On Performing With Singers


It's easy to pay attention when singers are singing. They usually wear bright colours, stand in the middle of the stage and make a lot of noise with words - they tell stories. And the pianist? They're further back, wearing colors that perfectly blend into the grand piano, there are no easily recognizable stories and certainly no words. If they're playing behind an upright, you might literally not see them at all, until they get up at the end to take a bow. Performing with singers, the pianists don't always make it to the spotlight, and that's annoying - but if we'll keep ranting about it and won't take ourselves too seriously, it's possible not to become bitter. Humour really is the saving thing... and it's not like we're heart surgeons, so it's ok not to have a National Pianist Day.

So, to make my point, here's a couple of things that a pianist might not love about performing with singers:

  1. Your name not appearing anywhere in concert advertising... or the instrument, for that matter - how's a person to expect a singer with piano if only the singer is mentioned? It might as well be a mandolin or a marching band.
  2. Your name not appearing anywhere in the concert program. This happened to me in a student opera scenes concert. I played through the show, but there was no mention of me having been anywhere near the stage. In the end it turned out alright, though, for the teacher had spotted the students' mistake, and she bought me a bottle of wine to say sorry. So in the end I was totally cool with that. (And drunk.) 
  3. People thinking your solo piece is an intermission. In a song recital there's often a piano piece in the middle so the singer can rest and drink some water. The pianist doesn't need to rest because she's a superhero, and therefore plays alone for the audience to enjoy. Sometimes, however, the audience interprets this as an intermission, and happily chats away through the piece. The boldest take out snacks and drinks and have a jolly good time, while the pianist cultivates very dark thoughts.
  4. Playing with singers being considered "just accompanying". I've often been told that what I'm doing is not as impressive as being a soloist. "But Jenna, you're not playing, you're just accompanying!" "Just so that you know", I tell these people in my head, "playing the piano parts of songs is a specific skill that has to be learned and it's ACTUALLY QUITE HARD TO DO WELL. Also, I really am playing the piano even though someone is singing at the same time, and it really is my concert too. If it wasn't my concert, I WOULDN'T BE THERE."

Then some things a pianist should love about performing with singers:

  1. Getting to play Christmas songs. No need to explain this one. It's just plain awesome.
  2. Being the superhero. The singer accidentally does something weird - jumps three pages, starts singing too early or too late, or whatever - and you put on your pianist superhero cape and jump in to save them. The audience doesn't notice anything, and the song continues flowing on like nothing ever happened. You keep a straight face, but inside, you're glowing. 
  3. An audience member telling you after a concert that "the piano really is half of the performance". Yes, I know. But it makes me happy to hear you say it. 
  4. You're not alone. Whatever I might complain about, in the end it's just so rewarding to make music with another human being. Making music is much more fun and fulfilling when you have two perspectives instead of one. Music doesn't combine your personalities, it transcends them into something that would be quite unreachable on your own. And you get to wear matching outfits.

P.S. If you screw up while someone is singing, people might not notice. So all in all it's great.