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How to Accompany Singers: Five Tips for Musical Success

Piano Lessons with Diana Mascari
Diana Mascari-piano teacher

In this article, you'll learn five tips that will help you to accompany singers successfully and have fun doing it. Watch how Diana accompanies vocalist Helen Falcone in their performance of Night and Day

How to Accompany Singers: Five Tips for Musical Success

Tip No. 1

Make sure that the singer selects the correct key based on her vocal range.

You and/or the singer need to determine the highest note she can sing and the lowest note. In addition, make sure that most of the song's melody is in the comfortable range. In other words, limit the number of times the highest and lowest notes of the singer's range appear in the melody. Once you have figured this out, you then need to select the correct key for the song so that the vocalist will be very comfortable singing the song.

The challenge for pianists is that very often the best key for a singer is a very different key from the original.

Tip No. 2

Practice the song in this "new" key so much that you become as comfortable as you are playing the original key.

As challenging as this is, your comfort level as a pianist is absolutely essential if you are going to have enough flexibility to adjust the accompaniment if it becomes necessary. Sometimes the key that the singer needs "sounds" different to your ears. That's another reason to put in the practice time. You want your musical ear to feel comfortable with the variance of key.

Tip No. 3

Agree with the vocalist on the style, tempo and overall arrangement for how you will perform the song.

Selections from the Great American Songbook are quite malleable. You can play them in a variety of ways and they still retain their identity. So it's important the discuss and agree on the way both of you want to perform the song. For example, I you want to play the selection as a swing tune, and the vocalist prefers singing it as a ballad, you need to either create a "win-win" arrangement by starting off the song as a ballad and then moving it into a swing OR you probably need to accept the singer's preference because despite the fact that you are collaborating, the singer is handling the melody and words. Without this, the song would be practically unrecognizable to listeners.

Tip No. 4

Play chords and/or countermelodies in the right hand rather than playing the melody.

Except on rare occasions, playing the melody while the singer is singing the melody will create problems. It will be next to impossible for two people to play /sing the melody simultaneously unless it's stilted, rigid, and mechanical. As a result, you need to figure out a left-hand accompaniment pattern (rolling 10ths, bass in "2", walking bass, stride, shuffle bass, etc) that will provide a solid foundation for the "ensemble" rendition of the melody. Once that is done, you need to work on your right-hand chords so that you can play them in different inversions as well as with varying rhythms.

Tip No. 5

Rehearse together several times so that you can clarify and solidify the arrangement as well as become flexible enough to adjust to each other in the spontaneity of a performance.

I must tell you that in the performance (video below) that Helen and I did, we were able to achieve and/or shortcut the Five Tips that I've listed above, because we did some of the required "homework" ahead of time. She knew that my key was right for her after hearing my recording. I had the overall arrangement which she liked. We've both had a lot of professional experience. However, we rehearsed more than once ahead of time and went over the cues, entrances, ending, etc enough that we were ready to perform AND we only performed one selection. When you have to play one or two sets in a performance, the time invested in working through the Five Tips that I've listed above multiplies greatly.

To Summarize

When two or more musicians perform together, the emphasis/focus is on the conversation between them. This is incredibly satisfying. Usually, when two instrumentalists do this, it's a little easier because the keys of the songs are compatible (e.g. same key for piano and tenor sax except that the sax transposes to a whole step higher to sound in the same key as the piano). Instrumentalists are also more flexible with styles because of their experience in duos, trios, quartets, etc. So when you have the opportunity to perform with a vocalist, follow the Five Tips to ensure that your collaboration is successful. A vocal/piano performance can be tremendously enjoyable is you do the work ahead of time. And you'll be glad you did.


Here's how Diana accompanies vocalist Helen Falcone in their performance of Cole Porter's Night and Day. Press PLAY to start Diana's Performance (The guitarist on the screen performed earlier)


About Diana Mascari

Piano Lessons with Diana Mascari
Diana Mascari-Piano Teacher

Diana Mascari has taught piano to hundreds of adults and children for more than 45 years. She holds two Masters of Music degrees from New England Conservatory and taught keyboard harmony to music majors while pursuing doctoral studies at Boston University. She was the music director for a multi-cultural Presbyterian Church for four decades, and her jazz and classical compositions have been performed worldwide. Diana has been performing for more than 50 years. From solo jazz piano to commercial groups touring the East Coast to leading her own jazz ensembles at many colleges and jazz clubs throughout New England.

To get Her FREE Course: Song Playing Starter Kit for Pianists, click here

To schedule your FREE 30 Minute Piano Lesson Consultation on Zoom, click here.



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