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.
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.