of those perennial issues that needs revisiting from time to time.
Once the rhythm has been sorted by counting the beat out loud as he or she plays, the beginner should move on to singing the lyrics often found in beginner music. Some beginners really enjoy this part, but I have seen there are a few reasons why others don’t want to do it.
What are the reasons some people don’t want to sing when learning the piano?
- They are embarrassed to sing in front of someone else
- They simply don’t sing, not even along with their favourite recording stars
- They are okay with singing, but find doing two things simultaneously, such as playing and singing, tricky
- The words may seem trite for their age group
- They may feel it isn’t necessary to learning how to play the piano.
Why should we sing as we play?
It helps us listen to the note and pitch it. This in turn helps us get a sense of where the melody is going. I have noticed with new beginners who are keen to impress that, even if they find it difficult at first to sing along, they quickly get quite good at it and it becomes habitual, especially if it is expected from the beginning. Their singing actually improves as they listen, play and sing the notes as they go through the piece.
It helps us better remember what we are learning. This is because of using a ‘total physical response’ approach to learning. In other words, the more body parts involved, the deeper the establishment of what is being learned. We are already using our eyes and our sense of touch. By singing we are vocalising it as well.
It keeps us aware of where we are up to. One of the challenges of learning to read music is keeping going from one note to the next. Singing along with the music is one way to help new pianists realise they are stopping and starting in unnatural places. So, even if they are not used to looking for the next note very well, they are aware that they need to keep going.
It helps with keeping a steady beat to the music. When we sing the song, we get a sense that the music is not just random notes. There is a flow from one note to another. Singing alongside reading the notes will help when it comes to counting the beat out loud when learning a new piece. This helps with that problem of doing two things at once. If we get into the habit of doing that in the early stages, it helps when there is more to think about as the music gets more challenging.
It helps us locate the phrases in the music. I was explaining to someone this week that a player of a wind instrument is more aware of phrases because they provide natural breathing places in the music. But any music needs “breathing” places. When we sing the words that go with a piece of music we can often see where the music reflects the words of a sentence as one little melody that can stand on its own. Lyrics are usually written in for beginner pianists to show this.
We can find natural places to practice the music in chunks. When we are aware of the phrases it makes it easier to find a small section to practice on its own, rather than just starting at the top of the piece and playing to the end and then doing all that again. Practicing to play smaller sections completely correctly is much more manageable. I often find that a pupil with more of a perfectionist approach gets frustrated that they can’t play something correctly from start to finish. They are likely to always go back to the beginning if they make a mistake. Consequently, the end of the piece gets less attention this way. If they practice perfectly one small phrase at a time until it is correct and then move on to the next, they can keep that very helpful perfectionist approach one phrase at a time and get successfully to the end without frustration.
Singing improves the music. On numerous occasions when I’ve been playing in an orchestra, the conductor would encourage someone to sing the melody they were playing. Sometimes the whole orchestra would join in and sing it. Every time, the music always sounded better after doing this. When we sing, we put those natural louds and softs into the music and flow from one note to the next. Instrumental music needs to include those things too.
Pianists often need to be able to sing along to what they are playing in all sorts of settings. A few examples could be: introducing a new song to the band, leading corporate singing in church or at a community event, teaching a song to a school class or choir, Christmas carols at a family gathering, etc. And it is good to get comfortable with it right from the start. If we get used to singing in front of our piano teacher (the most sympathetic person in the world to you doing it!), it will give us a step towards confidence in all sorts of singing we do in life. I often sing along with my pupils as well, so they don’t feel they are out on their own doing so. If your child is learning piano it would be great if you get them to let you sing along with them too. Give them an early start at accompanying others singing around the piano.
Last, but not least—and actually the whole point of why we play in the first place—
it helps us enjoy the music! There is much out there to suggest that singing releases endorphins – chemicals in the brain that lessen anxiety and help us feel good. All this is really useful if we are stressed about our piano playing. If you don’t like the words of the song, make up your own or at least sing “la-la-la”. You never know, it may be the beginnings of making up your own songs!
How to make it happen
- Sing along with your child as they do the singing part in practicing their pieces.
- Have them teach a family member their latest “piano song”.
- If it really is a difficult thing to encourage and you sense a push back on it with your child, don’t make a thing of it, but have it as part of the reward system of various completed tasks at the piano. Give more credit for the more difficult tasks and include singing along to their pieces as one of those.
- Find one of the reasons above on why we should sing as we play that most suits the person learning, and use that when explaining how it is valuable to their learning.
- Be encouraged that if they don’t like hearing themselves singing, that is going to improve as they play along. Besides, the piano playing covers up the singing in a way, so it doesn’t come across as all that noticeable.
- For those embarrassed to sing in front of others, give the space for them to do it without others in the room, just as long as they still do it.
I am sure my early song writing attempts came out of this usual activity of singing along as I played my piano pieces. I’m sure it was also a contributing factor to learning early on how to sing in tune. Whether you are learning to play as an adult or whether you are encouraging your child, let me encourage you to develop a love of singing as part of your piano playing. I am certain you will feel all the better for it.