I’m often asked this question. In church, after concerts, at rehearsals, and sometimes in casual chat on / offline. It’s always asked by earnest singers really and truly wanting to improve their musical skills. If the setting is right, I’ll ask a few clarifying questions, asking if they mean artistry, mechanics, vocal range, etc, but sometimes one of my answers surprises the inquirer:
Learn an instrument.
The best vocalists I know all play at least one instrument in addition to being vocalists. Think about the strongest musicians you know. Most of them can play at least one instrument. Of the three best sight-readers I have ever met, one played clarinet, and the other two had great keyboard skills.
Learning an instrument does three major things for you. First, it increases your ability to tune. Learning to play an instrument, be it wind or stringed, teaches you increased timing and cements your body’s ability to hear intervalic relationships. Your vocal runs and larger interval leaps in music will come almost intuitively as you become used to playing them on an instrument. Additionally, when a note is a few cents off, you’ll better understand how and why it needs to bend pitches up or down a little, which is of particular use to a cappella singers.
Second, picking up any instrument teaches you to rely on your eyes more. I would argue there are far more singers than instrumentalists that “can’t read music,” or rely heavily on their ears. If you are one who learns by ear, or relies on ear much more heavily than sight, learning an instrument is crucial to your development as a musician. Not only will you learn how rhythms and pitches are organized, you’ll catch on to the language of music, staves and clefs, half steps and whole steps, and that “#” this is not just a hashtag.
Third, instrumental musicians better understand the complete ensemble. Whether you’re playing the flute, counting and waiting for your entrance, or a low brass player listening for the cymbal crash to know your cue is coming, instrumental music relies much more on the whole ensemble for completeness. Even in a five-piece band or a classic rock ensemble, when you dial into the sounds around you there comes an increased understanding of the whole piece, not just the alto II part.
Now, remember, you’re learning an instrument, not writing War and Peace. I don’t mean you have to master the saxophone next week (although of all the instruments, it is perhaps the easiest to become proficient in). You don’t have to learn everything about that instrument, or even play it for years. But giving you better all around musicianship will make you a better choir member, section leader, director, and soloist.
“Okay, I’ll bite. Which instrument should I learn?”
If you sing Soprano, Alto, or Tenor, you’re used to G / Treble clef. If you’re secure in the note names (you know, EGBDF = Even George Bush Drives Fast), consider learning a bass clef instrument. The cello, bassoon, trombone—whatever interests you. After playing the trumpet for three years I was ready for a change. The tuba not only shoved me into mastering the bass clef, it allowed me to grow as a musician (GBDFA = Good Babies Don’t Fart Alot, a bit of a stretch, but hey, you’ll remember it). Of course, by extension, if you sing bass, you should consider a treble instrument, such as the clarinet, trumpet, oboe, or others. Doing so rounds you out.
You’ll also notice I didn’t mention the piano. Why? Considered the composer’s instruments, piano, guitar, and violin are instruments that teach more than any I’ve listed to this point. The piano teaches both clefs. The guitar player learns to play chords in block and arpeggios. The violin more than any other instrument can almost sing and has a range versatility virtually unmatched by any other instrument. I recommend these three instruments more than any other for those reasons. That isn’t to say there isn’t value in learning non-pitched percussion. One of the best composer-arrangers I know is a virtuosic percussion player and understands rhythm perhaps better than anyone I know.
If you don’t know the clef you sing on it’s not too late to learn! Nothing is more frustrating than a singer telling me “Oh, I don’t read music.” Don’t these people say it with a little bit of learned helplessness? “Oh I can’t read music,” almost feels like “Oh, I’m left-handed,” or “I’m Jewish” like it’s part of their persona. It’s crap. That default setting like we have to put them in the kiddie sandbox is crap, crap, crap. If the note goes up, the voice goes up. When we stick music in front of a flute player, they read what’s on the page or they friggin’ go home. We don’t say, “Oh, well, go stand over there by that guy, he’ll help you out.” Because what happens? They. Never. Learn. We continue their defeat and feed that helplessness, thinking, well, it’s too late now.
Learn to sight read. Learn your clefs. Learn at least one instrument. You’ll be glad you did. So will your choirmates.