an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

The Voice as Instrument

A lot of instrumentalists strive to sound like the human voice. They’re after that liquid, free flowing, human sound. Moreover, there’s the belief that to become one with the instrument, you need to sing through it, something which will allow you leapfrog over the technical issues inherent in making music through an instrument requiring physical/motor manipulation.

The great tubist and brass teacher Arnold Jacobs implored his students to think: wind and song.

There are those who seem to go in an opposite direction, meaning vocalists who appear to turn the voice into something that is more like an instrument.

A great deal of it has to do with vocal performance without words or few words. And, when I hear this type of performance, it makes good on the classification of voice as instrument.

I thought it would be fun to post four different vocalists who are able to create their own worlds of sound with their voice, in ways truly extraordinary.

The first, is a somewhat forgotten artist: Karl Denver. What Denver does with Wimoweh is pretty amazing, particularly for 1964, in a popular genre..

Next up is Joan LaBarbara. When Joan performs solo, she creates her own world of music and sound. It’s like magic. She’s pretty much the Houdini of new music.

Here’s an excerpt of Joan performing Christian Marclay’s Magna Scroll, at The Whitney.

And here’s a clip from the documentary film on Meredith Monk. People sometimes wonder: is she an actress, a choreographer, a composer, and musician, a dancer, a producer…?

I do know that Meredith describes herself as a composer.

And the last of these great examples of the voice as an instrument is Bobby McFerrin. I so often hear magic in what he does, and sometimes, just the sheer sound of his voice gives me great pleasure.

And finally, I bring to you great Jack Teagarden. He hails from a time when a trombonist could be a big star. And, one of the truly remarkable things about his performing, what that he played like he sang, and sang like he played. Confused? Give a listen to see what I mean.


  1. Jonathan Greenberg says

    Incredible blog post, Richard. I still have goose bumps from listening (and watching!).
    As a working musician, it is my daily goal to break down the “wall” that exists between the sound vision in my head and what comes out of the horn, so to speak. All of the above performers have done exactly that. They’ve transcended their respective instruments and the result is pure communication (read pure art).
    Thanks again for posting–THIS is the reason we do what we do.

an ArtsJournal blog