Clearly, singing adds tension in one’s playing. When do you recommend adding the vocals? As you learn a piece or after you have learned and are fully relaxed with a piece?
Good question, and one that speaks to a problem area for many people. In fact, we could expand the question beyond singing, and consider the whole idea of how to go about increasing the complexity of the demands we place on our brains in in order to get our body to do more things at the same time. There are ways to go about it that work, and there are ways that keep leading to frustration, breakdowns and “blown fuses” (mentally). You probably already know firsthand about the ways that don’t work, so I’ll talk about the ones that do!
First of all, do not even consider adding a vocal part unless an until you can do the guitar part “cold”. I mean so that you can play the guitar part with absolutely no trouble, in tempo, no breakdowns, and all from muscle memory. That means you don’t have to even THINK about what you are doing. Understand that in order to add the increased demand for complexity that singing while playing represents, there must be a “free reserve” of attention available. ALL your attention cannot be devoted to the action of playing the guitar.
It’s like driving. When you first learn, you are not even able to carry on a conversation while driving. All your attention has to go into the incredibly complex requirements of watching all the events on the road, the movements of the other cars, deciding how to react to all that, and still operating your own car at the same time. You would never think in the beginning that you would reach the point where ALL of that is done automatically, unconsciously, without your conscious attention; so much so that you could carry on a conversation while driving, or think ahead to what you were going to do later on that day. But we all do reach that point, after enough driving experience, which is after all, many hours of “practice” that we all put in.
But when it comes to playing the guitar, people try to “put it all together” much too soon, and much too fast, and that is where the problem in getting it all together always stems from. So, understanding and respecting all of that, here is what to do when working to be able to sing along while playing:
1) Most often the problem in adding the vocal comes from the fact that a player is simply not even able to play the chord changes smoothly and in time to the beat WITHOUT singing! If you have trouble on the physical level changing chords in time, you will never be able to sing and play at the same time. You will find yourself having to stop and breaking down all over the place!
2) Get the guitar part down cold first. Even if the guitar part is complex (fingerpicking or runs thrown in) you may be wise to “strip it down”, simplify it down to just basic changes first, and try singing along with that. At least, make sure you can do that before you try something more complex.
3) After you strip down the guitar part, strip down the rhythm. If the strum you are using is using lots of up and down strums, make it all down strums, and put them all square on the beat. In other words, if the song has 4 beats to the measure, only do four simple down strums, nothing more. Attempt to sing the song to that simple rhythm. If you cannot do that, it is hopeless to try to sing to a more complex strum.
4) Practice playing the guitar part (simple or complex) and simply “hearing the vocal in your head” as you play.
5) From there, play the guitar part, and just “hum” the vocal. The point here is to slowly add the next level of complexity, but in a simplified version that does not demand much attention (as in remembering and singing the words).
6) Then, take just a few measures and VERY SLOWLY begin to put it together. Rehearse a few times by playing the part and singing it in your head. Then try doing it for real.
7) It is also a good idea to put on a recording of the song you are learning and play along with it, listening to the singer and doing your best to keep up with the vocal as the song progresses. If you have trouble doing this, put down the guitar and make sure you can tap a steady beat to the song. Sometimes, being uncertain about the beat is part of the problem.
As always, recording yourself and listening back can be a great help in pinpointing exactly where problems lay, so they can be isolated and worked on. Remember, if you have trouble making certain chord changes (to the point where your tempo falls apart), then you will never be able to sing and play at the same time.