Piano Skills for Singers : Empowering Vocalists at the Keyboard

In my experience as a professional pianist, vocalist and educator, I have found that one of the weakest links in the vocalist community is a lack of functional keyboard skills.  This deficiency creates a huge handicap for singers and educators, keeping them from positions as section leaders, music directors and teachers.  In the post-pandemic world, singers are going to need as many tools as possible in their toolkit to carve out a livelihood.   

My first instrument is piano and I studied classically from the age of 4 and I went on to earn a BFA and M.Mus in jazz piano.  I have studied vocal pedagogy and have worked as a singer in a wide range of genres, from classical to jazz and pop.  Because of my background in piano, I have attracted a lot of singers into my studio.  So many of these singers were highly accomplished in their field (one had sung with the Met for many seasons, many were Broadway performers and several of them were Grammy-nominated jazz and pop artists), but they just couldn’t play functionally at the keyboard.  And what perplexed me, was that all of them had taken multiple semesters of piano classes at colleges and conservatories and had even taken private lessons and they STILL couldn’t really play.  

 The problem?  The methods used to teach them did not align with the skills that they would actually need to use at the keyboard.  In short, the piano training that they had received was simply not in alignment with their needs as singers.

The great canon of pedagogy is usually called upon as the basis of these keyboard classes:  method books, hands together scales, classical piano repertoire and Hanon exercises.   As a pianist, I know full well that this is how pianists are trained.  It had never dawned on me that this method might not be appropriate for everyone.  

In fact, it was only when I started working with so many singers that I realized how flawed this methodology is.  Remember, singers who are learning piano aren’t trying to become pianists.  They are actually learning piano as a tool to support their work as a singer and an educator.  So why are we training them in the old fashioned piano pedagogy methods?  Since many of the piano curricula out there is created by pianists for pianists, it’s no wonder that there is a breakdown.

Before even getting started, it is important to look into one simple question:  What Piano Skills Do Singers Need?

  1.  Play with proper posture and technique to avoid injury and play with a nice tone. 
  2.  Play common voice exercises in 12 keys.
  3.  Play simple piano accompaniments to back up their own singing and the singing of their students.
  4.  Play melodies with relative ease – to learn their own music, run sectional rehearsals and to teach their students.

How do I accomplish this?  By teaching 5 note scales, major and minor triads: the building blocks of music.  I also teach all of my students how to “fake”, creating pleasing accompaniments like a waltz pattern or Alberti bass.  Faking is a skill we attribute to jazz players, but it is an incredible tool for classical folks too!  

To work on sight-reading, I utilize the material from the singer’s repertoire, a hymnal and their own choral music.  This is a very simple process and one that generally takes a few months to accomplish.  If the singer wants to continue to develop their piano skills, then we take the traditional approach with method books and hands together scales.  

This method has been so successful for my students, many of whom thought that they would never be able to function on the piano.  Not only does it arm the student with a solid set of skills that they need in their vocation, but it is a much faster and more efficient way to learn. 

It is my dream as an educator to empower singers to really shine at the piano, feeling confident to work in a wide range of vocations.  If we could change the way we view piano pedagogy, I think it would serve our students in exciting new ways.

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