Some skilled singers are regarded as musicians by their fellow instrumentalists. As regularly encountered on gigs though, those who approach a piano player and want to sing rarely impress due to lack of musical homework.
“American Idol” and its spinoffs may give the impression that anyone can be a successful singer as long as they’re given a microphone and the spotlight. As a pianist, I enjoy the role of an accompanist, and have played this role with many vocalists of varying degrees of talent. Legendary stories abound of amateur singers boldly desiring their 15 minutes:
Once a woman approached me at the piano and asked if she could sing a song. I said “sure, what do you want to sing?” She said “I don’t know, what do YOU know?” I said “How about ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’?” She said “oh yes, yes, yes, that’s a great one. Have you got the words?”
From my friend Rick Montalbano, there was the singer who said “that key is too high, can you do it in minor?”
A variation of this theme is from Bill Crow, who accumulated many jazz stories over the years and has put them in a great volume called “Jazz Anecdotes.” Someone requested “When Sunny Gets Blue” from the band. The singer says “I’d like to do it, but I only know the first line.” The piano player says “no problem, I’ll feed you as we go long.” They start the tune and the singer sings “When Sunny gets blue…” and expectantly looks over at the pianist. He whispers to her: “B flat minor 7 to E flat 9.”
Here’s my advice to aspiring singers as to how they can best enter the real world of performing on stage with a band:
… buy your own microphone, cable and stand
… aim at buying your own portable PA system
… acknowledge your accompanists on stage
… make it your business to have your own collection of lead sheets tailored for you (melody and chords, intros and endings, in keys that fit your range)
… Learn how PA equipment works and offer to help pack up at the end of gigs
… know your lyrics, but be able to make up alternatives on the spot if you forget them
… be able and willing to sing songs that may not be your favorites
… learn how to introduce songs and engage the audience
… learn the etiquette of performing with a band and sitting in (go see live music)
… consider learning the piano or guitar so you have a better understanding of chords and song structure
… read about and listen to your favorite singers, then listen to the artists who influenced them; and learn from instrumentalists also
… give your accompanists dirty looks if he/she makes a mistake
… stop singing if something goes wrong
… make apologies if you are not in great voice
… be careless with equipment, especially if it’s not yours
… be shy when opportunity knocks (be ready)
… think about acting like a diva unless you have earned it!
A general fact to keep in mind is that any musician who wants to work needs to be as valuable as possible. This means having personality and versatility to complement your talent.