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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Can you sing?

March 14, 2009 at 3:14 AM

Hey this is a violin website, why are you asking me if I can sing?

I sometimes joke that "I have no voice, that's why I had to take up the violin..." It's not entirely true; I have a voice, I sing in tune, and I've even sung in a number of choirs -- at the back of the altos. I confess to singing in the car and in the shower as well. But if you asked me to sing the solo in church on Sunday (and you wouldn't), I would run away in a panic. Give me my violin, if you want to hear my voice!

Of course, as a child I loved to sing -- I'm a musician! I sang every song I heard, and I listened at every possible opportunity. I hummed, I whistled...honestly, I still do. I also encourage students to sing.

However, I no longer believe that those who can't or won't sing are not musical, as I used to. I've met a number of excellent musicians who don't really sing, for various reasons: shyness, a weak or untrained voice, etc.

Where do you stand on this issue? Can you sing? Do you sing?

Here are some thoughts on the matter from a good man, Bob McGrath, whom I saw riding in the Rose Parade here in Pasadena this year. I got to play with him back in the last millennium, when I was in the Disney College Orchestra. Sing it, Bob! :)

From Christopher Ciampoli
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 3:16 AM

I was a nerd and took the mandatory Vocal Methods course more seriously than the rest...

From Joseph Galamba
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 3:47 AM

I can only sing in tune if I'm constantly monitoring the sound comming out.  In aural skills class when we sing chorals or whatever in a group sometimes I have to plug one ear so that my voice booms in that ear and I can tune myself against everybody else.  If I can't hear myself sing its really shocking how different the pitch I wanted and the pitch that comes out are....

From Bethany Morris
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 3:48 AM

Is it possible to play violin well and not be able to sing in tune?  (Physiological handicaps aside, that is.)


Note: I posted this before the above comment and I'm not trying be snarky!  I, too, struggle with controlling my voice intonation at times. It takes a lot of practice with breath control and vowel formation, I think.  I got my practice student teaching in elementary general music, of all places. :)

From Annette Brower
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 4:48 AM

I took up voice lessons about a year ago.  It is very humbling and I have renewed compassion for my violin students and their struggle to do things for the first time. 

From Arthur Krieck
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 7:42 AM

I'm a professional singer, besides being a violist and violinist. I studied both at the same time and teach both strings and voice now. One discipline feeds the other; learning how to breathe properly enabled me to finally understand bow technique!

EVERYONE has a voice, and everyone can develop the coordination between ear and voice to sing in tune.

And BTW, choral conductors will always put the strongest singer/musicians in the back of the section, so you can lead from behind! It's a good idea in string sections, too: put some of the strongest players in the back!




Posted on March 14, 2009 at 9:04 AM


Singing is sooooo important.

Naturally, we phrase correctly when we sing and this is such an aid to one's violin playing. As for quality? Just remember these lyrics...

Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear...Just sing, sing a song.

From Graham Clark
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 12:20 PM

I like to sing at the karaoke!


From Bobby Kahler
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 12:24 PM

i can sing in tune while playing  live only if i am very familiar with the lyrics of a given tune. "ooohs" and Ahhhhs" and other vocalizations as well. I have have had people ask me why I don't sing more often.... I reply with the rhetorical question," Have you ever tried to sing with  a slight frog in your throat?  Well then, try it with an entire violin" (in your throat)

From Patricia Baser
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 12:45 PM

There were singers in my family, though none trained as such.  My dad sang folk music live at a radio station in Arkansas in the 1940s ( very similar to what was depicted in "O Brother, Where Art Thou").  Back in the 70s, my oldest sister sang in a rock band that played at Holiday Inns, etc.  I have sung in choirs and have a pretty good voice, but have only had a vocal methods class.  I was pretty shocked to see how scared  instrumentalists were to sing.  My problem is that I lose my voice a few times a year, due to allergies and reflux. 

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 12:47 PM

I couldn't sing well enough to get a part in the musical when I was in high school, and that was traumatic for me, because the musical was a big deal, even back then before the days of "High School Musical" merchandising.  My voice suffered even more than my violin playing from performance anxiety. 

