Singing while playing guitar or piano, or any other combination of vocals and an instrument for that matter, all comes down to high-level multitasking. While for some the thought alone can cause nightmares, anyone can learn to do it. Start by asking yourself two questions: 1) Can I sing? and 2) Can I play an instrument? If your answer to both questions is “yes”, then you can also do both at the same time. It’s a really just a matter of practice, practice and mostly, practicing both individually.

How To Sing And Play At The Same Time(photo by Gerard Burgers)

The Instrumental Foundation

Someone who knows all about how difficult it is to multitask during a performance is vocal coach, Carola Orye. She guides youngsters through the process of writing and teaches them how to translate that to vocals and instruments. “It’s only when you try to combine different skills that it becomes apparent how difficult it is to get your brain to distinguish between what your hands/feet are doing on the one side, and what you’re doing with your vocals on the other…especially without having your audience notice anything. Most listeners aren’t focussed on the technical side of things and don’t split up the sound in their heads. All they hear is a single arrangement of what you’re producing.” This mean it’s up to you as a musician to bring everything together in perfect harmony. Think about rehearsing a classical piano piece. While your left and right hand tend to go their own way, you won’t be able to hear which hand played which note when you listen to the recording. The same applies to instrument-playing vocalists, says Carola. “You have to practice and study each aspect of the story separately. Only once you’ve mastered each aspect, can you begin trying to tie them together. Playing the instrument has to become second nature, since the subtle nuances and phrasings will mostly lay within your vocals. The best way to practice is to endlessly play the song with the vocals running along inside your head only.” Record the accompaniment on your computer or smartphone and listen carefully. Check if the dynamics are solid and if all the notes can be prominently and properly heard. If you notice significant tempo changes, you’ll definitely want to consider practicing using a metronome or metronome app, preferably one with a ‘tap tempo’ function as it allows you to set the desired pace based on your feeling.

Practicing A-Capella

“As soon as you’ve got the instrumental basis down, you can start working on your vocals,” says Carola. “First, it’s important to begin by singing along to the backing track you’ve recorded so that you can concentrate on your vocal technique and breath support without getting distracted by other obstacles. That’s because a backing track can sound pretty decent on its own but possibly not as good when you put your vocals on top.” Once singing over your backing starts taking shape, you can start working on your vocals independently. “It goes without saying that not everyone is blessed with perfect pitch and has the ability to get off on the right note,” Carola points out. “You’ll want to play the first note of the song on your instrument before singing the song acapella and playing the backing track in your head. You can ‘pause’ the song several times throughout and use your instrument to check if you’re still singing in the correct pitch. Don’t overlook the details. Print your lyrics on a piece of paper and mark down syllable stresses, possible vocal modes, breathing reminders and any words you want to sing in a specific way. While a little unappealing on stage, this ever-useful piece of paper is essential during rehearsal.”

Zingen en spelen tegelijk - Ook jij kan het leren!
(photo by Gerard Burgers)

Tight Groove

Rhythm is one of those elements that makes fusing together vocals and instruments more difficult. Carola: “Your backing track usually takes care of the groove, while the vocals enjoy more freedom to float throughout the song. To make sure your groove remains tight and consistent while singing without affecting your voice, you can train yourself using clapping exercises. Set your metronome to the right tempo and start with one clap per count as you sing your song acapella. Now try to pay attention to and synchronise your clapping with the ticking of the metronome and record the process so you can check during which parts of the song you tend accelerate or slow down. As soon as this feels good and your vocals are on point in relation to your clapping, you can gradually incorporate more complex clapping rhythms into the exercise. Switch or eighths and sixteenths or write down a varied pattern and try to keep the clapping as accurate and the singing as nuanced as possible. Also, don’t forget to record yourself and to thoroughly study these recordings This may seem boring but it’s nevertheless one of the best ways to deliver a performance that’s just as harmonic as originally intended during the writing stages of the song. You can even change up the exercises by feeling the rhythm instead of clapping and dancing to or moving along to it.

What’s Your Focus?

When you feel ready to start playing and singing at the same time, it’s important you strike the right balance between your focus. Carola advises: “Should you require a little mnemonic aid, don’t present yourself with entire lyrics but note down key words. Everything else is just cause for distraction, leaving you with less focus on what’s truly important.” But no matter how well you’ve practiced and prepared the individual components, you’ll notice that dividing up your focus is tricky. So what should you be focussing on while singing and playing simultaneously? “Determine beforehand when your vocals are going to be more prominent and when it’s time for your instrumentals to shine. To give an example: when a band plays a backing track, the musicians have more freedom to ‘decorate’ the song during the purely instrumental parts. But as soon as the vocals come in, the instruments are pushed to the background and the focus is entirely on the singer. This forces the audience to concentrate on multiple things at the same time and creates an overflow of musical information. This works the same way when you accompany yourself. Limit the complexity of your piano or guitar parts while you’re singing. There’s way more room to add (improvisational) embellishments in between and, while this all sounds very logical, when you’re up on the stage by yourself, it’s difficult not to just do everything you can to put on a good show.” More great advice from Carola includes using proper chord voicing: “Try to avoid simultaneously playing the notes you’re singing or you’ll risk losing your vocals to the backing.

Zingen en spelen tegelijk - Ook jij kan het leren!
John Legend

Microphone Technique

In live settings, the positioning of the microphone plays an important role when looking for the ideal ensemble. “If possible, place the microphone in such a way so that you can sing directly into it without having to adjust your playing posture,” Carola explains. “In addition, extending your neck is bad for a comfortable posture of the larynx. Also, tensing your neck muscles creates a cramped singing posture. When you’re playing piano, consciously practice your breathing while seated. And if you’re a musician who plays both piano and guitar, I recommend you use two microphones to ensure ideal posture while playing either.”


Even if you’re a multitasking freak of nature who can effortlessly win over everyone in the room within minutes, it can be very interesting to have someone else perform the vocals or backing in some cases or for certain songs. Carola: “First of all, it can offer a welcome change of pace. But it can also allow you to pay that bit more attention to your rendition of the song. After all, no matter how well prepared you are, your instrument will always require at least a little bit of your focus.” Freddie Mercury is a great example, who at some point chose to have a guest pianist play some of the piano parts during live performances to allow himself more freedom to interact with the audience as only he could.

See Also

» Metronomes
» Music Stands
» Page Turners
» Musician Accessories
» Musical Instruments
» Live Microphones

» Recording and Amplifying Vocals for Beginners
» How Do I Connect My Microphone to a Speaker?
» The Difference Between Dynamic and Condenser Microphones
» How to Record a Great Sounding Demo

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