Piano for Classical Singers
Becoming a better pianist will make you a better classical singer. I work with a lot of classical singers, and I've noticed they often struggle to learn music in ways that I simply don't.
What I want to do in this article is to take my insights as a pianist, and use them to give you power. You can take this advice into piano lessons, or learn on your own.
I find that most difficulties stem from unhelpful ways of looking at things. As a result, I am going to go over a bunch of these mindsets, and suggest some useful alternatives.
Now, let's look at some of the biggest frustrations I hear from singers who struggle with piano.
Where to Start
If you want to improve your piano playing, most pianists will tell you to study with a teacher. This is not a bad idea, but there are downsides. First of all, lessons cost money. Second, a teacher who does not have experience with singers may not understand you very well.
If you're a total beginner on the piano, you should first think about why you want to learn.
For example, you may want to learn piano...
The more specific you can get, the better.
Don't waste your time in piano method books. If you want to learn piano to help with your singing, then that is the music you should be working on.
If you do get a piano teacher, try to find one who is also a singer, or who has a lot of experience working with singers. Pianists and singers often look at music in completely different ways (this is a problem). However, you do want everything to be about what is useful and interesting to you personally.
You could start by going through vocal pieces and work on being able to play the bass line while you sing. Don't be a perfectionist about this; try to keep the music going.
I don't know why I want to learn piano. I'll let the teacher tell me.
I have specific reasons for wanting to learn. I will gear everything I do in that direction.
The thing I love about the piano is its immense versatility and the wide variety of its repertoire.
As a pianist who works with singers, I'm often amused by how rarely they understand the downside of this. If you are a soprano, you're expected to know a ton of standard repertoire written for soprano. If you're a baritone, you likewise have another mountain of standard rep.
The pianist, of course, knows all of the standard soprano rep, plus all of the baritone standard rep, plus that of all the other voice types, plus violin, viola, flute, trombone, choir, and so on. Oh, and of course you know the standard rep written for piano, right?
So, generally speaking, it's not possible to practice all this music to perfection. That would take a lifetime or more.
In the meantime, you can learn as much as you can, in as many diverse styles as you can. Improve your sight-reading. Learn to fake it. You don't get there by perfecting every single note. Rather, you learn to make split-second decisions about how you want the music to go, based on listening to that piece, and other pieces of that style.
And, you trust yourself to make music. You might know more than you think.
If it "doesn't sound good," you have two choices:
- Take responsibility for asking "what exactly don't I like about how it sounds?", or
- Let it go.
Music is overwhelming and I just don't know how it could ever be possible to learn enough to make it sound good.
I will never learn everything there is to know about music. Instead of obsessing over that, I will jump in and trust myself to make art.
One note about chords: You may find it useful to stop thinking about "chords". As a singer, you sing one melody line at a time. It's the same on the piano. That is, chords consist of separate voices. So, when you read music, read the voices, not the chords. As you do this, notice how some voices are more important than others.
Accompanying is Stressful
I hear this a lot: "I want to accompany my voice students during lessons, but the piano part is too hard!"
As a voice student, I have taken lessons with teachers who struggle with this. It's not a pretty sight.
My opinion is this: as a teacher, you should focus on your student, not on your piano problems. The last thing you want is to be feeling like you're screwing up the student!
Your job as a teacher is to help your student learn to sing. You are not responsible for creating a complete musical work of art in the voice lesson. The piano part and the vocal part are two separate parts.
Now, if you want to take a stab at playing the real piano part, don't let me stop you. But please, don't bite off more than you can chew. If the student needs a steady beat, then play a steady beat. If the student needs to hear the harmonies, then play a simple bass line or chords. If the student needs to the interplay the vocal and piano parts, simplify it so you can get the basic idea across. Or, sing the piano part.
Whatever you do, you must not struggle with the piano!
You don't need to play everything that's written there. This is not a performance of yours. Don't be a hero.
Make it simple.
I need to devote lots of attention to the piano part. This is a performance of mine as well. To be able to sing, the student needs to hear every note.
My job is to help the student learn to sing. The voice lesson is not a musical performance. The piano part and the vocal part are two separate parts, interacting with each other. As long as there is a steady beat, we will be "together".
If you have a problem in your piano technique, you will find it difficult to play with speed or fluidity. You may also struggle to control your hands. Dynamics can be a problem, such as when trying to play with contrasting touches in both hands.
If you're anything like me, you may find that sight-reading to be easier than technique. It may seem like your brain is going about 20 times faster than your hands. Or, you may be the opposite.
If you are experiencing tension, keep in mind that tension is under your control.
If you have injuries that make it difficult to play, make sure you see a doctor.
If I can't play fast or fluidly, I just need to try harder. I need to push through the pain.
Speed and fluidity are the results of getting out of my own way. If there is pain or difficulty, I am trying way too hard. If I can't control my hands, I should try trusting them instead.
My Hands are Too Small to Play the Piano!