But then I started singing in a church choir about 13 years ago; I was actually recruited into it by the person standing next to me in the pew one Sunday morning, who heard me singing the hymns and heard that I could carry a tune and read music.  Like many church choirs, they needed sopranos.  I'm only a second soprano, but that still counted.  Otherwise I probably wouldn't have had the courage to go to the rehearsals on my own.

Singing in a church choir has helped me gain some comfort and confidence with my singing voice over the years.  It also helped me find and get accustomed to a new church when I moved to the Boston area.  I still don't sing solos, but I don't mind that.  Like with violin, I enjoy much more singing/playing with a group than by myself. 

But since I've started playing violin and viola more intensively again, I had to make a choice due to time constraints, so I quit the choir last year.  I miss it, but I'd rather be playing an instrument.

From Deborah McCann
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 3:23 PM
I use to sing more and better, but as I age, I have more difficulty than I did in my youth. Just something else that goes...
From Cathy Gray
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 4:25 PM

I love to sing the hymns in church and have conducted many choirs, but I would rather be playing my violin. It makes me very happy to be playing, so I consider myself an instrumentalist rather than a vocalist.

When anyone asks me if their very young child should or can start playing a musical instrument I ALWAYS encourage singing first before hurrying to put an instrument in their hands. I tell the parents, "Sing a lot. Sing commercial jingles when you hear them. Sing songs all the time. Sing silly songs; sing sequential songs; sing chants. I have always sung a lot to my children and we have music going all the time in our home.

It's very important to sing and develop the ear. It makes learning an instrument so much easier. I have my students sing the note names, sing the finger numbers and sing the bowings - three times through - when learning a new song. Match pitch all the time with the voice. Scoop up to the note with them if they can't hear it the first time.

Thanks for posting this question!

From Mark Underwood
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 5:27 PM

I took voice lessons in my 30's.  I found that it improved my violin technique in ways my non-singing teachers could not have imagined.  It's not a perfect analogy, but the violin is in many settings a lead vocal instrument, with intrinsically similar listener expectations for vibrato, spacing (breathing), and dynamics.  That said, it isn't easy to sing and play at the same time, which was once a goal. [Mark - knowlengr]

From Jerald Archer
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 6:27 PM

Singing was a requirement in my professional musical career. Since the production of sound on the violin is so close to that of the voice, it would benifit the student to learn to sight sing. This also aids in good improvisation techniques. as well.

 Tartini (and many other great violinists) always insisted that the student sing well, in order to play well. I had  limited lessons in vocals (required course) in college and we utilized the text-book "Dimensions in Sight Singing-An Anthology" editied by Paul Cooper of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. It deals also in music theory and history, respectively.

From Marianne Hansen
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 7:05 PM

Learning the violin has actually improved my singing, I think mostly because I'm singing more.  Both my teacher and I sing during lessons and I have been impressed by how many violinists can sing - not like professional singers, but like happy amateurs.  It is one of my favorite moments in the Perlman et al. recording "In the Fiddler's House" during the Simkhes Toyre song where the musicians are taking turns singing and Perlman chimes in.  Just another voice of a musician who does not sound like a "singer", but who has a personal  - and musical - voice.

From Paul G.
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 7:38 PM

I don't sing at all, can't, don't want to. That's why if I ever end up in a music class that requires me to sing, I'll fail.

From BJ Berman
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 8:04 PM

I never really enjoyed singing, largely because I make a mistake and somehow swallow air, and it upsets my stomach (how many of you can say THAT!!!??) and due to time with the violin and another career I never learned how to correct it.

Singing or not has nothing at all to do with phrasing or intonation. In fact, many singers with whom I have worked in the Philly-NY days suffered from "piano pitch". They sang in tune but like a piano, in a universal key, ie: they didn't adjust their pitch to the key of the music, and in the orchestra we struggled to match them and sometimes couldn't do it.

