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How does piano training fail singers?

I am a singer who has the great advantage of being a pianist.  Piano is my first instrument and I was lucky enough to obtain quality instruction from the age of four.  When I entered the professional world, I realized what a huge asset my piano training was.  I was frequently being chosen for job opportunities as a voice teacher, choral director and general music educator over highly qualified singers, simply because I was able to play piano.

Thanks to my piano training, I have had the great pleasure to teach a great many singers to play piano.  What surprised me is that many of these singers had received extensive piano training, both privately and in college piano classes and yet they were still unable to function in a basic level in a vocation setting.  What went wrong?

Many of these singers blamed themselves, saying that they hadn’t practiced enough, or they were just “bad at piano” or how somehow there was something wrong with their musicianship.  That seemed impossible to me, especially since several of these supposedly “bad musicians” were elite singers, performing internationally.  (A couple of them were even Grammy nominated). So, what was the problem?

What I discovered was that the singers hadn’t failed at the piano training, it was the piano training that had failed the singers.  When I examine the syllabi of many piano classes for non-majors, I am struck by what so many of those courses entail.  There is a near-universal focus on playing scales hands together, playing challenging classical pieces hands together and tackling a variety of cadences – topics that are indeed helpful for building piano skills.  However, so much time is being spent on these challenging tasks, but is this actually useful for singers?

First of all, it is important to note that many of this traditional material was developed by pianists.  That makes sense – or does it?  These traditional piano training methods were developed to assist in building the skills a classical pianist would need in order to perform classical music.  Does this serve singers, choral conductors and general music teachers?  My contention is: absolutely not.

The more singers I trained at the keyboard, it became clear that a different approach was necessary to ensure that the right material was being taught and reinforced so that they were equipped to retain skills that would have vocational impact.  In short, singers need to learn how to play piano material that they will actually use in the professional world.  Not just pass a required class.

Here are two examples of how I approach piano training for singers.

 Scales

Playing scales hands together requires learning the particular fingerings required of each key.  This is a very time-consuming process that requires frequent repetition to learn and many months or years of repetition in order to actually retain this as a skill.  Instead of working on scales, I focus on learning how to play voice exercises hands separately in 12 keys with universal fingerings.  This fulfills the development of technical fluency in a work-related context.

Hands together classical music

So many piano classes require singers to play challenging classical works like Bach Inventions and Bartok Microcosmos.  While I agree that these pieces are useful for developing two handed independence, this is also time consuming and not immediately useful.

The first thing I work on is learning how to “fake”.  “Faking” means that you are creating accompaniments using chords and is commonly used in jazz and pop music.  In order to create these accompaniments, we work on playing triads and four note chords in 12 keys and then learn a variety of left- and right-hand patterns to create accompaniments.  It is much easier to fake accompaniments than it is to read exactly what is written on the page, so having this skill can drastically speed up a singer’s ability to accompany themselves and their students.  Plus, faking works just as well for classical music and music theatre as it does for pop and jazz.

By focusing the training down to these simpler topics does not mean that I think singers shouldn’t learn how to play classical music or hands together scales.  I just don’t think these are the first skills they should learn.  Instead, we should equip our voice students will real world skills that will ensure they have every opportunity available.  Empowering our singers at the piano should be a central part of their training.

Brenda Earle Stokes is the owner and creator of Piano Skills for Singers – the only online piano course for singers, created by a singer.  Her passion is empowering singers to gain the skills they need at the keyboard to increase their opportunities in the music industry.

Money Matters: An Interview With Financial Planner and Broadway Percussionist Dave Roth

As a freelance musician with an over twenty-year career, I am often asked for advice from younger musicians who are coming up.  My number one piece of career advice?  GET YOUR FINANCIAL HOUSE IN ORDER.  Why?  Because being a musician, an artist or any other freelance worker requires capital in order to maintain and grow it.  Being a musician also requires tenacity and longevity, which means young musicians have to take a long range approach to their careers.

To create a truly helpful experience, I enlisted the expertise of Dave Roth.  Dave is an Enrolled Agent, which is a federally authorized tax practitioner recognized by the U.S Department of the  Treasury.  He is also a professional percussionist who has been playing Broadway shows for many years.  Dave is my family’s accountant and financial advisor and he has been a tremendous resource for both my family’s finances and the complexities of my business needs.

The goal of this post is to give musicians a chance to reflect on their financial lives so they can make better choices for the future.

Q:  Financial planning can be quite terrifying for artists. What is the first thing you recommend someone doing when they decide to get their finances in order?

