Sing, Play, Sing

This phrase refers to a common banjo band song “arrangement”; sing the first chorus, play the second, sing the last. I’m borrowing it to describe the subject of this blog; singing while playing the banjo.

When I first started singing while playing (on my gig at Phillips Crab House in the summer of ‘93), the only way I could sing while playing was to play the melody. Through the summer, I practiced singing while playing accompaniment chords, and by the end of the two months, I was doing it, but only to a few simple songs. That was the start of an ongoing skill-development process that continues to this day. I still dislike singing a song in public that I have not first worked out at home; jam sessions help of course, because nobody is really listening anyway (the subject of a future blog?)!

My father’s signature solo piece was the Flight of the Bumblebee; he combined it with 12th Street Rag, and called it 12th Street Bumble. I listen to the recording now, and I can’t believe how fast he played it! I remember him practicing it at home, and carrying on a conversation with us kids while playing it! That was his method of disconnecting his voice from his fingers. Another example: It’s always kinda pissed me off that Buddy Wachter can play more while singing than most of us can play when we’re not singing!

Fast forward to the work I’ve been doing on jazz improvisation; I realize that playing “something different from the melody” requires the same type of divided attention. So, I have begun practicing singing the melody while playing appropriate scale/arpeggio patterns. No, scales and arpeggios are not “improvisation,” but they are a “bunch of notes” played while singing; the idea is to learn to play lots of notes—in a very different rhythm pattern—while distracted with the melody.

Right now, my concentration is equally divided, and there are lots of starts and stops; the goal is to just go on autopilot with the voice and play whatever I want with the fingers. It would seem to me that this would be a giant step forward in my quest for free-wheeling jazz improvisation. I am working on a lesson concept that will teach and/or improve this skill; scale/arpeggio knowledge will be a prerequisite, of course!

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