"Practice this tune. Practice that scale. Learn to play this lick in 12 keys. Transcribe another solo."
There's an endless list of things we can focus on in the practice room. But sometimes we can get more out of the time we spend in the practice room if instead of focusing on what we practice we focus on how we do it.
And there's a basic practice technique that we can all use when we practice that will make a huge difference to our playing that far too many musicians ignore: singing.
Here are 2 (related) reasons you should learn to sing everything that you learn to play when you're practicing:
1. When you can sing something you know you're hearing it.
I used to struggle to work out certain passages when I was transcribing. I would play the recordings over and over again and I just couldn't quite work out each note. I would sometimes even narrow it down to two options but I couldn't tell which one was right. I eventually learned that when this was happening there was a simple problem stopping me from getting it: I couldn't actually hear the note clearly. If I couldn't hear it clearly there was no chance I could confidently tell what it was.
So instead of trying to work out what it was on my instrument I switched to trying to sing it. As soon as I could sing the note I knew that I had heard it correctly and I could work it out straightaway. Whether you're transcribing something or you're simply learning a new tune, if you learn to sing it you'll know that you're hearing each note clearly - and hearing the notes you play clearly is an important first step to playing them in a way that sounds great.
In addition to that though...
2. When you can hear something you can learn it.
One of my saxophone teachers in college used to get everyone to learn to sing their transcriptions from memory. When I started out I couldn't quite see why this was so important. Later on I couldn't believe how wrong I was.
As I just mentioned, when you can sing something you know you've heard it. And when you hear something you learn it. When I say learn it I don't mean learning how to play it. I mean learning it properly. Inside and out. You learn and memorise the actual sound of a passage so you can hear it in your head at will.
When you learn how music sounds like this amazing things start to happen. For me it completely changed the way that I played music. As I trained my ears and developed a sense of relative pitch I started to be able to play anything I could sing. And I'd been singing everything I practiced for a couple of years so I could sing a lot.
So I could play entire melodies from memory and my favourite lines and licks would turn up in solos without me even thinking about it. I went from being a very mechanical player to being a much more natural and fluid one.
Developing relative pitch was necessary for this but if I hadn't been singing the music I practiced already it wouldn't have made such a huge difference as soon as my ears started to develop. Even if you don't develop relative pitch, singing the music you play and really learning the sound of it will connect you in it in a new way. Your phrasing and articulation will improve because you can really hear what it sounds like and what you want it to sound like.
So whether you want to play written music from memory or you want to improvise freely you'll find that singing the music you practice helps it to stick with you so you can play freely and confidently.