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Pianomania – Love, Perfection and a Little Bit of Madness

“The tone isn’t breathing.“ – complains pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, distraught. This is a typical sentence in Steinway & Sons’ chief technician and Master Tuner Stefan Knüpfer’s normal work day. The film Pianomania takes the viewer along on a humorous journey into the secret world of sounds, and accompanies Stefan Knüpfer at his unusual job with world famous pianists like Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel, Rudolf Buchbinder, Till Fellner and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, among others. Read more >>

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Author Topic: Do pianists have to learn how to sing?  (Read 796 times)
chopincrazy23
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« on: May 29, 2013, 08:03:46 PM »

Hi!
So, I know it's good to be able to sing when your a classical musician, but do I absolutely have to learn how to sing? I am pretty shy and I'm not too great at singing, but my teacher says it's good to learn it. I know this sounds stupid, but I am also afraid to get vocal lessons because I am worried about having a meltdown in front of the teacher from the embarrassment of my bad singing:P
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hfmadopter
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« Reply #1 on: May 29, 2013, 09:12:00 PM »

I hope not ! Well, I mean I would love to be able to sing but the long and short of it is I'm terrible at singing. Got thrown off the church choir at about 11 or 12 , told me they didn't need me to come to rehearsal any longer. I would sing around my friends to the radio, got told to shut up. So no way, now I won't even sing happy birthday at a party.


I'm too far into music and piano to worry about it any longer anyway.
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j_menz
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« Reply #2 on: May 30, 2013, 01:58:59 AM »

I never did. At least if you consider pitch and tone control as important elements of singing.
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ajspiano
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« Reply #3 on: May 30, 2013, 02:12:50 AM »

You need to learn how to mentally project sound..  singing is an outstanding tool for developing that. It isn't at all compulsory though.

It is possible to play a piano key without consideration to the sound quality or exact pitch. It is not possible to sing an exact pitch without actually using your brain to focus on that pitch.
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lilla
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« Reply #4 on: May 30, 2013, 10:17:51 AM »

Yes, you must learn to sing.  It doesn't mean you need a great voice, or that you will sing in public.  But, you must be able to satisfactorily sing somewhat on key.  Practice by hitting a key on the piano, and duplicating the tone with your voice.  You will gain confidence, and you will no longer be unwilling to sing happy birthday in front of others.  I learned this after accidentally signing up for a Christmas choir, not realizing they were serious singers.  It was very freeing.  I can now sing a song when I'm trying to tell someone about a piece of music.  I didn't used to be able to do that.  One more point - as a piano/organ major, I was required to take a voice class and to participate in the choir.  It was great.  Everyone in our voice class was NOT a voice major.  None of us could really sing, but we learned to stand up in front of each other and sing Italian!  Fun!  For the choir, I was in the general choir group, but we joined the other choirs in singing the Messiah.  It was a life remembering occasion.  What a thrill to be in the middle of group with such outstanding voices.  So, yes learn to sing.
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dima_ogorodnikov
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« Reply #5 on: May 30, 2013, 11:28:47 AM »

do I absolutely have to learn how to sing?

No. Voice control is IN NO WAY related to how well you create the illusion of being able to "sing" on your instrument. It is very useful, though, to listen to people who know how to sing to learn something about "breathing", phrasing, articulation, communication with the audience, etc.
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hfmadopter
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« Reply #6 on: May 30, 2013, 11:56:50 AM »

No. Voice control is IN NO WAY related to how well you create the illusion of being able to "sing" on your instrument. It is very useful, though, to listen to people who know how to sing to learn something about "breathing", phrasing, articulation, communication with the audience, etc.

I should say that I do sing through my piano, especially if it's a piece with freedom of expression. In that case what people are hearing is me singing, how my mind would be singing if it were able to do so through my voice vs the instrument. I picked that technique up long ago but it's come to the forefront most recently.

