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Make Your Piano Playing Sound More Professional by Learning to Think Like a Singer

Sounds like a strange title for an article on how to play the piano doesn’t it? However, singers employ some tricks that we piano players can learn from. Here are five important ones.

(1) Phrase it like a singer. Think the words to the song as you play. Many times we are so engaged in the notes on the page that we forget that most popular music is also meant to be sung. Singers naturally slow down and pause slightly at the end of a phrase to take a breath. So should we. Most of our listeners are unconsciously thinking the words to themselves as they hear the music. Unless we observe these natural pauses that singers use, our playing comes off as stiff and unemotional. Certain parts of the song may also need a tempo change. The chorus for example is usually the high point of the song emotionally. For that reason a singer may increase the tempo slightly. We should do the same. Often times the end of the song may need a slight slowing down or ritard. Sometimes a verse may be very free style tempo wise, while the chorus may be very rhythmic. By listening to how a singer phrases we can learn a lot.

(2) Focus on the dynamics. One sure mark of an amateur is a constant dynamics level. Again a singer will emphasize certain parts of the song by changing dynamic levels. For example a verse may start out somewhat subdued and build dynamically to emphasize the chorus. Another way that singers vary dynamics is to emphasize certain words or phrases of what they sing. We can do the same thing by slight changes in dynamic level. Again the key is to sing the words to ourselves as we play, and do what is appropriate.

(3) Use contrast. Songs that have the same dynamic level, the same tempo, or the same degree of harmonic complexity get boring pretty fast. The key here is to change things a bit phrase by phrase or section by section. In other words if one phrase is loud, make the next one soft. If one section is fast, make the next one a little slower. If the chorus is rhythmic, make the verses a little more free style. If the song starts out with big two fisted chords, pare things down to a single note melody or two part harmony. I think you get the point. Variety is the key. Good singers do this instinctively.

(4) Play with the melody. A good singer will very often make small changes to the melody. Not so much that the song becomes unrecognizable, but just enough to keep things interesting. Often a singer may play with the timing a little to add some suspense or jazz things up a little bit. Or maybe they will add a few ornamental notes to add interest. Almost never do you hear a good singer sing the song just as it was written. Neither should we.

(5) Make your own arrangement. You may think, I could never do that. However, by observing some of the techniques mentioned above you are beginning to do just that. As with anything else, practice makes perfect. Listen to great singers, and one thing they all have in common is that they sing a song their own way. None of the superstars sound like anyone else. That’s what makes them great. We need to think the same way. Why are Elvis impersonators laughable? Simple. There can only be one Elvis! There can only be one Aretha Franklin. There can only be one Sinatra. There can only be one Nat King Cole. I think you get the point. While it may be OK to learn from the greats, to try to sound just like them, takes away that element that is uniquely you.

We may not all be singers, but we can take a lesson from imitating their style. If we follow a few simple techniques: think about words and phrasing, vary the dynamics, use contrast, vary the melody, and make a song uniquely ours we can sound much more professional.

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