Dave:  First and foremost get out of debt.  If this is an issue for you then you should adopt an effective budget plan to assist in this.  I recommend the 80/20 method.  And then start putting money into investments.  No amount is too small.  The sooner you start the sooner that your wealth will start to grow.  Remember that all this is about exponential growth.  Every year that passes without putting money into investments can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in growth by the time one reaches retirement.

Q:  How much should someone be saving every month? What categories do you recommend people save in?

Dave:   That is dependent on their cost of living and their income levels.  One of the most useful tools to help with this is a financial tracking program like Quicken, iBank, Mint.com, etc.  Use of this style of tracking will assist in identifying areas of spending that can be curtailed.  9 times out of 10 it is cash withdrawals from the ATM machine.

Q:   What are some of the mistakes you see your clients making in their financial lives?

Dave:  Not “feeding the animal”.  What I mean by that is continuing to put money into an IRA to invest on a regular annual basis.

Q:   What about retirement savings. Is that something that artists should even think about?

Dave:  ABSOLUTELY!  In many ways artists need to think about it more than the average Joe because they may not work for an employer that provides a retirement program like a 401K.

Q:   What do you recommend for people who live in high cost of living areas (like NYC or LA)?

Dave:  Don’t live beyond your means.  As a NYC artist I have always been realistic about the lifestyle that I can afford.  Don’t rent or by an apartment that will drain most of your earning and savings potential.

Q: What do you wish you had done better, started/figured out sooner?

Dave: I wish I would have started putting money into my IRA much, much sooner.  I also wish I would have educated myself on how to handle my own investments at an earlier age.

Dave’s Top 5 Pieces of Advice for Artists

  1. Learn to communicate effectively
  2. Remember that your art will not put food on your table if you don’t treat it as a business.
  3. Treat your fellow artists with the same respect as you expect would be paid to you.
  4. Learn all the intricacies of taxes as it relates to a sole proprietor business or hire a professional to navigate this for you.
  5. Practice!  I’m not just talking about your art form but all aspects of life, love, health and financial wealth.

 

Dave Roth is a professional percussionist in NYC.  He is an active musician in the Broadway scene having played on nearly 40 shows and has also accompanied Sting, Sir Paul McCartney, Gladys Knight, Ricky Martin, Joni Mitchell, Natalie Cole and Aloe Blacc to just name a few.  Dave also became an Enrolled Agent licensed to practice before the IRS granted by the United States Treasury Department and has an active tax and financial planning practice with well over 200 clients.

Check out Dave’s performance website.

Check out Dave’s accounting website.

The Difference Between Knowing and Doing

When I was in high school, music teachers weren’t always sure what to do with me.  I knew a lot of theory and information, which meant that my teachers were constantly giving me new information about jazz theory and improvising techniques.  The only problem?  I couldn’t actually play any of it.

There is a mammoth difference between knowing how to do something and actually being able to do this.  In my many years of teaching, this is often the biggest challenge I face when working with students.

One summer when I was teaching at a summer music festival, there was this hotshot young jazz pianist that was wowing everybody. He would sit at the piano and play extremely complicated and virtuostic music, while everybody sat listening, completely impressed.  Knowing that he was going to be studying privately with me, a couple of students actually came up to me and said “What are you even going to be able to teach that guy?”  (Sigh.). At his first lesson, I had him play a Blues in F at a medium tempo.  He completely fell apart.  Turns out he had spent a lot of time learning the “hip” stuff, but hadn’t really learned the basics.

The most significant improvement I have made as a pianist has been when I take the time to fill in the gaps.   I sit down and made a list of all of the skills I lack– from voicings to scales, to working through difficult keys.  I once took a lesson with the saxophonist Kirk MacDonald, who asked me to arpeggiate the chords on All the Things You Are and I couldn’t do it.  At all.  I had played that song hundreds of times, but I was still unable to manage the very basic skills.  I was stuck on the “knowing” side and very far away from the “doing”.

I think one of the reasons my private students are so successful, is due to my experience of being a “knower” for so long.  I start everyone who walks through the door in the same place – at the very beginning.  Some of the more advanced students are taken aback that I would be working them at such a “low level”, until they discover that they are actually lacking in a great deal of these crucial foundations.  Most of them are quite shocked at how much they improve when they go back to the beginning and translate what they know to what they can do.

Nowadays when I’m practicing singing or piano (or both), I take my time to make sure that what is in my head is actually coming out of my fingers/voice and isn’t just stuck in my head.  It makes practicing really engaging and fun and helps me to stay grounded as I work.