For the sake of those who have an intonation "problem" or are working on it, it's not you. your ears are OK, and so is your head. It's just that there is a system and it isn't often taught because whatever. You can play in tune, and it needn't be just "that's high, that's too low, etc"). We have all struggled with this at some time or other. A few suggestions to get started are below. Please send me feedback if any of this is at all helpful. I would like to refine the explanations so that it can be taught by internet as mentioned below. Happy to communicate personally with anyone if I can help.

Basically, a whole step is not two equal 1/2 steps. If it is a sharp key the sharps should be almost 1/4 step high from the natural (or enharmonic flat) with flats going equally low, as well as some naturals. This is simplistic, and there are many times where we change this for color or phrase, so if anyone out there wants to try getting more precisely into the key, the first thing to do is shorten the 1/2 steps generally. After that it gets more complex, but certainly not difficult. member Jay Azneer (formerly a pro opera singer, tenor lead) and I are working on how to teach this since he says he is having the problem and can hear it but doesn't know how to systematize the study so we are trying to figure it out by webcam and mike. My end of the problem is that it has been so long since I was taught it that it is habitual and I have to figure out how to explain things for every little detail.

If anyone or as many as possible would like to set up a blog specifically to join in the development of this concept, please write back and lets see what we can do. If you know a way to do this, please tell us. This should not be, in my opinion, something that advanced players, pro or not struggle with. How about helping to simplify it?

Check in with Jay also. He is physician (internist) and has a lot to add to the perspective, esp about singing (full circle again) and playing healthy (body mechanics).

Thanks in advance.




From Mirjam Lumkeman
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 8:39 PM

I am not a very good singer, but I sing a lot with my students. Beginners must sing their new songs also on numbers, names and text (making finger and bow movement in the air), before they start to practice the song on the violin. I always sing or play together with the students, so they don't feel ashamed.

It always suprises me how bad little kids sing these days. Higher or lower with their voice - somtimes it seems almost impossible for them. I wonder why. I also advise parents of young children to sing a lot before starting playing an instrument.  

Children from religious families are far better singers, as they are much more used to sing or even attend choir. They don't giggle or blush and are faster in getting the pitch.

In the Netherlands singing is not taught at school anymore, it is really a great loss.


From Elizabeth Musil
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 9:37 PM

I can sing in tune although not super well when  I have accompainment but ask me to sing solo, and it's disaster.  I have noticed though that since starting violin a year ago, my singing has improved a lot and Ive even started to be able to sing a bit without accompaniment....though it still sounds horrible.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on March 14, 2009 at 10:44 PM

I can not carry a tune -- alone.  When I sing with other people or instruments, I can sing completely in tune.  I've even learned to sing harmony, by singing with and listening to other people.  People are often surprised that I can play an unfretted instrument in tune but I can't sing in tune.  I tell them that I can hear a tune perfectly well in my mind, but my mind has only one output device, my fingers on the violin, and not my voice.  I've often heard people say that if you sing it, you can play it.  For me, if I can hear it inside my head, I can play it.  I remember distinctly an "aha" moment in my life when I was about 12.  I was listening to Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and I realized that my violin is my voice.

From Federico Piantini
Posted on March 15, 2009 at 1:33 AM

Hi everyone........ I learned to sing at a very young age. Both my parents are singers (mostly Classical/Belcanto Opera) I had no choice. Then 12 Semesters of solfegge at the Conservatorio Nacional de Musica in Santo Domingo, and theory etc.. by the time I picked up a violin (at age 15) I could read and solfegge pretty much everything in front of me. I have a very strong opera voice and I solfege everything to my students and during rehearsals for the orchestras in school. It has been a great help for phrasing and finding inner melodic lines............I do not believe that in general no one can sing, especially playing the violin or a string instrument, maybe there was a negative experience that stopped you from singing but innerly you have always sung.................



