Author: Campbell, Bruce

The Best Instrument There Is

As so often happens in June, I have had occasion to hear tons of music being performed over the past few weeks. There was Grass Valley of course, with music everywhere you turn, and there have been concerts and jams all over the place as well, with a variety of genres.

A theme bubbles up when I observe so many performances Ė the human voice is at the heart of musicís appeal much of the time. On a language level, itís what narrates the story of the song, of course. But itís also a contributor to the tonal palette. And thirdly, itís a major contributor to the emotion of the performance.

If vocals are a triple contribution, theyíre also a triple challenge.

First and foremost, singing in tune, for most of us, isnít all that easy. It takes concentration, practice, and sometimes, some specific training. If you canít sing in tune, the performance will be diminished. The listenerís ear doesnít demand perfect pitch, but you need to be in the neighborhood of the notes, or everything sounds sour.

Then thereís the words. Bluegrass has a huge selection of wonderful songs with very interesting lyrics. Who can memorize all of these? What if you mix the verses up, or skip one? The story is the thing Ė some songs are not linear in their storytelling, so mixing up verses is no big deal. Other songs tell a specific story from beginning to end, and mixing up verses or skipping them destroys the power of the story. Throw in some onstage nervousness, and recalling lyrics can be pretty tough!

Lastly, the emotional aspect. Have ever heard a performance where the singer was spot on, pitchwise, and knew the words, but the song lacked any punch? Singing a song is not just reciting words in tune. The singer has to inhabit the story, and be persuasive the listener. Some folks are concentrating so much on hitting the notes and remembering the words, they miss this part.
Singing is inherently fun Ė almost everyone does it, even before they learn to talk. And using singing to express emotion is just as instinctual.

If we pursue music, we naturally want to play and sing better, and work on it. Just donít let emotion take a back seat to precision! Iíd rather hear a singer feel the story, even if pitch wanders a little!

Posted:  6/26/2013

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email