On Singing – Practising the Piano

I had always sung in choirs and choruses from my childhood to the end of my student days, and one of the highlights of my week as a postgraduate student in New York was my voice lesson. I came away from it feeling energised and exhilarated (as well as hungry) from the wonderful sensations I felt in my body as it became my instrument. This background in singing prepared me extremely well for my life in music, and I firmly believe that every pianist needs to know how it feels to shape music by singing the lines – be they melodic lines, bass lines or humble inner parts. I would go so far as to say I believe if you can’t sing a melodic line, you can’t really play it. You might be able to move your fingers over the right notes but you probably won’t be shaping it or feeling it expressively.

The roots of music lie in rhythm and song, and we pianists devote our time to making our so-called percussion instrument sing. String players connect notes with their bow and wind players with their breath, but the way pianists achieve a singing style is mostly illusion, of course, since the moment we play a note on the piano the sound begins to decay. Keeping moving at the keyboard is one solution – not letting the arm stop as we move through a phrase and remembering to breathe, as Chopin taught, through the wrist. From the very first lesson to the very last, piano lessons need to be filled with singing, and no pianist should be shy to sing a melodic line in the practice room until they have found the ideal tempo, shaping, phrasing, breathing, intonation and timings that will come from such an endeavour – no matter the quality of your voice.

In his famous treatise Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach advises:

You must not only be able to play your little pieces with the fingers; you must be able to hum them over without a piano. Sharpen your imagination so that you may fix in your mind not only the Melody of a composition, but also the Harmony belonging to it. 

In his advice to young musicians, Robert Schumann stresses the same thing:

Accustom yourself, even though you have but little voice, to sing at sight without the aid of an instrument. The sharpness of your hearing will continually improve by that means. But if you are the possessor of a rich voice, lose not a moment’s time, but cultivate it, and consider it the fairest gift which heaven has lent you.

Friedrich Kalkbrenner claimed that the great singers of the past taught him more about piano playing then any pianists, and Chopin recommended listening to the great singers above the piano virtuosi of his day. When he was director of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Anton Rubinstein made all piano students and other instrumentalists learn how to sing because he always believed that one is not a musician if you can’t sing.

How wonderful to discover this masterclass where Leon Fleisher discusses the importance of singing. Here he is working with a talented student on Brahms’ A major Intermezzo. I am sharing the video from the relevant place but I would urge you to watch the whole thing if you want to hear a master musician at work (I follow the video with a transcript).

Leon Fleisher: “I recommend highly singing everything that you play, and I recommend this for string players, for wind players, all musicians because there are these little adjustments that we all make. We adjust to our instruments, sometimes we cloak it in the garb of some kind of musical idea or gesture, but if you sing it somehow the lips and the tongue are not bothered with all the garbage, if you want to use that term, of playing the instrument. Yes, it’s a very complex activity to play… and there is this tendency to make little adjustments, to take a split second there and a nanosecond there, just to ease the transition… also as you sing [a melodic line] you decide you would not sing “bah, bah, bah”, you would sing something more legato and your consonant would be closer to an “l” (la, la, la) or a “w” (“wah, wah, wah”) or something like that. So if you listen to what your mouth does automatically it comes usually much closer to the kind of articulation that you’re looking for in the piece of music. So singing… is a double-edged sword because once you get in the habit of singing it’s very difficult to stop! Then you  start listening to what you sing, and what you sing is very beautiful – it might not be in the greatest voice possible, but it’s done without the problems of playing, and you start hearing what you sing and you don’t really hear what comes out of the instrument, what you’re really doing, but I think the benefits overcome the deficits.”

Singing is the most natural thing in the world, and so easy. All you need to do is to accustom yourself to working out phrasing and shaping as you work out the fingering and organise the hand. And if you’re ever stuck for how a phrase should go, remember that your voice will never lie.

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