How to Accompany a Singer on the Piano

When a pianist accompanies a singer, their main task is to provide a solid musical foundation and to support the vocalist. This is a very different piano playing experience because the piano is almost placed in the background. In an orchestra or playing solo, your playing will be placed at the front and center. Supporting the vocalist may seem trivial in comparison, but supporting a great singer can be very rewarding for any musician.

3 Useful Tips to Prepare

Supporting a singer can take your skills to a whole new level but many pianists believe that you need a lot of playing experience to get started. This isn’t necessarily the case if you have a good grasp of the essentials and you know the piece well. Let’s take a look at three useful tips that will help you to get started:

Know the Piano Part Intimately

As the only supporting source of music for the singer, you will need to keep up a steady tempo with no pauses to try and “fix” mistakes. In fact, you want to be so intimately familiar with the piece that you don’t pay too much attention to playing each note correctly. This may sound strange, but remember that your task is to listen to the singing and follow the vocalist as they move through the piece. Ideally, you want to memorize the piece(s) that you’re going to play and be prepared to improvise a little if the singer wants to go in a certain direction. This is certainly challenging, but it’s all part of the fun and when it works you will gain a great deal of satisfaction.

Don’t Worry About Singing Along

As you learn to play the piece to a high standard, don’t worry about singing along until you nail the playing. This will help you to focus your attention on the singing and playing the piano at the same time. If you can do both on your own it will be far easier when you’re focused on playing. Once you’re confident, it’s time to think about playing with a singer and you can still mouth the words if it helps.

Record the Practice Sessions

Playing along to a recording of a singer can be helpful initially but recording yourself will be a more useful exercise. Start by playing the melody and then record yourself singing along to check how you did later. There are backing tracks available for purchase and reviewing your performance can be very helpful. Don’t pay too much attention to the quality of your singing because it’s not relevant. Make sure that you’re playing in time with your vocals to establish if you’re ready to accompany a singer.

3 Useful Tips to Accompany a Singer

Now that you’ve laid the groundwork, it’s time to see if you can actually accompany a real singer. Check your friends and family and find someone prepared to help you learn how to play while they sing. Concentrate on staying together throughout the piece and practice until you feel more confident. When you’re ready here are three useful tips to help you get started accompanying a singer for a live performance.

Following Along with the Tempo

This may seem tricky, but it’s easy if you have someone that knows the musical piece and they are willing to help you practice. Get your assistant to clap out the beat as you play along with the song. You can ask them to play slower or faster and then try to play the song at the new tempo. Then ask them to clap out the beat and change the speed gradually over time to see if you can adapt your playing to the tempo changes. If you can continue to play the song as it slows down or speeds up you can be confident that you can accompany a singer.

Following the Dynamics of the Song

Now it’s time to practice with someone else signing the part for you. Ask your volunteer to sing the song as you are playing and they can sing as loud as they like. It doesn’t matter if they can sing well, the goal is to match your piano playing to their volume. Try this exercise a few times at different levels to adjust your dynamic playing style. You want to accompany the singer and avoid drowning out their vocals with your playing style. If you can follow the singer and adjust the loudness of your playing throughout the song you’re ready to put all the pieces together.

Putting the Pieces Together

Now that you’ve learned how to play with a singer, you can use those skills to accompany a singer. Plenty of practice will be needed to learn how to play together well but the process should be rewarding for both of you. As your reputation grows you may be asked to provide accompaniment for a wide variety of music, including church congregations, accompanying a choir, playing in a band, professional playing, and more.

3 Simple Rules to Follow

You can improve your chances of success if you follow these three simple rules when you accompany a singer, they are:

Pay Close Attention

It’s easy to lose focus when you’re playing with a singer and you can even get lost in their performance and forget about your playing. Stay attentive, listen to the breathing of your singer and the rhythms as they sing to stay in time with them. Let the singer lead and if they need an extra breath adjust the dynamics and timing to compensate.

Avoid Playing the Melody

Remember that the singer is responsible for the main melody of the song and if you start to compete with them the performance will suffer. A vocalist can only sing a single note at once and you need to play the harmonies that they cannot vocalize. Think of your job as a way to enhance the melody rather than duplicating it and muddying the song.

Learn How to Play Harmonies

Following on from the last tip it’s important to learn how to play harmonies well. Some basic music theory will help, but you need to master those basic piano chords if you want to excel in the accompaniment role. A simple chord inversion can go a long way and you can train your ear to choose the best chords to match the main melody.

If you follow this advice, you’re well on your way to learning how to accompany a singer and grow as a pianist.

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