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I’ve heard the advice :- play what you sing as a means of practicing playing what you hear in your head.

I've realised that I tend to sing the stuff I play instead of playing what I sing. I already know how some scale patterns, pentatonic runs and arpeggios sound, so I end up singing these patterns. I'm singing what I know my fingers are already going to do.

Ideally, I believe you want to be doing the opposite where you're playing what you're singing. So, how can I break this habit?

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I know exactly what you're referring to and recall having this same problem myself. I discussed it with David Berkman in a lesson and here's the advice he gave me. This only works for pianists, but I'll describe a couple other techniques too.

When improvising on the piano, play the lines in both hands. Play through the form, and improvise such that your right hand is "leading" the left hand. When creating lines, let them flow from your right hand. Then switch the second time through the form. Let your left hand "lead" the right hand. When creating lines, think about your left hand and where it's moving, and let the left hand guide the right hand. This might seem strange or arbitrary, but there's an objective measure for whether we're doing it correctly. For most pianists, the right hand is stronger in improvising than the left hand. As a result, when my right hand was "leading," there were instances where my left hand couldn't keep up and missed the line. But when I switched and created lines using my left hand, I rarely had the opposite problem where my right hand couldn't keep up. This is a good gauge: if I am truly letting the left hand be the creator, then there are far fewer instances where the left hand struggles to keep up.

On guitar or another instrument, you can try something Jamey Aebersold once told me. Practice singing a solo without playing along on your instrument. After singing a lick or singing 8 bars, go back and replicate it on your instrument. This breaks the link between voice and finger. When I used this technique, I wasn't simply singing what my fingers already knew, because my fingers weren't moving.

But in addition to these techniques, which can be helpful, I realized that there was a deeper issue creating the problem you describe. My fingers had become so accustomed to certain movements (licks, patterns, etc.) that my brain turned on autopilot and just followed along. I played the same licks over and over and simply sang those licks which had become so rote. It turns out this was an issue of imbalance. The problem disappeared when I began learning new bebop heads systematically in all 12 keys at different tempos. By continually practicing new material and always focusing on all 12 keys (including those where I was much weaker), my fingers gained greater flexibility and freedom. Before, those licks were so entrenched in my muscle memory because they were so much easier to play. But with this practice, those licks lost that special status. I was strong enough in my technique that it was just as easy to play practiced licks as it was to play new licks I might come up with on the spot. It felt like I got out of the rut of my limited muscle memory by strengthening the areas where I was weaker.

I definitely recommend this routine. I would choose a new bebop head, start really slow (e.g., quarter note = 70 BPM), play the head in all 12 keys, the increase by 2-3 BPM, go through all 12 keys again, and continue until I reached ~220 BPM.

  • Hey man, thank you so much for your detailed reply. I'm sorry but my knowledge of Jazz is poor and I do not know what a bebop head is. Do you mind explaining this briefly? – karthik Nov 5 '17 at 17:36
  • Sure! "Head" is just another term for melody, and bebop is just a style of jazz from the 1940s. I liked to practice melodies from bebop-style songs because they were notoriously complex (both melodically and rhythmically). So they did a great job of pushing me beyond what I was comfortable with. They were essentially high-quality licks to practice, which someone else had already created and written down. – jdjazz Nov 5 '17 at 17:49
  • When you say 'with both hands', I'm guessing you mean octave unison. Correct? – Tim Nov 5 '17 at 17:51
  • @Tim, almost always either octaves or double octaves. The farther apart the hands get, the harder it becomes. – jdjazz Nov 5 '17 at 17:52
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    In regard to "all 12 keys" and "I wasn't simply singing what my fingers already knew, because my fingers weren't moving", a guitar-centric practice tip in the same vein is to use a different position on the neck or to use only one string. In both cases the point is to break out of your muscle memory whether it's for learning the notes, hearing intervals, getting out of melodic ruts, whatever... – user37496 Nov 5 '17 at 19:08
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I understand what you're saying but I'm not sure I totally agree with the premise.

It seems that you're assuming that everybody naturally has melodies in their head that come out of nowhere. But these melodies mostly come from listening to music, learning musical patterns like scales, arpeggios, intervals, and then making the connections between the two whether consciously or not. And the music that you're drawing inspiration from was made in the same way: based on patterns and the music that came before it. So playing scales and other patterns is about drilling that musicality into your head to the point where you can make use of it.

While I do completely endorse it, I think the benefit of singing, saying, or even thinking along with what you're playing is about making connections. Your fingers are learning the muscle memory, your brain is learning the theory—the note/degree names if that is in fact what you're singing—and your ears are learning how that sounds. And most importantly you're making the connections between those so that when you do have an idea in your head, you can more easily translate it to the correct musical context or fingering (or vice-versa).