What's irritating is just what one poster described, that I can not vocalize my playing or instruct someone with a voice that is in tune. It would be nice to sing or at least hum when instructing a section of music where someone has trouble being on rhythm for instance. They have to hear my dead voice counting out or I stop them and describe instead.
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indianajo
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« Reply #7 on: May 31, 2013, 12:06:21 AM »

I think dima ogorov' said it:  modern European music came from Gregorian chant.  Much of the phrasing etc relates to the capabilities of the human body.  Doing it past the basic level helps understand a lot of historical music.  
I sing, have great relative pitch, holding pitch for a couple of hours, although not absolute by name.  But my voice has all the timbre of Tommy Lee Jones, the FBI lead actor in The Fugitive movie,   one of the Men in Black, etc.  Choirs  are often glad to have me in the chorus, but I only get to perform lead parts on the piano.  
As a professional pianist, in most starting positions you will have to lead a choir.  You don't have to be a soloist, but you have to demonstrate how it is done.  Once you are senior, you can specialize on your instrument. 
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j_menz
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« Reply #8 on: May 31, 2013, 12:08:34 AM »

Choirs  are often glad to have me in the chorus 

Choirs invariably prefer that I'm in the audience. Or another building. Or country.  Embarrassed
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keypeg
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« Reply #9 on: June 01, 2013, 07:41:00 AM »


As a professional pianist, in most starting positions you will have to lead a choir.  You don't have to be a soloist, but you have to demonstrate how it is done.  Once you are senior, you can specialize on your instrument. 
This is off topic, but since I have been in a few amateur choirs I have a question and maybe a comment about that.   Two of the choirs I was in were led by trained singers and that went well.  On one occasion, however, our choirmaster was sick and the accompanist led us.  She decided to also teach singing technique based on what she had observed, and within 10 minutes there were red faces, bulging veins and coughing.  I simply refused to follow her instructions so I was unaffected.   The second choir I joined had a new choirmaster who also was an instrumentalist but not a singer.  He regularly taught "technique" at every warmup.  I learned later that he was using things that had been abandoned years before because they caused choking and could damage to vocal chords. I felt that we were his handy guinea pigs.  Since I pick up instruction very easily, I got the first effect and had to stop singing for 6 months.   The third choir had trained singers.  The master conductor who led the male sectional in rehearsal was a singer, and the women had an opera singer as technical advisor.  She gave us warmups that worked, and was also there for advice.  She helped me with the choking problem I'd been left with by the previous conductor, and told me that it was common for singers to be harmed by faulty instruction - the voice is an internal instrument and so more tricky to approach.

My thought since then has been that someone leading a choir should preferably by a trained vocalist.  If not, in the least they should not be acting as voice coach, no more than a flutist or singer should attempt to teach piano technique.  I was quite disturbed to hear the hoarse voices caused by these two people.  I was also angry because I had joined a choir in order to sing, not to be trapped in rehearsal by voice coaching experiments that could harm my instrument. 

The sectional I was in (3rd choir) did get led by the piano accompanist.  But she simply went through the music which we rehearsed as needed, and did not try to teach us how to sing.

So when you say:
Quote
You don't have to be a soloist, but you have to demonstrate how it is done. 
it made me uneasy.  Do you mean - demonstrate how to sing?  If the choir can't read, won't the notes played on the piano be sufficient for imitating?  And if it is by vocal demonstration, shouldn't the pianist-as-choirmaster have actual vocal training and enough of it?
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louispodesta
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« Reply #10 on: June 01, 2013, 05:25:29 PM »

I am currently unable to find the exact quote, but Ferruccio Busoni was to have said that if you can't sing, you can't play.  As someone whose first musical experience was as a fairly decent choir boy, I totally agree.

Song-like phrasing is very different from instrumental phrasing.  When you sing, you are constantly aware of never breaking the line.

Further, you are taught to project your voice.  My major teacher always taught me to play the piano for the persons sitting in the back rows of the hall.

When I heard Gina Bachauer play the Rach 3rd Concerto, all I could think about was there was this woman, who could have been no taller than five feet, making this huge singing sound.

