Basics of Accompanying Singers: Volume 1

When playing behind a singer, you are one instrument, you and she. (I’m using feminine pronouns here for simplicity.) So try to imagine that her voice is a third hand to the right of your right hand. Always, always listen. Listen to the singer more than you listen to yourself. You will always sound good then, provided you know the music.

That’s first: Know the music. In jazz, this is problematic, as there are Richard Rodgers changes for “Blue Moon,” rock changes and jazz changes, all different. Knowing what works for the singer is pretty important. Changes are a subject for a whole ’nother column, so let’s assume here that you have worked out some changes for a jazz tune, like this one.

When working with a singer, you MUST know the melody; it’s not enough just to bang out the changes. For example, if you turn the Cmaj7 into a Cmaj9 (which is fine, normally), and you put the ninth in the top, it’s going to clash with the singer’s note and throw her off. As a general rule, make sure that the top note in your voicing has no clashing potential with the note that the singer is holding. Similarly, if the tune has upper extensions of the chord, this might not be notated in the voicing, so you have to know what they are anyway, to avoid putting in additions that clash with those extensions.

Notice that in the 10th bar, the notes F, G, Ab, Bb are consonant with a G7 b9 #9 chord. So if you play a G9 with a natural nine, even if the nine is buried in the chord, it’s going to sound wrong. So beware of lead sheets. Make sure that you as a pianist are not clashing with any chromatic note in the melody, unless it’s extremely brief, like a passing eighth note.

Another important thing to remember is NEVER OVERPLAY. Do not treat this as a piano gig with a singer accompanist. Her part is the melody and has to come first.  Anything you do melodically and rhythmically to distract from that is not cool, unless the music specifically asks for that.

Try to find the minimal amount of notes that will work for the situation. Check with the singer to see what she thinks. Even singers who are not trained in music often have excellent rhythmic senses and know exactly what they need behind them. Let them count off their own tunes. If they are not comfortable doing that, let them snap their fingers, or whatever, and get the tempo from that. Look at everyone in the band and give a firm, loud count-off.

When you do “fills,” know the melody enough that you can play them in the rests of the melody, and sometimes over held long notes of a tune. Notice that in bar 8 the fill gives the singer the lead-in for the next part of the melody. This is good, considerate accompanying.

When doing “rubato” or “colla voce,” meaning out-of-tempo stuff, keep the tempo moving in the long notes of the voice so that the singer doesn’t run out of air. Also remember that “rubato” doesn’t actually mean out of tempo; it means MOVING tempo. So always give a pulse of some kind to the music even if it’s “out of tempo.”

The question always comes, especially when you are working in a duo with a singer: Do you lead her or does she lead you? This is something that always has to be discussed, unless the singer is unusually comfortable with a really open jazz setting. In general, the singer leads, but she might want you to lead at times. In that case, she has to tell you. So have an open, non-defensive dialogue about this. When a singer makes a comment about my playing, I sometimes feel as if I’m being criticized, but she is just telling me what she needs to sound at her best. It is your job to give the singer what she needs, because when you do, you sound at YOUR best.

–  From an article originally published in Gig Magazine

Basics of Accompanying Singers: Volume 2

This is my last installment on working with singers, and I thought I might delve a bit into the psychological aspects.

We instrumentalists often forget that the voice is the most difficult instrument to “play.” You have to have a good ear just to even have a shot at singing. If you don’t look great and have tremendous stage presence, most people won’t even listen to what you are doing. You could wake up and not have your instrument working. When you are sick, it often totally impairs your instrument, and you can’t work.

Now, it is true that some singers are utterly focused on their difficulties in doing what they are supposed to do, and it can come off to others as self-absorption or ego. But most are just trying to do the best they can. What if you woke up one morning and went to the piano to practice, and it was sick and wouldn’t make a sound for days?

Anyway, a bit of psychology is good for all relationships, musical and otherwise. So let’s talk about how we can form relationships with singers that help both them and us.

The first thing to realize in all relationships is that everyone’s DNA is slightly different, and what works with one person won’t necessarily work with another. The second thing is, no matter how difficult a relationship might be, both people are usually doing the best they can and have good intentions. So it’s important to grasp with a singer what she needs to be at her best, and what makes you feel good about it, and try to reach that happy medium. (Feminine pronouns used here for simplicity.) See, it’s a two-way thing. We need to serve our singers, but the relationship has to serve and please us, too.

I have a little theory about that. The reasons I play music are threefold. I like music, I like cool people, and I like money. I usually need two out of three. One out of three usually isn’t enough. So … good singer, nice person, not great bread, I would do it. Especially getting started. Great bread, not a good singer, not a nice person, probably not, if I could help it.

So it’s important to know why you do gigs. If things don’t go well one night, then you have perspective on why you are there. If it’s three out of three, then a bad night won’t shake you. Because there will always be bad nights. But know why you do gigs, and when you accept a gig with a barely adequate singer who is a nice person and the gig pays well, DON’T COMPLAIN! You knew going in what this was about. Know what you want, and choose what you want.

Now, singers have different needs. I have worked with Maureen McGovern, a wonderful vocalist who has intricately scripted stage patter, tight arrangements and virtuosic scat vocals that are written out beforehand and sung with great sound and perfect intonation. Timing is everything. Like a great play, everything has to be just so, and it’s really exciting when it is.

Jane Monheit, another terrific singer I’ve worked with, has skeletal lead sheets and has me make up intros, and everyone solos on almost every tune. It’s a different kind of pleasure, equally wonderful.

Now, to Maureen, tempos are CRITICAL. Jane doesn’t care quite as much. When we do rubato stuff with just piano and vocal (they call it “colla voce” in New York), their approaches are completely different. With Maureen, the part is partially written out, and I have to match her timing exactly. Although I follow her most of the time, occasionally I pull the tempo back and occasionally I push it. All of this is rehearsed and is almost exactly the same every time.

Now, within this context, I can reharmonize the tune in a myriad of ways. And even though the tempos are largely similar from night to night, sometimes when I know Maureen is going to take time on a long note, I will put in a little ritard before she hits that note. Makes it feel really dramatic and spacious.

With Jane there is a lot more freedom. There are only lead sheets, and sometimes not even those. So I really have to know the tunes intimately. If I don’t know the melody, I might step on her when I am doing fills. Remember that fills should normally be done only during spaces in the vocal, or when the vocalist is holding a note for a while. Jane will sometimes change the melody and “back phrase” (sing behind the beat).

You have to know whether you are supposed to go with the singer or keep your place and let her stay behind and catch up to you. This comes from knowing the singer and what she wants. It becomes instinct after a while. But you have to know the music first. No substitute for that.

– From an article originally published in Gig Magazine