On Accompanying Singers

Working with singers can be a reliable source of income for pianists. Singers get a lot of gigs, both in clubs and touring, which can be very lucrative. In addition, they always need you to coach them (to help them learn new music), to do lead sheets for them, to arrange songs for them, to make rehearsal tapes for them and to record with them. In fact, many of the best-known rock, pop and jazz pianists got their start in the business working with singers. When I find that jazz gigs are scarce, I can always pick up a little singer work. So be open to this.

Working with singers also provides a number of musical benefits. First, you learn tunes you didn’t know before. Pianists who know tunes always work. And you learn the lyrics (at least in part). The lyrics help you recall the exact notes of a melody and help you phrase correctly.

Second, working with singers is great training for ensemble playing. Many solo pianists can’t work with other people because they haven’t learned to play with a steady beat or to speed up and slow down with another instrumentalist or a singer.

Third, because the voice is the original musical instrument, I find that pianists who work with singers often develop beautiful tone and a lovely sense of melody in the right hand. Check out “The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album” and “Ella Sings Gershwin,” with underrated pianist Ellis Larkins. I always suggest that pianists sing while they play — this makes their lines better (for example, Keith Jarrett!). You might play a wrong note, but you never SING a wrong note, and if you play what you sing, it all works out.

So the singer gives you a lead sheet and says, “We need to find my key.” There is always the old trial-and-error method of pounding through the tune half a dozen times, but here’s an easier way:

Look at the music and determine the point of the song where the melody is highest. This is often near the end of the tune. Now, have the singer sing this part in full voice WITHOUT giving him his note. (I’m using male pronouns here for simplicity.) Match the top note that he sings on the piano and see where it is in relation to the corresponding top note in the sheet music. Suppose the top note that he sings is a minor third down from what’s on the sheet music. If the piece is in E-flat, then his key is a minor third down from there. C. Simple as that. This can save a lot of time, as singers sometimes are very insecure about not knowing their key and very sensitive about it being just right, especially if the song has a wide range. A typical pop song might have a range of an octave, a jazz standard a bit more.

Now, I am a fairly good transposer, but there are some transpositions that drive me crazy, like down a fourth. I’d take the time at this point to write in all the chord changes in the new key, especially if there are a lot of them, so that when the singer and I play through the tune, I can make some music rather than being in transposing hell. Before I do this, I double-check all the repeats, DS’s and codas (I mark them with a highlighter if I have to) and make sure I know the road map. Then I ask the singer to count off the tune. Most good singers have excellent rhythmic senses. I find the right tempo for the tune on the metronome and write it ON the music. Saves time later.

Next, some important rules and tips for playing the right stuff behind a singer.

From an article originally published in Gig Magazine.