Sunday, March 06, 2011

Singers: Should You Be Working with a Vocal Coach or Collaborative Pianist?

Anne Breeden, PianoNoted collaborative pianist, teacher, and fellow Eastman grad Anne Breeden has just written a fabulous article on Operagasm looking at the choices available to singers shopping for pianists entitled "You're Going to Breathe There???" and Other Musings from the Singer-Pianist Collaboration Front. At stake is the choice regarding what type of pianist a singer should choose to work with: vocal coach or collaborative pianist? About these distinctions:
“You should go to a coach to get info that you don’t already have,” says Emily Sinclair, Soprano. Coaching usually entails a teacher-student type of relationship, with the pianist focusing on diction and stylistic issues. The coach should send you away with new tidbits of information.

With a collaborative pianist, things are trickier, because the singer and pianist make decisions as a team. Ms. Sinclair gives the example of intimating to an excellent coach she had worked with for years: “Sometimes I miss working through musical issues with a pianist who is a peer, not a coach.” “I know exactly what you mean,” said the coach. “It is a really different experience to work through voicings, phrasings and gestures with a collaborative pianist. It’s a very equal experience,” she says.
You might think that most pianists are able to wear their vocal coach and collaborative pianist hats at the same time, but I've noticed that there is a subtle distinction with the way that both types of pianist handle ensemble and tempo situations with individual singers.

Vocal coaches who have done their time as repetiteurs in opera companies are often apt to play a lot like orchestras in that they tend to push a singer through a phrase much like a conductor would. In other words, if the singer is singing with slightly less direction than they should be, many coach/repetiteurs will simply barrel forward in tempo through the phrase.

On the other hand, a collaborative pianist with more recital experience will work at developing a mutual vocabulary of collaboration, delving into the nature of the phrase and working at how pianist and singer can both generate the phrase through a delicate dance of leading vs. following.

The above descriptions are a bit of a generalization, but I notice these differences, both in the vocabulary which pianists use and their instincts while playing.

So which type of pianist should a singer be using?

A lot of it depends on both the type of specific preparation that a singer needs (role, audition, or recital?) and the type of pianist that fits in with their musical needs and instincts, and whether they are able to bridge the gap between the many facets of what a classical singer needs to prepare these days. Above all, pianists need a sense of empathy. From Anne's article (emphasis is mine):
Ms. Maultsby loves a pianist who knows not just the diction, rhythm and pitches, but the background, emotion and story behind what the characters are feeling, and that the pianist is on his/her own emotional journey. “The most rewarding work relationships come when I feel comfortable with my pianist as a person, and when that coach genuinely likes my voice and says so,” she explains. Dr. Harris adds that both pianist and singer need to complement the music that the other produces, though always making sure that it is an honest compliment. “Let them know what their music meant to you.”

Singers want really good chops, musical guts, a trust that you’re on our side, explains Dr. Patricia Thompson, mezzo-soprano. “We want to know that you have a vested interest in making the music sound great. It’s not fun to play with a pianist who’s jaded and playing for a paycheck. A singer wants a good friend and confidant and someone they can trust at the piano.”
And how valuable it is for singers to work with pianists who are able to understand the differences between coach/repetiteur and recital pianist in order to engage fully with both the needs of the singer and the needs of the repertoire.


  1. Anonymous12:14 AM

    this is a good article and an interesting distinction i've thought about, but never put in to words. my experience leads me to believe that the singer dictates which hat i wear. an accomplished singer who knows the material well is one who i talk with equally about the piece to further my own understanding of it. i have had some great singers tell me that i played something clunky or inexpressively... and why not? i tell them if something doesn't sound good. turnabout is fair play and can often be quite useful to know what they are hearing and feeling.

    contrastingly, a young singer who is new to a piece i have played a hundred times might be able to teach me something about it-- and i'm open to that-- but usually, they are looking to hear what i think about the piece and just get used to having a live accompaniment playing along. plus, an inexperienced singer is much more likely to be unsure of diction, tempo, phrase shape, etc, so we pianists are much more likely to be in the captain's chair when we work with them.

    interesting to imagine singers as choosing us because of having one or another attribute. i imagine that they choose which hat i put on by their preparation, mood, level, and experience when they come in the door.

  2. Thanks, Anonymous. And I especially like how Anne has put the collaborative pianist discourse in an entirely new direction with her Operagasm article.

  3. Lyndon8:43 AM

    Great article, and I completely agree with anonymous. At this point in my career, where I consider myself a young coach, I will wait until the singer invites my input (or until the point that I can't hold it back!). If it's a piece that might be new to both of us, it's always the most fun because we are both exploring and discovering the music together.

  4. Thanks, Lyndon! I'm sure that singers will value your opinion more and more over time.

  5. Anonymous9:05 PM

    The distinction between the two is perhaps more important to make early on in a career. Having never worked as a repetiteur, I was spared the subservience of one's personality to someone else's stick, but I did conduct opera for 20 years here and in the European scene. Rythmic discipline is an element of the work, but I don't think it should be regarded perjoratively, but as an advantage that I frequently see missing in young students when trying to cope with larger structures. Eventually one hopefully reaches the experience level that there is no longer a distinction between the two "branches" of the art; certainly we don't train people to specialize, simply to be aware of the differing needs. Some of the finest accompanists I have seen came out of great theaters, and some marvelous accompanists were also great coaches. To pigeonhole is convenient from the academic standpoint, but doesn't do justice to truly talented people in this field. I don't think this was the goal, but we should encourage young artists in the field to master both skills to deepen their own artistry.

  6. Great comment, Anonymous!