Conversely, when I heard Andre Watts play the Beethoven Emperor in concert, I saw the prinicipal violist almost nod off during the slow movement.  There was no projection whatsoever.

My suggestion is as follows:  1) Record yourself now, and then take voice lessons for a year, along with singing in a choir.   2)  After a year, record yourself again, and you will notice a sizeable difference in your sound.

Finally, most of the composers of the 18th and 19th centuries sang in choirs as youths because the church was a major center of the musical world.
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indianajo
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« Reply #11 on: June 01, 2013, 05:34:24 PM »

In answer to Keypeg's experience, I observe that graduate pianists that didn't win international competitions, and don't have a teaching certificate, often start their professional lives leading elementary school music class, or leading church choirs in very small churches. That is the sort of instruction I expect the young pianist to be doing. I met a fellow with a master's degree in organ performance that was going through that ordeal.   Just getting more than half the students on pitch, and singing the same words simultaneously, is a challenge to these classes.    
The only source of choking I have experienced as a church choir member over the years is 1. trying to sing too loudly 2. trying to sing too high 3. trying to sing phrases too long without a breath.  
In the case of the latter, most church choir members in my past were way out of shape and could really have used some aerobic exercise and weight control regime to build up their lung capacity.  Singing two measures and gasping for a breath in the middle of a word is a typical adult choir performance of the church denomination I am a member of.  Our denomination encourages fellowship dinners and is rather tolerant of excess consumption of food.  Like many other sins I don't participate in, I think this is rather funny, or tragic when I go to the funerals of people who should have known better.
I had a vocally trained choir director once, and quit after enduring a couple of months.  Twenty minutes of "vocal exercise"  at the beginning of a one hour weekly rehearsal is not my idea of a productive use of my time.  I'm not trying to stretch my range, I'm not trying to fill an auditorium with my voice without an amplifier, and I'm not making a living at singing.  He looked like he could use a lot of roadwork, too.  I could definitely sing longer phrases without a breath than he ever asked for.  
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dima_ogorodnikov
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« Reply #12 on: June 01, 2013, 07:35:57 PM »

I am currently unable to find the exact quote, but Ferruccio Busoni was to have said that if you can't sing, you can't play.  As someone whose first musical experience was as a fairly decent choir boy, I totally agree.

I wonder what the exact context was in which Busoni said that. Many really famous pianists hum and sing along while they play (Arrau, Brendel, Gould, Pletnyev, Jena Jando, Keith Jarrett, Fats Waller, Bob Wills to name a few), and most of them terribly off-key by the way, which leads me to believe that voice control has NOTHING to do with singing on the piano, which is also about projecting whispering sounds for people sitting in the back row of the hall but with totally different means. I am told I'm a rather good singer with a good voice too, but some of my peers who cannot keep tune with their vocal chords "sing" a lot better on the piano than I do (at least that is my subjective impression).
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louispodesta
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« Reply #13 on: June 01, 2013, 08:52:45 PM »

To clarify the context in which Busoni made his comment, he was specifically referring to singing in the traditional sense, and not, in my opinion, the terribly distracting habit of some pianists to make ancillary noises while they are playing.

Personally, and this is no great accomplishment on my part, but I can tell instantly if a pianist has significant experience with their voice.  Someone with vocal experience has a more forward moving harmonic rhythm to their playing, and as alluded to before, they project.

I find that this manifests itself especially with the smaller works of Brahms and Chopin.
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j_menz
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« Reply #14 on: June 02, 2013, 05:17:44 AM »

Personally, and this is no great accomplishment on my part, but I can tell instantly if a pianist has significant experience with their voice.  Someone with vocal experience has a more forward moving harmonic rhythm to their playing, and as alluded to before, they project.

I find that this manifests itself especially with the smaller works of Brahms and Chopin.

Bollocks! I In every respect. Do you just make crap up or are you really that delusional?
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hfmadopter
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« Reply #15 on: June 02, 2013, 07:45:02 AM »

I find that this manifests itself especially with the smaller works of Brahms and Chopin.

