Singers vs. Instrumentalists (pianist's point of view)


​I was accompanying a viola master class in July. During Spring I'd mainly worked with singers, so this felt like a very different business. Here's me trying to pinpoint how, exactly.​

  1. Instrumental pieces are never ​just ​3 pages long​​.​ They last for at least 25 pages, and that's just one movement​ for you. Also, the piano part is usually complex and varied​, unlike a Mendelssohn lied where​ you can get through the whole piece with one small pattern repeating over and over.
  2. Instrumentalists like complex modern music more than singers do. It's all about Bartok, Stravinsky and Hindemith, whereas with singers you can get really far by knowing three arias from Puccini, two from Mozart and one from Strauss. In instrumental music there's less tolerance for cheating, too - you edit a Brahms sonata at your peril.
  3. Instrumentalists don't need to know what the beginning note sounds like before they start. I have played the first note for instrumentalists a couple of times, completely automatically, and the looks they've given me have been quite priceless. A singer, on the other hand, simply will not sing until you've played the note. 
  4. There are no consonants in instrumental playing (except artistic ones). You don't have to be a little bit behind all the time - you can actually play together with your instrumentalist, instead of arranging time for "Ssscchhhhhlllllaaaaaf" to happen and trying to guess when the A might arrive.
  5. Some instrumentalists, especially string players, don't need to breathe between phrases, so you don't need to make extra space for that either. But complete lack of breathing makes bad music, so beware. Also, you don't need to rush under the long high notes, because the string player can basically hold it forever without turning purple.
  6. Many instrumentalists have an excellent ear for tuning. They can hear that the piano is out of tune, not because it's badly tuned, but just because that's the nature of the modern piano. You can either pretend that you hear it too, or just admit that the note sounds close enough to a G to you, and any nuances are completely out of your reach. When a singer complains of the same thing, just say that the color of the​ir​ vowel makes themselves slightly out of tune. That might even be true, and makes you sound smart enough.
  7. Many instrumentalists will stand in line with you in a concert setting, instead of placing themselves in the middle of the grand (which is what most singers do if they stand still at all). You can't really see them​ from where you're sitting​ unless you turn to look, ​and that​ can be very upsetting. Do not despair​, just listen. It also helps that very often the instrumentalists play not from memory but from the score, and this makes it easier for both of you to arrive at the end of the piece at the same time.
  8. Instrumentalists often dress in a less sparkly fashion than singers - ​there will be plenty​ of black, less makeup​,​ glitter​, and more modest hairdos​. Women might even wear pants, as shocking as it sounds​, and a man can get away with brown shoes. You'll finally fit in.​
  9. Instrumentalists often like to discuss interpretation with you. When this happens, don't be alarmed​.​ ​I​t means that instead of an accompanist, you're being treated as an equal. You might get ideas and start demanding similar privileges from singers, but only do this at your own risk.​