Many singers believe that their small hands get in the way of piano playing. They freak out at the sight of huge chords or big stretches, and immediately blame their anatomy.
Yes, it is easier to play big chords with big hands. Still, remember that not every note in the chord is equal. The fact that they are all the same size and color on the page does not mean they are equally important.
Don't stretch to reach every note. Instead, decide which notes are most important, and play those comfortably. Then, try to fit in as many of the others as you can.
My hands are on the larger side, and I leave out notes all the time. I'm not willing to sacrifice musical flow (or physical comfort) just so I can say "I played it exactly as written."
People with small hands may be at a disadvantage a tiny percentage of the time, but it's very rarely a big deal.
People with small hands are at a disadvantage. The way you play chords is you look at all the notes and you put a finger over each one.
Not all notes in a chord are equal. To play a chord, I will be aware of which notes are most important and put my center of gravity over those notes. Whatever is left over goes to the remaining notes.
The piano has 88 keys, and yet the human body typically has about 10 fingers. It can seem as if you need to be totally, completely clear about which finger goes over which key.
I hope that this stress can come to an end. When you walk up the stairs, do you agonize over which foot goes on which step? When you type on your computer, do you care about which finger goes over which key?
Most of these problems disappear by playing larger patterns, shapes, and gestures.
Play the shapes, not the notes. Look at the contours, not the black dots.
Trust your hands to find the right fingers.
The way you play is that you read the notes and figure out what finger goes over which note.
The way you play is that you read large patterns, shapes, gestures. You find a starting point and you trust that your hands will land in the right place.
Coordinating Both Hands
Piano music can be intimidating, especially when compared to vocal music. Vocalists have to worry about only a single melodic line, and they sing only one note at a time.
In contrast, when you first approach piano, it may seem as if you are being asked to sing two (or more!) songs at the same time.
So, you learn one, no problem. You learn the other, no problem. And then you try putting them together...
Let's back up a second and ask: are singers actually only doing one thing at a time?
Of course not. Yes, you're singing one pitch at a time, but you also have to coordinate diction, breathing, resonance, physical gestures, dynamics, and so on. Yet, this doesn't seem to provoke quite the same degree of anxiety that two hands at the piano does. Why is that?
Stop thinking of your two hands as completely separate activities. You must find a way to combine them into a coordinated whole (like you combine the text with the pitch). They must be inseparable. The beat goes through your whole body.
(and, don't try to keep track of everything!)
Read more about hand independence...
I need to look very carefully at the music, make sure my left hand is right, make sure my right hand is right, etc.
I need to look at the music as a whole. Feel the body as a whole. Always move both hands together.
Keeping Your Eyes on the Music
If you're not comfortable at the keyboard, you might be really tempted to keep one eye on your hands.
As a result, you may lose your place in the music, and get stressed out by moving your head up and down non-stop. If you're accompanying a student, you may find that you are struggling to pay any attention at all to the student.
It is quite understandable that you want to look at your hands. After all, if you don't, you might find that what you're playing bears no resemblance to what's printed on the page. However, this habit will become a crutch that you will never get rid of unless you make a forceful effort.
Stop thinking about "hand-eye coordination". Instead, think of "body-mind coordination".
Right notes are more important than anything else.
I will play wrong notes when I don't look at my hands. But that is how I will learn to play without looking. When I look up from my hands, I can be more present with the student. I can also be more aware of the music, as well as whatever else is going on in the room or in my body.
Playing an instrument requires concentration. As a kid, your teachers may have scolded you for not "paying attention" or "staying focused". Yet, we each have varying levels of concentration ability. In fact, "trying" to concentrate often makes the problem worse.
Fortunately, concentration is a skill you can get better at. One way to do this is through mindfulness.
If you have trouble rebounding from mistakes, check out my free online course How to Make Mistakes Without Getting Completely Derailed.
I need to try harder to pay attention and stay focused.
I accept that I will always have an easier time paying attention to things that I find fascinating.
Finding Time to Practice
Assuming you have access to a piano, you may have trouble finding time to practice (you don't need a great piano, if you have access to no piano at all, you may want to work on this first...).
You may have tried dedicating yourself to many different things over the course of your life. You might have invested in gym memberships, diets, self-help programs, and so on. If you're like most people in our society, you have a long string of these failed projects in your past. And, each one seems to be evidence that "committing to something is a really big deal."
When you carry this attitude into piano practice, it is no wonder that you feel there's not enough time right now.
Now, I'm not saying you can "master piano in 21 days" or anything like that. What I'm saying is that if you want to learn, do it. And, if you try learning, and it doesn't work, fine. Don't beat yourself up about this. Instead, take it as an opportunity to learn something yourself.
(The desire for instant gratification doesn't have to be a bad thing.)
It's not worth trying unless I have a completely clean plate and I feel super-motivated. Anyway, I am not self-disciplined enough to stick with it.
