Monday, August 11, 2008

Singers: How Do You Choose a Coach/Pianist?

The singer's process of choosing a coach or pianist is undoubtedly a personal one. Considerations of a pianist's ability are paramount: Can they play at a high level? Can they sight read? How much repertoire do they know? Can they coach diction? But what pianists also need to know about is the art of interaction--since singers are in effect developing their own body into an instrument, there is a personal element that is just as important.

Today's question is geared towards singers, and what influences their choice of whom to work with at the piano:

How do you choose a coach/pianist?

This comment thread is primarily for singers. Pianists: listen & learn.

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Previous questions:

What is your core repertoire?
What are your peak musical experiences?
What is classical music?

How to participate in the forums


  1. To all Collaborative Pianists:

    As a singer who has worked with many coaches and pianists, it is important to find one who meets your skill level. I sing a great deal of advanced repertoire and I need a pianist who can keep up. I love it when my pianist can sightread anything, or at least practices so that lessons go very smoothly. I also love my pianist to be collaborators, not just accompanists. If I'm doing a set a lieder or melodies, I would like to feel like my pianist is having an input into how we perform together.

    Now, when it comes to coaches, I have an entirely different spiel. I believe that a coach is an advanced pianist who has studied language and music extensively, so therefore, they give feedback to a singer on tempi, phrasing, style, and diction. A coach IS NOT a voice teacher. Let me repeat... A COACH IS NOT A VOICE TEACHER! I have had SEVERAL coaches who try to tell singers how to actually sing, when they aren't singers themselves. Pianists, THIS IS NOT YOUR JOB! Don't tell a singer how to breath, how to stand, how to phonate, or how to do anything that involves working the vocal mechanism.

    If you have worked with several singers and consider yourselves to be an advanced coach, you probably have a good ear for bad technique or a flaw in the tone. Point out what you are hearing to the singer and THEN ask the singer to address this problem with his/her teacher. Do not try to correct the problem yourself. (I don't care how many voice lessons you have sat in on and played. Just because you hear a teacher saying something doesn't mean you understand it if you aren't a singer!) In going back to the original question, I try to AVOID these coaches AT ALL COST!!!

    Coaches, also be open to collaboration. Don't treat singers like they are worthless human beings. Not all singers are stereotypically "slow" at music, especially in 2008. Don't act like you are the "supreme authority" on everything musical just because you are sitting at the piano.

    Most importantly for all future pianists/coaches, remember to be innovative. I can't stand working with a pianist who won't budge on a tempo because that is how they've played it for 35 years, or they first played this aria slower or faster. Have new ideas and always be willing to compromise.

    These are a few things that make or break a pianist/coach in my book. I hope this helped.

    Creator and President, Vocal Performance Majors Anonymous: A College/Conservatory Connection (Facebook Group)

  2. Thanks for the great comment, Jermaine. I completely agree that a vocal coach is not a voice teacher.

  3. What a great idea to get singers to try to explain what we are all looking for in a coach.

    This is such a specific relationship and one that needs to be considered carefully. I am always willing to throw myself into a session with anyone, however these are the things I'm looking for:

    First and foremost I have to actually LIKE the coach. After my voice teacher, this is the most personal relationship for me as a singer. Who are you and what is your mission as a musician?

    Second, if you can't sight read or know the rep well enough to play it cold, stay home. This may seem harsh but singers get anywhere from 2-3 hours of good "full" singing in a day so it has to be productive and can't be wasted on waiting for a pianist to learn notes.

    Third, I want to know what you HEAR. Can you sense the rate of vibrancy and when i'm going to breath? Do you make it easy for me to sing a long phrase? a fast phrase? Can you anticipate?

    Fourth, can you articulate your ideas? I'm ok if you don't know everything. But can you articulate what you do know and hear?

    What an exciting and special relationship when it all comes together! I hope this was helpful!


