When you’re learning repertoire, there are lots of creative solutions. You can use professional (or amateur) recordings, score-to-sound apps or even copy-typing the melody into Musescore. You may even be particularly good at sight-reading and only need a tuning fork.
However, when it comes to getting intimate and accurate with music from a score, a piano or keyboard can be invaluable.
Why work with a piano?
Being able to play sections on the piano can help you learn your music faster by breaking it down into small sections and giving you the “right answer” in terms of pitch immediately.
That means the piano can (if it’s in tune, at least), support your intonation. It can help you to hear the different notes accurately. As your skills improve, it can also help you pitch your notes against more complex accompaniments.
Working with a piano can also support musicianship by allowing you to hear the music from the score. Warning – be sure not to rely on the piano to do all the work! Play it and then sing it back, for example.
There’s even a vocal benefit of allowing you to practice even when your voice is tired – you can play and listen to the tune. If you have an electric piano, you can even use headphones, meaning you can do quiet practice!
What do you need to get started?
To support singing, you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles. An acoustic or electric piano is obviously wonderful, but not necessary. I started out with a shortened electric piano with unweighted keys, and that was more than enough to develop my skills. You could also choose a keyboard which will be lighter and easier to carry or store.
Where to start…!
Bear in mind, this is a complete crash-course that is about getting to playing your repertoire melody line as quickly as possible. If you want to develop your piano skills further, skip to the end of the post for ideas.
First, you need to match up middle C on the piano with middle C on the stave. You can see where middle C lives in the image on the right. It’s the first ledger line below a treble clef stave. If you’re working in bass clef, it’s the first ledger line above the stave.
Middle C on the piano also lives in the middle of the piano. You can see in the diagram where the absolute/letter names of the notes match to the keys. All the white keys to the left of the group of two keys on the whole keyboard are C. Middle C is usually the most central C on the keyboard (though that might depend on how many octaves you have).
Find it, play it. It should be within your vocal range.
Now you can find middle C, it’s a case of counting up and down to find the notes of your phrase. It will be slow to begin with.
For speed, you can add the letter names on using a piano rake, sticky tabs, or if you have plastic keys, you can write the notes on with whiteboard marker (and they’ll come straight off). Beware of using stickers – they’re difficult to remove!
Black and white
A little bit of basic keyboard geography. White keys are all the letter names, and then the black keys are the semitones between. If I’ve lost you there, you’ll need to take a pause and go back over scale construction…!
The black keys create the sharp or flat notes. Each black key has a sharp and a flat name based on the notes next to them. For example, the black key next to the middle C key can be both C♯ and D♭. Don’t overthink this too much. If you’re really interested in the why, it’s about physics, fractions and compromises…
So, when you come to an altered note in your music, go for the black key to the right if it’s sharp, or the black key to the left if it’s flat. Or, for F♭, it’s the same as E, and for E♯ it’s the same key as F. Again, don’t overthink it if your goal is the piano playing – it’s all to do with physics.
Remember Guitar Hero?
I loved Guitar Hero. And it’s great for understanding how sheet music works. The principle is there, there’s lines and spaces to indicate pitch, and then as you go left to right, it indicates time passing. Turn your sheet music through 90 degrees, so the left hand side is now facing towards you. Voila! Guitar Hero!
That’s the way to think about the music as you play. Left to right = time. Up and down = pitch.
Work it slowly to begin with. Find the first note by counting up or down from C, one white note for each line or space. Soon, you’ll know the names of the keys by looking at them.
Then, again, you can count to find each note. One white note for each line or space on the keyboard. Slow and steady wins the race!
Key signatures – starting assumptions
Once you can match your line or space to a key on the piano, you’re almost there. One last complication. Key signatures.
Key signatures are meant to be a “time saving” device. They’re a bit of code that tells you “read all Fs as F♯s” or “read all Bs as B♭s”. You will need to check which letters are adjusted at the start of the line. If there is a ♭ or ♯ at the start of the line or space, you need to play the relevant black key instead of the white key. Again, it’s slow work to begin with – you’ll make lots of mistakes to start. Persevere!
Once you can do the slow process of working out which key to play, it will get faster with practice. Try playing parts you know so you can hear if you’re finding the right keys.
You can also practice using multiple fingers. Just as typing on a keyboard is really slow if you only use your index finger, it’s really slow to play piano that way. If you have a run of notes next to each other, practice using three adjacent fingers to play them. Don’t worry about “correct fingering” find what feels fluent for you. We’re aiming for practical skills for singing not concert pianist!
Using the piano for practice
To begin with, focus on playing the pitches slowly and evenly. Don’t worry about rhythm. The main benefit of the piano is to give you certainty about the pitch not rhythm. As you go on, you’ll be more able to play the rhythm because you’ll get more fluent.
You can sing the pitches, then clap the rhythm, and then try to sing the pitches in the rhythm.
To begin with, mix up using this to practice parts you’re fairly sure of and to isolate parts that you are finding hard. Keep them short as you’re building fluency – just 2 or 3 notes can often be enough.
The more you do, the more you will be able to do!
Finding more help
Who knows, you might end up hooked! If you’re enjoying exploring the piano, you might want to build up more skills.
The obvious way to do this is by finding a piano teacher. Look for someone who is properly qualified and ask if they are used to working with singers or instrumentalists. Don’t put up with a teacher who isn’t going to help you learn the useful skills!
You can also go down the method book plus Youtube route. There are thousands of piano tutorials on YouTube explaining how to play your favourite songs, walking you through skills and techniques, and more. The problem with YouTube alone is where to start! So I recommend buying a method book, like a teacher would use. I’ve heard good things about Alfred All-in-One and Adult Piano Adventures. As you work through the book, you can look up the different things that the book covers. There are even some YouTube channels dedicated to playing all the pieces in piano method books so you can hear them.
You may also have a singing teacher who can also teach piano skills. As part of the musicianship work I do with my students, I include some simple practice putting melodies on the piano. Speak to your teacher about how you can learn more in your lessons.
Whatever you do, don’t skip out on the theory and skills like scales early on. They’re dull, but learning to do things like turning your thumb under when playing scales will mean your progress will be steadier and stronger long term.
So good luck, and get exploring. You can’t break a piano if you’re trying to play it – so enjoy. Play around with the sounds, and have fun with the melodies. The piano is hard, but very rewarding.