If I feel motivated, I'll do it. If I don't, I can drop it. My life will never be empty enough where I will feel like I can completely devote myself to anything. It is not reasonable to expect that I can exert willpower over any length of time. I'll be curious and self-compassionate, and investigate whatever gets in the way.
I've Wasted Too Much Time
(I Should Be Better than I Am)
Maybe you have friends who started piano earlier than you did and are much better than you. Or, perhaps you think you're just too old, you can't teach an old dog new tricks.
If you're always comparing yourself to how good you "should" be, it's no wonder you don't feel like practicing. If you're not getting instant gratification, you're not going to stick with it.
Whatever you are today is the result of what has come before. But, the past is the past, and you can't do anything about it.
And, always remember: saying "yes" to one thing means you have to say "no" to a whole bunch of other things.
(and, you're not too old.)
I wasted a lot of time. Practicing the piano just makes me feel worse about myself.
I didn't waste time. I spent it doing other things. Yes, practicing the piano makes me feel worse about myself, but so what? Why does it do that? This is interesting to me, but it doesn't mean I'm doing anything wrong. It is something to investigate and explore. What past events may have led to this?
Anxiety Playing in Front of Others
When someone is listening, you may find it impossible to focus on the music, because you are so nervous. Even a voice student of yours might make you nervous (read what I wrote above about "accompanying students").
As children, we get reprimanded by our teachers for making mistakes. Our peers tease us for not fitting in. As a result, the mere thought that someone else might be watching us can be enough to put us into "performance mode."
This does not help us stay focused on what we're doing.
It matters what other people think. It is bad to make mistakes in front of others. If I don't feel confident, it means there's a big problem.
I care what other people think because of my past. It's not good or bad. But, I recognize it and accept it. I want to play the piano, and this is a completely separate issue. So, I have a choice to make. Play the piano and accept feelings of anxiety, or avoid the piano and avoid the feelings. It is my choice. Yes, I may make mistakes because of the anxiety, but this normal. It's not a "bad" thing; just something to factor into the decision.
Reading Treble and Bass Clef
(that damn left hand!)
Piano music is more complex than vocal music. Instead of a single staff, piano music has two staves. This can be enough to cut your reading speed in half (or more)!
As a singer, you may find that you are somewhat fluent in treble clef, but bass clef causes you to really freak out. As a result, you might turn to one of the following strategies while reading both clefs:
Look, getting fluent in bass clef is going to be a matter of lots of practice. Translating from the page to physical action needs to happen automatically.
However, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:
I need to read one clef at a time, very carefully. I am too slow at this.
I can see the music as a whole. Speed is independent of how well I can read. Yes, I may make mistakes, but that's part of the learning process. My treble clef reading is better than my bass clef reading, so yes, my bass clef notes are going to suck. But, I can also devote more attention to them, because they're actually more important.
This advice also applies in more difficult sight-reading situations: open scores, complex inner voices, etc.
Always focus on what is important. Make it simple. If you feel overwhelmed, you're pushing too hard.
Read more about sight-reading...
Difficult Key Signatures
I'm guessing you learned that key signatures tell you which notes to raise or lower by a half step. As a result, you think that the idea is to keep track of which lines and spaces have sharps or flat.
That's not the best way to look at it.
Yet, it's understandable. Your teacher may have gotten on your case for every accidental you missed.
The key signature tells you what scale the piece uses. So...you need to know the scales.
There's not much of a shortcut to this, but at least now you know what has to happen.
Some key signatures are easier than others. I'm just not good at the hard ones.
Key signatures are not about "remembering which notes are sharp or flat". They are about which scale the piece uses. Either I can play all the scales comfortably, or I can't. If I can, then I just need to trust myself to read the key signature and go for it. If I can't, then that's what I need to work on. Either way, there is absolutely no reason to stress out about this.
Painful Childhood Memories
Many children have difficult experiences with piano lessons. I'm glad I never went through the traditional piano curriculum as a young child. If I had, I would not be playing today.
We pull kids out of their natural habitats and subject them to relentless criticism. Teachers demand perfection and obedience. Piano study becomes "rule-following", and bears little resemblance to actual music-making.
It is no wonder that someone with this past would be eager to look the other way every time they come across a piano.
The feelings I get from these memories are bad, and I need to avoid them. I should also avoid activities that trigger those feelings.
The feelings I get from these experiences are not "good" or "bad." They are just reactions. I could just as easily tell a story about how those feelings are evidence of how much I care.
Piano and singing may seem like they have many differences, but music is music. Pianists have a way of looking at music that can be useful for singers. As a result, piano skills can make singers more capable singers.
If you want to improve your piano skills, you can.
I hope that this article has given you a more flexible perspective on what is possible.
Now, I need your help: If you're a classical singer, I want to know more about your struggles with learning music. If you could spare a few minutes to take a brief survey, I would greatly appreciate it. Just click on the button below to go to the survey.