Sing, then Play How Singing Can Drive Our Playing

There is an old adage that musicians and teachers have said for a long time – “If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it.”


I think all of us who have been in music for a long time realize the importance of singing. When we teach, we often start with the best intentions and have students sing to develop their ears among other things. But if we meet heavy resistance because they are shy or simply don’t want to do it, we often give up and just “teach them to play”.

Another common thread when developing young musicians is that we have them sing up to a point – until the repertoire on their instrument gets more difficult. Then we don’t have them sing as much, if at all. There are many of reasons for this – they range from the pieces taking more lesson time, older students sometimes can get a little more self conscious, we think they’ve “got it” or we forget about it (or let it slip down the list of priorities).

Coming from a traditional piano background from the time I was five years old, I remember how confused I was when I had breakfast with my primary teacher during my first jazz camp. He had played piano for the first couple of Wynton Marsalis records and was a beautiful player and teacher. I had only been playing jazz for a couple of years and was working really hard on learning the theory, technique, scales, voicings, transcriptions, etc. I was eager to get his input on how to take my playing to the next level. I simply asked, “What should I be working on over the next year or so?”

His answer was equally as simple yet in a different way than anything I’d ever heard. He said, “If you studied with me, I would have you do nothing but sing for a year and not let you play the piano.”

Decades (of practicing, performing, teaching and learning) later, this makes more sense to me than ever. Most shortcomings in my playing come from the inability to quickly connect the idea or sound in my head to the instrument. The hands are fine when I practice enough. The ear is fine when it’s tested. The ideas are always there. But the gap between the idea or desire to play something and what happens at the instrument, causes me to play things I don’t always like or hear first.

After seeing this pattern develop in students I helped over the years or ingrained in students who came to me from other teachers, I realized that I had to make changes in how I taught. I’d heard about the epidemic of pianists who were unable to play “Happy Birthday” without the score in front of them and surely didn’t want to contribute to that.

Here are ways I integrated “If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it” mantra into my lessons and practice:

  • Defragmentation of Musical Elements: I ditched the theory books, the scale books, the performance books, etc. We worked four or more pieces at once. We learned the theory by them singing first… If I wanted them to know what a first inversion major triad was, we sang it. We now sing everything. Then we find it on their instruments and do it in a bunch of keys. Then we find it in all of their pieces and take note of what it looks like on a page – then they compose pieces that use the sound. Same for scales… I can’t find it in myself to let a students play any type of scale when they can’t sing it. How many jazz players suffer from this? We’ll learn our diminished scales and not be able to sing them away from our instruments. It’s hard to make meaningful melodies like this. If they can’t hear an augmented sixth chord, they’re probably not ready to play it. This approach takes longer, but when they get it – they really get it and can learn repertoire at a much quicker pace than if they didn’t learn to sing the concept.
  • Popular Songs: It’s important to always know what our students are listening to. I always ask them to show me their phones so I can see their most listened to songs. If they’re too young to have their own phone, I’ll show them my most played list on my phone and ask what theirs would be. Then I have them sing these in the lessons and accompany themselves. Then we talk about all the concepts that we can apply to their piano music – which are usually very abundant.
  • Development and Growth: Have a plan that involves their improvement and growth over a long period of time – for their ears. Many kids with “bad ears” get pigeonholed and given up on. Many kids with great ears don’t get pushed beyond standard ear training and get cheated out of the opportunities to hear more difficult things. The way we use Book 1 and graduate to Book 2 in a method, we should have songs they can learn off recordings that gradually get harder. Sometimes I’ll start with a pop song that has one or two chords, then we’ll move up to some songs that have a few more chords and then eventually we’ll be hopping from Stevie Wonder to Coltrane to Webern to Shoenberg… Why put a cap on this? For my adult students we often start with Johnny Cash, then graduate to some easy Ray Charles, to some Willie Nelson, to some Beatles, to some standards from musicals, to Stevie Wonder and Sting, to more complicated jazz tunes. It’s pretty easy to develop and work from an arc… None of this is done with sheet music or lead sheets. It doesn’t need to be when growth is incorporated. Find something they can do and go from there – building them up over time.
  • Sing, then Play: This simple thing I say all the time has made the biggest difference for students and myself. Sing first, play second – the sound comes from you. Then we pass it to the instrument. This keeps muscle memory from pulling our voice along. This helps us all be more in the moment when we play. We can adapt and change direction whenever we need to while performing or improvising.

Finally, I just remember to give them a safe space to sing and make sure they see the value in it. We sing together – I never put them on the spot. The cool thing is that I get better each time I do this as well. They sense this and it makes them more comfortable and willing to buy in because they see the results in my improvement – not just theirs.