Is there anything that you “know” but aren’t able to “do?’  What could you do to tackle that?

Take A Professional Development “Staycation”

Summer is here and your Facebook feed is full of photos of colleagues and friends singing and smiling at the many workshops, conferences and institutes that are being offered at colleges and retreat spaces all over the world.  And you’re quietly tucked at home, unable to attend due to no money (thanks a lot, student loans…or bathroom renovation) or no childcare.  (Or both, in my case…sigh).

Before you get a terminal case of FOMO, I have come up with a solution to the Professional Development Blues.  I call it the Professional Development “Staycation.”  Just because you can’t hop on a play and spend three weeks studying with some master teacher doesn’t mean that you can’t grow your skills in a meaningful way this summer.

Here is a list of ideas I put together to make sure that you stay on top of your professional development, on a budget.

  1. Take private lessons with an expert in your area…or via Skype.

You may not have thousands of dollars to fly off somewhere, but what if you invested a few hundred dollars taking private lessons with a great teacher.  If there isn’t anyone in your area, there are loads of amazing teachers who teach via Skype.

  1. Swap lessons with a colleague.

Sometimes the best professional development comes from watching others teach and learning what works for them. Reach out to another voice teacher in your area and see if they’d be into a swap, or even let you observe them teach.

  1. Catch up on your reading/watching/listening

We all know you have a stack of Journal of Singing’s that have been gathering dust while you have been teaching all year.  Now would be a great idea to read them and get current.  This is also a good time to listen to the soundtracks to all of the Tony nominees, and check out the albums that got Grammy nominations this year.  This would also be a great chance to go back and binge-listen some Naked Vocalist podcasts too!

  1. Look back

If you tend to stay current with the new musicals and albums coming out, you might consider having a look back.  Binge watch some old movie musicals, watch some PBS Great Performances or even go on YouTube and see how many versions you can find of Ella Fitzgerald singing “A Tisket A Tasket.”

  1. Take an online course

There are tons of online resources for instruction nowadays, many of which are extremely comprehensive and effective.  Berklee College in Boston has tons of offerings, and if you’re looking to gain some piano skills, check out my online course Piano Skills for Singers.  

  1. Work on your business

Now would be a great time to update your website, switch to an online billing system, learn Excel, learn how to shoot and edit videos or study marketing.  Many community colleges offer courses on business topics inexpensively, or you can hit YouTube to see what is available.  You may also order a stack of books from your public library to do a deep dive into a business-related skill.

These are just a few ideas that can help you grow your skill set this summer, while you preserve your pocketbook and still get your kids (or dogs) to the park every day.  What are YOUR summer PD plans?

What is Micropracticing?

Chances are, every time you sit down to play piano you are making mistakes at some point. Have you ever taken a moment to identify what those things are?

Try this: the next time you are teaching a voice lesson, running a choral rehearsal or just practicing, keep a pen and paper handy and jot down where you are making mistakes. Continue reading

How I confronted my limiting beliefs (and how you can too!)

I have been thinking and reading a lot about limiting beliefs and how our brains can be programmed to think something is impossible even if it isn’t.  These limiting beliefs hold us back from moving forward in our lives, our relationships and our businesses and keep us “stuck”.

Back in May, I listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Happier by Gretchen Rubin, which addressed exactly this topic.  (Here is the episode to check out!). It got me thinking about what was holding me back. Continue reading

The Paperless Studio – How Getting Rid of the paper saved my sanity and saved me a ton of money!

The Paperless Studio – How Getting Rid of the paper saved my sanity and saved me a ton of money!

Paper is an often complained about component of adult life.  We are inundated with junk mail, catalogues and papers that pile up on all available flat surfaces at home and work.  Nobody knows more about those dreaded papers than the music teacher.

I run a private studio for voice and piano lessons in our home in New York City.  My studio is our former dining room that has soundproof walls and a door.  The entire area of the studio is 7’x12’ – smaller than the guest bathrooms of my friends in the suburbs!  In a small room like mine, space is at a major premium and as a business owner, performing musician and mom I need to be organized to stay sane. Continue reading

An End to Allergies?

Allergies are rampant these days, and can be especially debilitating for singers.  Allergies can cause stuffed nose, mucus in the throat, coughing, sneezing and even wheezing.  Left untreated, laryngitis and other vocal issues can rear their ugly heads.  I was one of these poor people.  I struggled with terrible allergies, which would often hinder my vocal performances.  Over the counter medications like antihistamines would help with the allergies but would dry me out and cause even more laryngitis.  Replacing my laryngitis with more laryngitis was not a happy solution. Continue reading