It sounds like maybe you have a different problem that is pretty common. Your playing sounds too scale-like? Things come out sounding like an exercise rather than music? If so, here are some suggestions:

  • Don't just play up and down the pattern/scale. First of all, try defaulting to playing descending rather than ascending.
  • Play them in different intervals, for example 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, etc. (or different inversions in the case of arpeggios)
  • Add in embellishments like appogiaturas, enclosures, chromatics, etc
  • Don't just play the patterns from beginning to end, mix them up too. Play a few notes in scalar fashion, then use an intervalic jump, then an embellishment, etc.
  • In other words, use the patterns as a jumping off point and as an underlying mental framework of what notes might fit. But quickly move on to experimentation and using what sounds good.
  • Learn some things other than just patterns. Learn some actual melodies. These still have patterns within them but you're skipping directly to something that already sounds melodic and drilling that into brain instead.
  • Steal from other music you like and dissect it. What are they doing that makes you like it?
  • Try using repeated sequences to establish a theme. That is, when you find a short melodic pattern that you like, try repeating it over the next chord change transposing as necessary. Playing it over a new harmonic context will add a new flavor but the repetition (the same/similar relative intervals) ties it all together.
  • Try repeating rhythms but varying the notes or vice versa. Again, use the repetition to establish a theme.
  • Learn about harmony and focus on that aspect more. Remember that you're not just playing melodies in a vacuum. Part of what makes a melody sound interesting at any given point is how that note fits in against the harmonic context. Simply focusing on the chord tones, extensions, and what notes can connect the chord changes will do wonders for your melodies.

Everybody has some basic sense of musicality just from hearing music their entire life. We hear consonance and dissonance. We hear tension and expect release, etc. So even non-musicians might be able to sing a melody but they are drawing from the underlying musical concepts that they've passively picked up over the years. As a musician, your goal is actively practice those things so that you can truly harness them.

So, in other words, it's not that you haven't found the trick to unlock the melodic creativity already in your brain. It's that you still need to train your brain to be melodically creative.

  • This is great advice, but I think there's a specific issue at the heart of this problem, which relates to muscle memory and an imbalanced in one's technical capability. @karthik's issue isn't necessarily that his brain is melodically uncreative--the problem is that there's a disconnect between his melodic creativity and his fingers. In my experience, this is a problem of muscle memory, technical capability, and strengthening one's weaknesses on the instrument. To that effect, your suggestions are helpful, but I think your diagnosis is slightly off. – jdjazz Nov 5 '17 at 17:33
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    My point is that everybody is uncreative until you learn otherwise. It's a myth that musical creativity comes out of nowhere. And the problem with "playing what you sing or think" is that these musical thoughts can only come from your previous experiences with music. For non-musicians that's passive learning through listening, but for musicians it's that plus training. It's the practice and understanding of music that unlocks creativity past basic aural skill. That's where the "thoughts" come from to begin with so why not put your focus there? As that improves so will your "inner voice". – user37496 Nov 5 '17 at 19:00
  • I completely agree, and I think now this is the flip side of what I wrote. Maybe there's a disconnect as I suggest, & Karthik's playing is lagging behind the creativity he has already cultivated through listening. But maybe not--in which case more cultivating would do the trick, as you say. Interesting that, regardless of the root issue, we both have the same advice: practice with a greater variety. +1 – jdjazz Nov 5 '17 at 23:25
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My suggestion is to sing some songs that you know, any song. For example,

  • Happy Birthday to You
  • Mary had a little lamb
  • When the saints go marching in
  • Pop goes the weasel
  • Hello Dolly

Really any song will do. My guess is that you don't know the fingerings for all of these songs.

Now, take the same song and start on a different pitch/note and sing the song from the new starting pitch. This will require different fingerings.

I'm a Jazz Trumpet player and what I've just described is one of the techniques I practice.

My goal when doing this is to be able to sing an improv lick and play it.

Another technique is to record what you sing and when playing it back also play your instrument.

For example, if there is a 16 bar improv/solo that I need to work on. I might sing the entire improv and record it to my phone. Then play the audio (from my phone) and try to match the pitches on my trumpet. This is a form of transcribing. This again requires hearing a pitch and then playing it.

Another technique is not recording but to sing a phrase and then play it.

For example, in the 16 bar solo, I might sing a two bar lick, and then play it back in the next two bars. Then continue singing the next two bar lick and then playing what I just sang. This is repeated until I finish the 16 bars. I use iRealPro and Musescore to help with repeating the two bar phrases.

Hope this helps.

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