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Are singers really bad at rhythm?

Some instrumentalists claim that singers have lousy rhythm. Some say that singers are sloppy musicians and don’t pay attention to details.

Why do they say that? Are singers really deficient when it comes to observing accurate rhythm? I have worked with singers as an accompanist and coach for many years, and I have seen again and again that singers are not quite as accurate with rhythm as their instrumentalist counterparts.

Then I get up to sing, and my own rhythmic sense deteriorates! Why is that? How can I have played advanced repertoire on piano, flute, and double bass, and then suddenly lose ground in my rhythmic abilities when I sing? One day while working with my vocal coach, we were laughing at how I have played concertos and complicated modern sonatas and chamber music on instruments, yet I messed up simple rhythms in a song.

She said that she believed that there must be something about the act of counting and the act of delivering words that is very difficult to do at the same time. That made sense to me, so I started thinking about that a lot in my singing and teaching. We musicians are taught from an early age to “count our rhythms”, such as “1 & 2 & 3e&a 4”, et cetera. When we are playing our flutes and violins and drums we can have this internal counting going on while we play.

When we sing, we must operate our instrument (vocalize), RECITE TEXT, and well…how do you count rhythms with one set of words while expressing text with another set of words? If we have a “counting” based way of tracking rhythms, we will be colliding with the text.

Try to keep two separate streams of words going at the same time. See what I mean? So what do singers need to do to learn difficult rhythms? They must practice them instrumentally, without words.

Then they can count like a percussionist or pianist, either silently or out loud. They must do this until they have an internal FEEL for the rhythm, for it is only by feeling the rhythm through muscle memory that they can then devote the “talking brain” to the expression of words. Here’s a challenge for instrumentalists who call singers “[rhythmically] stupid”.

I would invite them to play their instruments while reciting a poem sometime, and see how verbally accurate and expressive the text is, while maintaining instrumental accuracy.

Then let’s put them in costume on a stage and add some movement while keeping an eye on a conductor. For our classical friends, let’s have them try it in three different foreign languages, while maintaining one’s dramatic character. I dare you.

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