Piano Skills for Singers: Empowering Singers at the Keyboard II

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n my last article, I discussed my extensive experience teaching singers to play piano and how traditional methods have not proved effective at preparing them for professional work. I have created my own method teaching functional piano to singers, which firsts asks the question “What Piano Skills Do Singers Need?”  

Piano classes geared towards singers often start with the usual canon of piano pedagogy: method books, hands-together scales and classical piano music.  My issue with this course of study is that it takes a very long time to actually get through this material, and this leaves many singers completing several semesters of this classes without actually having the skills they need.  

If we take care of those needs first, then we end up approaching the lessons like this:  

Instead of: Do this:
Hands together scales and canon  Voice exercises
Fully notated piano music Faked accompaniments
Sight reading etudes Melodies from their own repertoire

To get started, I always start with finger exercises and general piano competency work, which empowers the students to build their familiarity with the keyboard while they build up some strength and facility in their fingers.  The material below could be realistically covered in one semester with the student practicing 20-30 minutes a day.  

(I should also note that my method doesn’t require any method books or materials of any kind, outside of printed handouts.)

Our first step is to learn the first 5 notes of the major scales in major.  I teach this concept intervalically (whole step, whole step, half step, whole step) rather than by memorizing key signatures, as I find it much more efficient to learn it this way.  The student learns to “see” the topography of the keyboard, while they understand the fundamentals of music theory.  All students should be encouraged to use proper sitting posture, hand position and work on playing with a consistent tone.  When they are ready, the metronome should be added.  

 

FIVE NOTE SCALES AND TRIADS IN MAJOR

5 Note Major Scale

 

Once the Major Scale is learned, it is the perfect time to learn the Major Triad as well.  Once this exercise is complete, the student can play Major triads in all 12 keys, a key step to being able to play “faked” accompaniments.  

Major Triad Solid and Broken

Once Major is covered, we move on to learning the identical exercises in Minor.  The focus is on understanding the intervallic layout of the 5 note scales (whole step/half step/whole step/whole step) and also comparing the difference between Major and Minor.  (Minor has a lowered third.) 

 

FIVE NOTE SCALES AND TRIADS IN MINOR

5 Note Minor Scale

 

Minor Triad Broken and Solid

By this point in the process, the student is able to play 5 note scales and triads in Major and Minor in all 12 keys.    Even though that doesn’t sound like much, it actually is an incredible foundation for all singers to have.    Not only do these patterns work as voice exercises, but the ability to play chords means that the student now has the building blocks to be able to “fake” accompaniments.  

It is my hope that by sharing this information, it will help others to rethink how we train our students.  These simple exercises are incredible building blocks that every singer needs to have.  

Brenda Earle Stokes

Brenda Earle Stokes is a pianist, vocalist, educator and the creator of Piano Skills for Singers:  online courses designed to empower singers at the keyboard.  For more information:  www.pianoandvoicewithbrenda.com