Most big concert halls are all wired these days, they have huge expensive sound systems, you can hear an acoustic guitar string squeak as the player moves his fingers around.. In fact many churches are wired too. Good sound systems don't sound like sound systems at all, it sounds live only projected, much like a good set of earphone monitors work.

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keypeg
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« Reply #16 on: June 03, 2013, 02:31:28 AM »


My suggestion is as follows:  1) Record yourself now, and then take voice lessons for a year, along with singing in a choir.   2)  After a year, record yourself again, and you will notice a sizeable difference in your sound.

Sorry, I project very well as a singer.  In fact, when singing with an amateur choir the main problem was not to project since my voice tended to stick out from the rest.  That does not necessarily mean I can do so on the piano, very simply because I had no piano technique and did not know how to move efficiently.  Imagining what you want to sound like is not enough.  You need the means to do so.
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ajspiano
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« Reply #17 on: June 03, 2013, 02:54:26 AM »

I fail to understand how anyone could think that voice control is somehow compulsory or in anyway related to tonal control or projection on an instrument.

People tend to assume that one thing is a result of another when it just isnt..  like when someone assumes that because pianist "X" learnt to sing and then their playing improved that singing improves playing.. but actually what happened is that pianist X spent time working in detail on tonal control with any instrument at all, they learnt how to have a strong sound image and convert that to an actual sound.. they learnt to conceive sound first, before playing.

The failure of pianists to do that is not because they didn't learn to sing..  its just that with your voice, EVERYBODY learns to speak through listening and mimicking sounds before they learn to read  . Projection of a conceived thought as language is totally built in, then built on through reading. As opposed to the countless pianists who have learnt to read the dots, and know which physical keys they refer to but have never actually imagined a sound and connected that to the physical action of playing.

Singing applies this idea to music, and it is then directly related to lines of piano music because the melody (or harmony) could just as easily be vocal as it is piano, they start taking aural shape in your mind before you play - so we naturally apply that skill to the pianos sound..
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keypeg
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« Reply #18 on: June 03, 2013, 03:09:51 AM »

The only source of choking I have experienced as a church choir member over the years is 1. trying to sing too loudly 2. trying to sing too high 3. trying to sing phrases too long without a breath.  
The choking was CAUSED by the exercises given.  I had good control of my voice, a range of over 2 octaves as an untrained singer, and no problems with longer lines of music or held notes.  I did have problems once these exercises started during the warmups.  I finally consulted someone and described the exercises, and was told that they had been abandoned decades before precisely because they caused the problems that I experienced.[/quote]
I had a vocally trained choir director once, and quit after enduring a couple of months.  Twenty minutes of "vocal exercise"  at the beginning of a one hour weekly rehearsal is not my idea of a productive use of my time.  I'm not trying to stretch my range, I'm not trying to fill an auditorium with my voice without an amplifier, and I'm not making a living at singing.  
[/quote]
I believe that vocal training should be done one-on-one with a good instructor who will be observing the student he is working with.  It should not happen in an amateur choir where a large number of people are together, and definitely not done by someone who is not a singer and who is dabbling in something he doesn't understand.  Amateur singers are not personal guinea pigs - they are men and women volunteering to perform music.  Even in private lessons voices are often damaged because the voice is a more elusive instrument than the usual external instruments.

I loved the music the second choir was singing.  I had no problems preparing the music and singing it.  But I dreaded the "warmups" and the damage they caused.
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keypeg
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« Reply #19 on: June 03, 2013, 03:15:21 AM »

.. but actually what happened is that pianist X spent time working in detail on tonal control with any instrument at all, they learnt how to have a strong sound image and convert that to an actual sound.. they learnt to conceive sound first, before playing.

....... As opposed to the countless pianists who have learnt to read the dots, and know which physical keys they refer to but have never actually imagined a sound and connected that to the physical action of playing.

