Whether you sing jazz, musical theater, pop or classical music, working with a pianist can be daunting. And from the other side, many pianists have developed about 30,000 defense mechanisms that come from working with vocalists who don't know what they are doing, either musically, interpersonally, or professionally.
As a vocalist, you need to develop the musical and personal skills that will enable you to interact successfully with your fellow musicians. And here's the good news: the piano players want this! They want you to sing well. They want you to know what you are doing. They want you to speak to them in a language they understand. And best of all, the want to like you and enjoy working with you!
Before I give you specific tips on how to rehearse and perform with pianists better, let's take a moment to understand the situation you're both in.
To start with, there's a huge gulf between most vocalists and their instrumental counterparts. It's not anyone's fault. Rather, it's the result of the way we were taught music when we were young. When a 5-year old goes to their first piano lesson, they're taught to read middle C on the page, press the corresponding key, and count: 1-2-3-4, etc. But what does a 5-year old singer do? Smile and sing "Kum ba ya, my Lord, kum ba ya...."
There's nothing wrong with this per se. The pianist starts by learning technique and takes years to learn how to "play expressively." The young vocalist, by contrast, automatically sings expressively, but doesn't learn anything about notation for years, if they ever learn it at all. (Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part this is true and can continue into the college and professional years unless they do some serious "catch-up" work.)
So.... with this in mind, here are some "do's and don'ts" about working with pianists. This is real advice based on my years accompanying vocalists of all ages and abilities, in musical settings ranging from Carnegie Hall, Broadway orchestra pits, jazz clubs, cabaret venues and all the way to high school and college musical theater productions and community choirs. There are no exaggerations here: I've seen it all and want to help you avoid the pitfalls so you can succeed as the best vocalist you can be.
Here they are:
Do: Know the printed introduction. Figure out how many measures it is, what it sounds like, how it helps you "hear' your starting note, and what beat in the measure you begin singing on. The better you know the introduction, the more confident you'll be at your first vocal entrance.
Don't: Begin your big audition by walking straight over to the piano and asking the pianist to quietly play the introduction so you can "hear how it goes." Do you really think that anyone's going to hire someone who's that unprepared? The better you know your intro, the better you'll sing the whole song.
Do: Learn how to indicate the tempo if necessary. The pianist can't read your mind, so you'll make everything a lot easier for both of you if you can give your desired tempo. Either do this by counting 1-2-3-4 in the correct tempo or by singing a few notes (if the melody in fact communicates the tempo in a clear way).
Don't: Answer the pianist's question "How fast does this piece go?" by looking at the sheet music and saying "Quarter note equals 80." This communicates nothing. You can practice setting tempos by actually dancing to the song in the privacy of your own home. Your body will remember the correct tempo and I promise, you won't have to dance at your audition. (Unless the role calls for it, of course!)
Do: If the pianist starts the song at the wrong tempo, gently but confidently lead them by singing a little faster or slower until it's right. A sensitive accompanist will listen especially closely to you at your first vocal entrance, to make sure that you're both "together." They'll gladly follow you where you want to lead them, once they realize you know what you're doing.
Don't: Start snapping your fingers in a vain effort to correct the tempo. Its' very difficult to tell if a vocalist wants to speed up or slow down from this anyway, and you'll probably just make a quick enemy of the very person who can help you the most at that moment. Be nice and just sing a little faster or slower. If the tempo is way off and you're in a live performance, you may need to grin and bear it. (You can always rehearse again and fix the tempo for next time.) If you're in an audition or informal performance environment, you can probably get away with stopping the music, smiling and nicely telling the pianist, "I'm sorry, I told you the wrong tempo. Can we take it a little faster (or slower)." This way you don't embarrass anyone and the pianist will thank you by playing even better than before!
Do: Practice the piece so well that you'll always enter in the correct key.
Don't: Come in a 2nd, 4th, 5th or other interval away from the correct pitch. (And if you don't know what I mean by this, refer to the beginning of this post again.) I have to admit that whenever a singer has begun singing in the wrong key, some magical power has enabled me to instantly adjust to their key without any thinking on my part. But I certainly wouldn't count on this if I were a vocalist! Learn your key, and pianists everywhere will respect you and want to be your friend.
Do. Make sure your sheet music is clean, easy to read, and in the correct order.
Don't: Bring your faded photocopy of Stephen Sondheim's hardest piano part to your important audition. After all, you want to make it easy, not difficult, for the pianist to play well for you. I once accompanied an operatic tenor for what was literally his one big chance to sing for a major opera director. He handed me his piece, Nessun Dorma, seconds before we entered the director's living room for the audition. The young man had taped the music together himself so I could spread it out on the piano's music stand without having to turn any pages. He sang the first section beautifully. When I got to the second page, however, I played one wrong chord until I quickly realized what had happened: he had taped this page upside-down! He's lucky that I was able to play the rest of the music correctly while reading the score upside-down. After the audition, he laughed and said that he knew what he had done as soon as he heard the wrong chord. Is this what you want to be thinking about while you sing your heart out? An upside-down page? Make sure your sheet music is correct.
(One more thing about this: do yourself a favor and give the pianist a clean copy of the music, without your voice teacher's markings. I don't know how many times I've breathed before realizing the word "breathe" was put in there for the singer, not me!!!) Don't confuse the accompanist.
By now I'm sure you're starting to get the idea. Yes, be your wonderful, musical, expressive self. Sing your heart out. Act the role. Become the composer. Show off your high notes. Whatever it is you do, do it well. But at the some time, learn to think like a pianist. Become the conductor too, through your voice and your common sense. The pianist is the collaborator and the person who will help you perform the way you want to perform. Be nice to them and don't make them cover for you. The more they enjoy making music with you, the more you'll enjoy making music with them.
Good luck with all your musical endeavors!
If you're a vocalist, I've written another blog post especially for you: Poof! 40,000 years of music-making goes down the drain