  4. Anonymous11:29 AM

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  5. Anonymous2:38 PM

    A very interesting question, first off is chemistry. The relationship between a coach or a collaborative pianist and a singer is as, no more, intimate on many levels than a marriage. This is a person who I’m going to be naked as an artist in front of so I need to feel safe. Ideally during our time together I’ll have the freedom to make ugly and perhaps unmusical sounds as I explore the boundaries of what I/we can do. I need to trust that when we leave the studio either you’ll be there to catch me or I’ll have the confidence to sing in the moment.
    Having said that, obviously an advanced level of musicianship, knowledge of language, an ability to concisely and accurately tell me what you hear (not try to diagnose just highlight things for me to address with my teacher), knowledge of style, ability to sight read (or willingness to say you can't) etc are the basics.
    I also look for someone who likes my voice, after all you’ll be listening to me and I can be rather loud. Seriously, though there is no surer way to alienate me then by treating me as a cash cow or musically slow. For example:
    • playing inconstantly
    • charging a premium rate and offering limited or superficial feedback
    • insisting on repertoire suggestions that are inappropriate to my fach
    • not admitting that you are unfamiliar with my repertoire
    I also love working with and favour relationships with coaches/ collaborative artists who are able to share their aesthetic and encourage/inspire me to take risks to push the boundaries of my own artistry and collaboratively develop interpretation.

  6. Thanks for the great comments, Elizabeth and Anonymous. I think I'll be highlighting several quotes from this excellent comment thread (except for the massive rant in Arabic, which has been deleted) in an upcoming post.

  7. Hello. So far I have not had a coach besides my voice teachers, but have sung a number of times with different pianists, so I can say: Thank you.
    Then, I like a pianist that understands that every singer is different, and there are some basic things to adjust for each: tempo, dynamics, agogics, phrasing. Unless it's a lied, the singer must have already made those choices and rehearsed (in-corpo-rate) them. I'm saying this because I met a couple pianists who unnecessarily said things like "no, no, this should be slower" or "there's no rallentando written".
    Another difficulty I've faced is sound level: I sing mostly baroque opera, and need a "baroque opera orchestra" sound level, which isn't similar to a Clementi sonatina nor a Prokofiev sonata, even though it's very difficult to play violin semiquavers in the piano.
    And, never forget that in singing, there's always something unwritten, mostly because os text nuances.
    About coaches, I suppose they're people who understand these things and even more, and they can check the diction (as word phrasing) but I disagree about phonetics, I mean: the couch might point "that word isn't that good, try to make it better", but never tell you how to phonate it, that's your voice teacher's work.

  8. Anonymous9:39 PM

    The collaborative process should be fun. Having a positive pianist who gets excited about the music with you is always a good thing. Someone who is not afraid to go "hey, let's try this!" and be open to you trying stuff too, even if it doesn't work out in the end. I get so frustrated with pianists who put up resistance before you've even tried things, or who are not willing to try a few different tempi. Feedback and criticism are beautiful things - negativity and inflexibility are not.

    Yes, a pianist should have their notes sorted before the rehearsals, as should the singer.

    I agree that coaches/pianists should not try to muck around with technique.

    And finally, someone who really listens! Someone who can sing and play at the same time, who can anticipate. I have worked with a pianist who knew before *I* even knew that I was about to forget the words of the next strophe, just because she felt my concentration change. Someone who breathes with you, who gives you space when you need it, who follows and supports you and who knows what your voice needs and lifts you in performance. (Obviously this process takes time and getting to know each other!) Someone who is actually interested in the text and who uses the piano to communicate just as much as letting you use the voice.

  9. Some skills that accompanists and coaches are expected to have are a given. For the accompanist: to be an excellent pianist, to follow the singer, etc. For coaches: the above plus knowledge of repertoire, performance practices, language, etc.

    The problem I have with most coaches where I live (in Berlin) isn't that they lack any of the necessary skills, but rather that they have soaked up the stereotypical Berliner brusqueness. I really had to search around until I found a coach who didn't make me feel like he was doing me a huge favor by working with me.

    So, in a pinch, I'll work with someone who's rude if I have to. But, whenever I have a choice, I work with someone who can at least summon a smile once in a while and be a bit friendly. Otherwise, I'm just not in a frame of mind where I can give my best.

    Oh, and be on time. And if you're not on time, call and let the singer know, and then apologize. I know that's just common sense, but musicians often have a deserved reputation for being late. :-)