Accompany yourself to easier piano playing

A large percentage of recreational piano players want, as their primary goal, to be able to accompany themselves (or someone else) singing. That percentage was much larger than I ever expected when I began to teach lead-sheet based, creative style piano. Here’s the great news: Playing in an accompaniment style is much easier than playing in a solo style. Let me explain the basics of accompanying, and I think you’ll agree …

First, let’s quickly recap the basics for those who are unfamiliar with the correct way to play non-classical music. A lead sheet is a style of printed music used to notate a non-classical piece of music. (Lead sheets can be found in large collections that are called “fake books”). In its simplest form a lead sheet can be split into its two main components. One, a single note melody line of the tune and two, chord symbols up above the melody line that tell the player what chord changes to play along with the melody.

Those of you who are students of the online method, or have seen my TV series know that we typically work through a tune in what I call a “solo” style where the piano/keyboard is the only instrument to be heard. The melody line gets played with your right hand, as your left hand plays the chords denoted by the chord symbols. Pretty straightforward …

Now the accompanying conundrum is this: If you are singing the melody line, should you still play it with your right hand?

If you were a good notation reader who was traditionally trained, you might incorrectly vote yes. Here’s why …

Pick up any piece of traditional sheet music (as opposed to a lead sheet) in a P/V/G (Piano/Vocal/Guitar) format, and you’ll see three staffs. The top one is the melody line vocal part by itself. Below that you’ll find the bass and treble clef that contains the arranger’s version of the piano accompaniment. The idea is the singer reads the top line while the pianist reads below it as an accompaniment. If you look even closer, you’ll see that the top note of the “right hand” part from the accompaniment will mirror the melody line from the single staff vocal line.

So what most players do, not knowing any better, is play the written piano accompaniment note-for-note exactly as written including the melody. If it’s written it must be played, right? Well … not exactly.

The problem is that it sounds amateurish when you “double” the melody by playing it while it is also being sung. Accompanying is all about getting out of the way of the singer. The way you accomplish that is by NOT playing the melody when you are accompanying. That’s right! I said forget playing the melody line, which makes things a bit simpler now doesn’t it?

Now you’re probably thinking “What do I do with my right hand if I don’t play the melody?” Here’s a very elementary way to think about the difference between solo and accompaniment style:

Solo Style = Right Hand Melody, Left Hand Chords
Accompaniment Style = Right Hand Chords, Left Hand Roots (or some sort of bass line incorporating chord roots)

The great outcome of the fact that you shouldn’t play the melody when accompanying is that it makes things a heck of a lot easier to play! Let’s face it – playing a tune while singing when you are also incorrectly playing the melody line while trying to read traditional sheet music gets you into a lot of “pat your head and rub your tummy” issues. When you accompany correctly and simply play the chord changes from a lead sheet, things get much easier.

Once you get the hang of it, I strongly encourage you to start listening to good accompanists (like Ralph Sharon on a lot of Tony Bennett recordings for example) to appreciate how they stay out of the way playing the chord changes while the singer is singing, then become more active and melodic during breaks in the melody line. It is such a pleasure to hear a player accompany very well. It’s a real art form.

Let’s recap. Not playing the melody line while accompanying is musically correct, makes it easier to play and sing at the same time, and sounds more professional. Count me in!

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