From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on March 15, 2009 at 2:02 AM

 I can sing pretty well in tune, and do well with the aural sections of my theory classes (sight singing and whatnot). However, I don't have a very strong voice, and while I enjoy singing for myself, I get pretty nervous singing around other people. I would really love to take voice lessons. I think its very important to have basic singing skills in order to teach, and I really really want to be the best teacher I can. Its funny because this week, I was just thinking about singing as a violinist. I had watched a master class, and loved how the teacher incorporated singing into his teaching. We hear it a lot, but violinists really should strive to sound like the human voice as much as possible. I've never been to great at applying this concept myself, but I'm trying to learn. More and more, I'll think of different sections of my pieces in terms of a human voice, often with the idea of singing, but also inflection, and even specific words. I think experiencing the breath control required for singing is a huge help in understanding bow distribution. I'm hoping to take some voice lessons at some point during undergraduate. I'd love to improve my singing, both to help my violin/viola playing, but also for teaching purposes, and heck, for itself! Singing is fun. :)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 15, 2009 at 11:54 AM

I've always balked at the advice that the violin should sound as much like the human voice as possible, because I prefer listening to the sound of the violin (or viola or cello) over the sound of the human voice.  For example, I don't really enjoy opera.  I don't even like musicals all that much, I prefer theater that doesn't have singing.  But I love instrumental film scores, so I do enjoy some combinations of music and dramatic presentation.  I enjoy listening to songs on the radio and choral music in church, but I can listen much longer to music played on instruments.  Voices, especially voices with a lot of vibrato as in opera, start to get on my nerves.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on March 15, 2009 at 2:58 PM

I'm with you for this one Karen!        Very often, when listening music, I find it nice... until the signer comes.   I (generally speaking) don't like opera at all even if I respect people who do this.  But the idea that it helps to sing something before playing it is true, I must admit...   But I don't think it's "compulsory" to do so to play well!


From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on March 15, 2009 at 4:18 PM

I don't think that the advice to sound like the human voice is meant to have students copy hyper-stylized operatic singers. At least that's not how I think of it. Its not so much the vibrato and register as the shape of the phrase, the connection of the line, and the breaths between ideas. Also, you can think of it not just in terms of singing, but also even just speaking. Giving notes and phrases a diction, direction, meaning.

From Federico Piantini
Posted on March 15, 2009 at 4:40 PM

I may agree that singing with a violin is not meant literally. The voice is one of the most difficult instruments to develop.  It is our own flesh, and emotions can create havoc with it. But, it is in phrasing that we use the word "sing", the "breath", the "sustain" , something other instrumentalist may hear throughout their training.

From Joyce Tsai
Posted on March 15, 2009 at 8:25 PM

As a kid, I went around singing whatever I was working on in my violin lessons.  I also tried to sing and play duets at the same time. Without success. Then one day when I was in high school I was asked to join a choir. When I protested that "I don't sing", the response was "of course you sing; you play the violin".  And I was hooked. After that, I've alternated between choral singing and playing violin at a serious amateur level, and anticipate continuing to do so for the rest of my days. In my experience, each activity helps the other. 

From Alison S
Posted on March 15, 2009 at 8:34 PM

I can sing well enough in tune, but my violin voice is much stronger than the one I was born with. In fact my teacher told me that the first time she heard me play she was shocked at the volume I could produce. I can only guess that because I am short and quietly spoken she expected me to be a quiet, timid player.

From Royce Faina
Posted on March 16, 2009 at 9:53 AM

I sing, and I sang in my High School choir. I made District & Regional choirs two years in a row and was an All State Alternate my Sr. Year.  I also sang and played bass guitar for Metal Bands in the 80's.

From Laurie Trlak
Posted on March 16, 2009 at 3:16 PM

I can sing very well. In fact I've had some people ask me why I would want to play the violin when I sing as well as I do.

Laurie, I found your comment about people who can't or won't sing interesting. I had always felt that if one could only sing, he or she wasn't much of a musician, although after years of voice lessons, I know better. Training and using one's voice well is as much an art as playing an instrument, and in some ways it is harder, since the "instrument" is entirely internal. 

Thanks for your perspective.

Laurie T. 

From Tom Holzman
Posted on March 16, 2009 at 6:40 PM

Laurie - with respect to my "singing talents", you really do not want to find out the answer to your question first hand.  However, I will note that someone in my synagogue choir recently suggested that I join after standing next to me at services.  If not for my usual tact, I might have suggested that she see an audiologist.

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