Drumming & Singing
Double Skills Make You Doubly Valuable
by Stephan S. NigohosianFrom Modern Drummer, September 2002. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
Think of a professional drummer/percussionist who can sing and drum at the same time, and names like Phil Collins, Levon Helm, and Don Henley usually come to mind. And though they may be less visible, there are countless other working drummers and percussionists who tour the circuit of clubs and small venues, singing as they pound the skins. But how can one master the art of singing and drumming, and learn the correct way from the start? And how can drummers who already simultaneously sing and play further improve upon their skills? From beginner to professional, a drummer or percussionist who can handle several tasks for the band is obviously of great value to the group. Therefore, a person capable of singing and drumming at the same time not only expands the band's sound, but can also save it money and give each member a bigger piece of the pie. For instance, when a band wants to add another lead or background vocal to their music, a drummer who can sing eliminates the need for an additional vocalist. Furthermore, once that person becomes a member of the band, his or her contribution will be viewed as vital to its livelihood and identity. After all, an extra singing voice allows the band to expand its repertoire of cover songs and original music.
Finding A GuideThose who have attempted to sing and drum at the same time know that it requires concentration, coordination, vocal discipline, and, of course, plenty of practice. Unfortunately, drummers are faced with even more challenges than their singing bandmates, due to factors associated with singing from behind a drumset. Guitarists and keyboardists can play chords and notes to serve as a "guide" for the vocal melody. The fact that the drumset is not tuned to the specific key of the song makes this practice impossible for the drummer/percussionist. For example, it's a lot easier to remember that a particular lyric is to be sung in the key of "A" over the A chord section of a song than it is to use the crash of a cymbal or the beat of a bass drum as a marker. Furthermore, when practicing alone, keyboardists and guitarists still have the benefit of using the accompaniment of their instrument as a guide. Drummers who practice alone without music must "hear" the song in their heads.
Levon Helm, legendary singer/drummer for The Band, suggests getting relaxed and comfortable enough with the song to allow it to naturally flow. "Sometimes there are spots in certain songs where it's a bit tougher going from a chorus to a verse while you're singing and drumming," he says. "The Band always tried to put sing-along choruses in a lot of our songs, and the gear-shifting between those different sections, combined with having a mouthful to sing, can get a little challenging at times. But if you can just ride it, 'let it go' and don't count it out too strictly, singing while drumming becomes second-nature."
Let's Get PhysicalThere are also physical obstacles that can make it difficult to simultaneously sing and drum. Since most drummers play while seated, they must pay extra attention to proper posture. When a person sings, the chest cavity acts as an "air reserve" that resonates more easily when the torso is straight. Unfortunately, some drummers have a tendency to lean or stretch while playing, preventing their torsos from being fully extended. The movement of a drummer's limbs while playing, combined with the overall physical nature of drumming, further complicates matters. Fortunately, these are hurdles that can be overcome with education, hard work, and a strong desire to expand as a musician.
William Riley, New York City-based vocal instructor to many of today's most noted professional singers, reveals that there are two main ergonomic issues that drummers must keep in mind when singing and drumming. First, avoid stretching or leaning forward while playing. Second, resist the urge to extend the chin upward while singing. "When a drummer leans to play a floor tom or crash a cymbal," Riley says, "the spine curves forward into a 'C'-shape, resulting in a undesirable collapsing of the upper chest. Setting up the drumkit in a manner that places the striking surfaces well within reach is much more ideal."
Riley also suggests using boom-type microphones, since their flexibility allows for proper positioning and forces the drummer to maintain proper posture while singing. Headset microphones can also be effective if special attention is given to maintaining good posture while wearing them. Once again, correct posture behind the drumset is the key to health-related aspects of singing and drumming.
Anyone who sings regularly must take special care of his or her vocal instrument. Most people are aware that alcohol, caffeine, tobacco smoke, and shouting can adversely affect one's voice. But many people don't know that whispering can be just as damaging as yelling. Constant throat clearing and coughing, as well as speaking on airplanes where the background noise causes you to raise your voice without realizing it, should also be avoided.
Get Professional HelpVocal cords are susceptible to damage if subjected to strain or improper movement. In extreme circumstances this can lead to serious, irreparable injury. Therefore, it is advisable to visit a reputable vocal coach in the early stages of learning how to sing and drum, in order to learn to sing properly from the beginning.
There are many affordable vocal coaches who specialize in working with musicians. Compared to the risk of damaging one's voice by not getting proper vocal instruction, the fee most vocal coaches charge is modest.
Dr. Gwen S. Korovin is a New York City-based otolaryngologist, many of whose patients are professional singers and public speakers. "Some people are afraid to see vocal specialists for fear of having their singing style altered," she says. "However, in reality, a coach can teach the singer/drummer how to warm up effectively and actually protect his or her singing voice. By learning the proper way to sing, one can do more with his or her voice, using less effort." Dr. Korovin also suggests making sure that the voice is allowed to "rest" during performances. Vocally challenging songs should be interspersed with easier songs throughout the set, rather than having several difficult songs scheduled immediately after each other.
You Still Have To PlayCoordination can also prove to be a challenge for drummers who'd like to be able to sing while playing. Drummers who play without singing rarely have to think of the beat they are playing. Even the most complicated linear drumbeats can become second-nature after enough practice. It's important to keep this in mind when introducing singing into the equation.
Remember the first time you tried a polyrhythm, and how much concentration and practice was required to master it? The same technique applies to singing while playing drums. Slowing down the beat and internalizing the vocal lines while singing them will help "link" a specific bass-drum stroke or tom-tom accent with a lyrical point in the song. With enough practice the lyrics and the sticking will become one. Drum fills, particularly intricate ones, will prove to be a challenge at first. However, by applying the gradual approach, the fill can also become a musical "signpost" for a specific lyrical point in the song. Once a certain degree of comfort is reached, increasing the tempo of the drum parts while singing over them will further bring the song up to its proper speed.
For some drummers, singing while drumming comes so naturally that there is not much of a learning curve. "For me, it was really just a matter of getting familiar with the feeling of singing while drumming, and concentrating on my vocal pitch," says Phil Collins. "Working on your coordination, limb-wise, is important so you can free up your senses to concentrate on the singing. It may sound hard, but it comes in time." Drummers who would like to hear for themselves just how interesting singing over odd-time signatures can be should listen to some of Collins' earlier work with Genesis.
Another helpful hint for fusing singing and drumming parts together is to play and sing along with a recorded version of the song. This technique can be particularly helpful because it allows you to stop and listen to sections where it becomes difficult to sing over the drum part. You can concentrate on listening to the singer of the recorded version to see where the words should fall within the drum part.
Easy ListeningDrummers who play larger club gigs with sophisticated P.A. systems should use the monitor mix to their advantage to make singing easier on their voices. Phil Collins uses in-ear monitors and has the monitor engineer put his voice at a point in the mix where it is enjoyable for him to sing and hear himself. "If you don't have that ideal mix in your monitor," he says, "you'll struggle to hear your vocal over the band and the drums, you'll get hoarse very quickly, and you'll risk injuring your voice."
As with learning any new instrument or drum part, developing the ability to sing while drumming takes patience and practice. Setting small goals, such as singing a simple, repetitive lyric while playing the drum part, can help you to build your confidence and aptitude. In the end, you'll be a better-rounded musician whose contribution is vital to the entire band.
Stephan S. Nigohosian is artist relations & publicity manager for Latin Percussion, as well as an experienced club drummer and freelance contributor to Modem Drummer.