Sing Your Melody to Make Your Melody Sing

Here’s a post from guest author Doug Hanvey. You can learn more about him at www.portlandpianolab.com.

Composing a melody by singing is a method that has been used by many of the greatest melodists. The reasons are obvious:

  • By singing it’s more likely that your melody will be generated from the deepest and most personal well of creativity within you. If you simply work out a melody with your fingers at the piano, you are less likely to be connecting with that innermost musical place.
  • Singing your melody helps you to better understand its structure (contour, climax etc.) in terms of the primal melodic instrument: the human voice.
  • Singing engages your body, and the body is the primal rhythm instrument. As a result, your melody is likely to be more rhythmically effective and interesting.
  • Melodies and even simple figures or motives that can be easily sung are more likely to be accessible to the average Joe and Jane. (This may be one reason why vocal forms are ubiquitous in both folk and popular music.) It’s especially useful to sing when composing a vocal melody.

Many (if not most) of the great composers did not write at an instrument. We may not know whether they sang their melodies as they composed, but it’s a good bet that they were “virtually” singing them by mentally hearing them.

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The same is also true of many if not most of the great popular songwriters. For example, musical theater composer Richard Rodgers, one of the greatest melodists of the 20th century, wrote his songs by singing the melody while playing chords on the piano. John Lennon and Paul McCartney composed their tunes by singing them while playing their guitars.

Many of the greatest jazz pianists, such as Bud Powell and Keith Jarrett, vocalize while improvising (same principle).

Convinced it’s worth a try? Follow these steps, one at a time, to engage your virtual or actual voice when composing a melody:

  1. First try hearing your melody inside your head (without actually singing it) and notate it without playing it on your instrument, if you can. This requires a pretty good musical ear, but that is easy enough to develop. By the way, don’t worry about the chords at first. It’s generally better – at least from a melodic perspective – to let the melody dictate the harmony rather than allowing harmonic demands to interfere with the organic nature of the melody.
  2. If the above feels too challenging, sing your melody out loud and notate it without playing it on your instrument.
  3. Finally, easiest – but last, because it’s tempting to get lost in your established compositional habits – sing your melody, then learn to play it on your instrument, then notate it.

Is It Still Possible to Make a Living as a Private Guitar Instructor?

As a private guitar instructor with over 20 years experience, I have noticed a disconcerting decline in the number of students who sign up for private lessons, and I was curious to learn whether or not other instructors have experienced the same thing. So, I posted the following question to a number of professional groups on LinkedIn including Classical Guitar and Guitar Instructors. Is It Still Possible to Make a Living as a Private Guitar Instructor?

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Out of 45 comments so far, all respondents acknowledged the decline. Most sighted the availability of free instructional videos on YouTube as a major reason for the decline. Walter Peretiatko wrote, “Yes, YouTube has killed a lot of my guitar students…”

In addition, Eric Symons wrote,

“This is a tough subject for me to publicly discuss, as I see a trend that disturbing in the US and other so called “First World” countries. While living in a world that has kids living with inorganic mediums such as video games and computers, and less of them having exposure to music in the schools than any other generation in our history, we must accept a decline in the classical guitar…”

Others pointed to a less vigorous economy. Zane Zirkle wrote, “In a Hope and Change economy, music lessons are a luxury to the average Joe… “ .

Jack Alves wrote, “I too have noticed a slight decline in the over -all teaching biz. From music that’s not all that motivating, to “School of Rock” programs, to students who are willing to forfeit the basics…”

From these responses, it appears there are a variety of factors leading to a decline in the number of students seeking private guitar lessons. The availability of free online content and resources makes it easy for students to learn to play for free in the convenience of their own homes. The sluggish economy and dwindling disposable economy is a factor too. In addition, guitar is no longer the driving force in popular music. Most music is created “in the box” with programs like Ableton eliminating the need to spend years mastering an instrument. Also, there are so many different instant gratification apps, video games, social media sites and digital sources vying for the public’s entertainment time and money. Can an instrument, which requires tremendous personal sacrifice to master, really compete?

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What does this mean for the future of private guitar lessons? It’s clear that the days of making a living solely as a private instructor are gone for now. Guitarists and musicians in general, must develop multiple income streams and embrace technology as an integral part of their skill set. For the 21st century musician, it will no longer be viable to simply play or teach an instrument. Lessons will always be a piece of the puzzle, but today’s musicians must know how to write for commercials, film, video games, record voice over, distribute and promote themselves online and through social media. If you have the right skill set, technology becomes a tremendous tool to sell your music and skills to a wider public than ever before.

Most schools and universities are developing music and technology degrees to meet the needs of today’s musicians. For example, Gwinnett County Public Schools now offer courses in music technology which focus on recording, composition, film score and video game composition. Private schools such as The Atlanta Institute of Music and Media also offer degrees in music and technology, job placement and industry contacts, so the future is not bleak, just different than the 80s or 90s.

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I agree with Derek Stottlemyer, who wrote, “As a web architect I see a lot of options, and online offers the opportunity to earn passive or residual income in addition to paid lessons – but instructors have to break the mold and be willing to try new things.” Indeed!