Singing applies this idea to music, and it is then directly related to lines of piano music because the melody (or harmony) could just as easily be vocal as it is piano, they start taking aural shape in your mind before you play - so we naturally apply that skill to the pianos sound..
Ok, this is starting to make more sense.  Pianists don't actually need to imagine the sound that they want to produce before playing it.  the pitch is created for them so all they really need to do is "type out the notes" without ever really hearing them.  It took a while for me to be aware of that possibility.
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j_menz
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« Reply #20 on: June 03, 2013, 03:22:22 AM »

The failure of pianists to do that is not because they didn't learn to sing..  its just that with your voice, EVERYBODY learns to speak through listening and mimicking sounds before they learn to read  . Projection of a conceived thought as language is totally built in, then built on through reading. As opposed to the countless pianists who have learnt to read the dots, and know which physical keys they refer to but have never actually imagined a sound and connected that to the physical action of playing.

Singing applies this idea to music, and it is then directly related to lines of piano music because the melody (or harmony) could just as easily be vocal as it is piano, they start taking aural shape in your mind before you play - so we naturally apply that skill to the pianos sound..

I think that there are a variety of instruments that will also force one to do that in varying degrees and respects.  It is certainly possible to bang out notes on a keyboard and get a result; a lot of other instruments require a little more concentration and feedback processing. I suspect that singing is possible without that much consideration of these things, as plenty of really awful singers attest.

I suspect it is the ability to form a sound image, produce it and assess your success at having done that that is the heart of the matter. It is possible to do that on a piano alone, but probably easier at least initially to do it by singing or on other instruments as the feedback may be rather more dramatic.

It's reaching the destination, though, that marks the difference; not the way one got there.
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ajspiano
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« Reply #21 on: June 03, 2013, 05:49:36 AM »

Seems likely, given that with string instruments accurate pitch requires proper attention.. and  all wind instruments have a very ongoing need to focus on the sound in relation to the embouchure to produce a good tone. Its at a contrast to us pianists with our small and "snap shot" window for controlling the tone of the instrument.

It is also remarkably easy to highlight (exaggerate perhaps) certain tonal/rhythmic characteristics of a line vocally - In a way that is obvious to the less experienced who has more trouble discerning the difference in how the idea is conceived if demonstrated at the piano.

eg.

4/4 (semiquavers) - yya, ta, ta, ta - ta, ta, yya, ta - ta, ta, yya, ta - ta, ta, ta, ta.

will generate a remarkably different sound, and is obviously a very differently conceived idea to..

la-ah-ah-ah-eeeee-ah-ah-ah, da..   Dum.   da-DA.

..even as text this can be understood, when used with an aural example most people can concieve and copy this kind of thing vocally without to much trouble, and then apply that idea to the piano. If you just do it at the piano they can in the earlier stages tell there is a difference, but they can't quite grasp what it is or how to produce it without more work/thought.
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j_menz
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« Reply #22 on: June 03, 2013, 06:21:57 AM »

I'd actually go a step further.  With these other instruments, you actually have to listen to what you've just done (and keep listening throughout the note) as you can continue to alter tonal quality, vibrato and volume.  So not only do you have to conceive of what you want to produce, you have to listen to monitor that you've achieved it.  There may also be an opportunity to fix it, such as a slide into a note on a violin and even in brass and some woodwinds. On a piano, after you've hit the note, there's not really that much you can do about what you just did. Jazz or improvisation generally may be a little different in that a wrong note can be made right. Even in baroque, a wrong note can be the occasion for a spontaneous ornament, but classical and later - your stuck with it. I suspect that limits the development of feedback, and of learning to listen to the sound you're producing in anything more than the most superficial (right or wrong note) way.

Some people, it seems, will develop that feedback facility regardless, and I suspect that some people actually trying to learn these other instruments never really develop it (you don't hear many of them, of course, outside the most junior of recitals).

I do think there is an advantage to having a go at a range of instruments. Not necessarily with an aim of even a basic mastery, but at least to see the different ways they tick. One's own voice would be part of that mix, but is not necessarily the best. Not many singers can really fully hear what they are singing - the acoustics inside the body overwhelm the actual produced sound.
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