I think this is a conversation every aspiring vocal artist, choir member, and music producer should have early in their careers/endeavours. Still, if you haven’t thought of it or you haven’t yet confidently arrived at your own answer, let me attempt to stimulate one for you:
The ‘No’ Argument
No way! For starters, the human vocal chord(s) is an instrument in its own right. So, whoever wields it skillfully should be accorded a great degree of respect, whether they are musically literate or not! In fact, the voice was the first instrument from which we understood music. So, that being said, the title question should rather be ‘would you become a better instrumentalist by learning how to sing’! Boo-yah!
The ‘Yes’ Argument
Hold up, would ya? Let’s set a proper benchmark to correctly judge with first: a singer may be called ‘talented’ but if that vocalist is largely ignorant of the ‘sense’ or theory behind what he or she does, then I’d say it again, that fellow should not call himself a musician. Musicians are the ones who are literate in music theory, they can make music and critique it. This is what music instrumentalists do routinely and this is what makes them musicians. What a musical layman would listen to and say ‘this just doesn’t feel right’, a musician would go a step further and tell you why it ‘feels’ that way and would identify what needs to be done to make it sound better. Therefore, knowing music (as evidenced by being able to play an instrument) would make you know how to use your voice to make music better!
And the winner is…
Would we become better singers by learning how to play a musical instrument? My answer is YES! Here is why I believe so:
Being able to qualify as a good singer in some circles could depend on some factors. For example, the chosen genre of music to perform with could matter because, for instance, a dramatic opera singer’s rendition would be inappropriate for a relatively laidback country music song. However, some qualities common to all singers are a good and original voice texture and a wide pitch range. Then, there is this peculiar quality that goes beyond natural talent- it is the ability to improvise. Let me define improvisation as taking something from the original structure of the song (sounds, beats e.t.c.), and modifying it to produce something new. This new stuff then elevates the ‘feeling’ of the song. The ability to improvise may not be the thought that comes to mind when you think of your favorite singer. But, if you are a vocalist, your ability to improvise would provide you with infinite ways of delivering your craft. This ability is what will help you remain ever fresh and relevant to your audience.
Some real-life examples
On the international scene, let’s look at some who have won the best pop vocal performance’ Grammies awards in their various gender categories. There was Beyonce (2010) and Celine Dion (1999), Christina Aguilera (2007); None of these vocal artists has a reputation for knowing how to play an instrument in public or on stage. However, their colleagues who also have won this same award like Tracy Chapman (1989; the guitar), Lady Gaga (2011; the piano), Justin Timberlake (2008; guitar, keyboards) and Bruno Mars (2011; guitar, keyboards, drums) all know their way around a musical instrument. So, which group has a better set of vocalists? Perhaps comparing them won’t be fair as they are all wonderful singers with their unique styles. So, you may conclude that the ability to sing is independent of whether once can play an instrument or not. But have those who are yet to know how to play an instrument peaked in their capacity to sing?
My final answer…
Let’s go back to what improvisation is: improvisation, regardless of the field where it is practised, has two sources- intuition and theory. By intuition, I’m referring to one’s ability to improvise based on using his creativity to combine sounds he has heard before with his personal preferences to come out with something new. Then, by theory, I mean one having a near precise quantitative knowledge of what a certain change in any musical element of a song (i.e. sound, or tempo) would do to the ‘feeling’ of that particular section of music where introduced before such an introduction is done. The former means can be exhibited by a vocalist who does not know how to play an instrument while the latter can only be exhibited by someone who knows music theory.
Let’s talk practical a bit…
Now, when you are on stage with fellow vocalists and musicians, performing live (without your very helpful vocal coach by your side), your responses would be real-time as stage performances do depend on the spontaneous mood of the environment (i.e. the spontaneous energy levels of the audience and you the performers). Therefore, knowledge of theoretical improvisations could help you take that mood, process it and know what to do with your voice with a precision that would help you minimize mistakes. Plus, such an ability will help you sync with your band who using their own theoretical knowledge too would know where best you need to go acoustically speaking (and support you appropriately) after you give them a ‘vocal’ hint. Any vocalist who can tap into both sources of improvisation stands the best chance of being a great vocalist, anywhere.
My final advice on this
If you want to be the best vocalist you can be, train your voice to hone your natural vocal qualities. But don’t stop there. Go and learn music theory, and practice it by knowing how to play at least one musical instrument. If you want to know what instrument would fit you best, then consider starting with the guitar. Here’s why I say so: ‘Why you should start with the guitar’ https://guitarclinic.com.ng/why-you-should-start-with-the-guitar/
Got a different perspective to this question which you want to share? Do drop a comment and let’s see how we can ultimately make more vocalists better at what they do. Remember, you can like GuitarClinic on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to learn more and share more on topics like this. Simply click their links at the top of the page to get started.