The piano is the perfect instrument for developing a greater understanding of music.

Having basic piano skills can help you be a better voice teacher, but it can also help you as a singer, making your practice sessions more efficient and helping you learn songs quicker.

In this episode, John discusses the benefits of learning piano and gives some quick tips on understanding basic keys and common chords.


Free Video on finding keys and associated chords.

Episode Transcript

Episode 64 – Essential Piano Skills for Teachers and Singers

Hey, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I so do appreciate you spending your listening time with me. Today’s topic is essential piano skills. Now, this comes up, because I sent an email to my email list this morning. And if you’re not on my email list, you should get on it. Go to John Henny dot com, and you’ll see where you can sign up.

But I sent out an email, and I was discussing essential piano skills. Because I’m right in the middle of creating a new course that is piano for voice teachers, to give voice teachers the essential piano skills they need. And it’s also gonna be part of my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy, which you can find out about if you go to John Henny dot com, and just click on Teacher Training.

Just know I’m recording this here, beginning of December. And 2018. And registration closes on December 11th, I believe it is. So if you want to get in, enrollment’s gonna be closing. So you should go check that out. It won’t open again until later next year.

But as I was preparing this piano course and thinking about what teachers need to know, I sent out an email talking about the course coming up and what I’m covering. And it’s funny, voice teachers are kinda split. They are those who do play the piano. And I got some of them cheering me on, and you know, “Thank you for bringing this up,” and pushing teachers to learn this. And I got some emails from teachers who don’t really play a lot of piano, but are very good, experienced teachers. And it was along the lines of, you know, they didn’t want me to make teachers feel guilty or to shame teachers who don’t have essential skills. Which was not my intention, but it brings up an interesting point.

Can somebody teach voice, without piano skills? Or even sing without piano skills? Let me take the teachers first. The answer to both is yes. Teaching, it’s a little bit trickier. At the very least, you should be able to play your chosen teaching scales. I know of teachers who can’t even do that, and they rely on different technologies, different programs to play the scales for them. They’ve re-recorded them.

When I’m teaching, I’m moving far too quickly to be able to utilize any recordings. That would just slow me down. I like to be able to change things, rework things, modify the scale I’m playing on the fly. But theoretically, I could do it with recordings. Interesting story, I know someone who created a … This was years ago. It was an app for singing. And the first version of it had stopped working, with the iPhone at a certain point. Because they were developing a new version. And people, there were a number of people using it who … Voice teachers, who got really upset, because they used the scales on the little learn-to-sing program, to play the scales for their lessons.

And that’s not a place that I would wanna be, just because you don’t wanna be a slave to technology that’s gonna change. And also, I believe it’s gonna slow you down a bit. So you want to at least play the scales that you teach with. And that you work with.

And to do that effectively, you need to know how to play in 12 keys. And there’s a little formula for figuring out a key, the major keys. Whatever note that you start on, the formula is a whole step, a whole step, a half step, a whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. And that will give you, if I go whole step, another whole step, a half step, a whole step, a whole step, a whole step, and another half step. That gives me the major scale.

And any starting point, if you use that formula. A whole step is two half steps. I know some, in Europe it’s semitone. Same thing. I don’t know what two semitones are. Whole tone? Semitone, whole tone. So we have half steps and whole steps here in the U.S. You can utilize that to figure out the keys, and I would encourage you to at least understand that. At least understand how keys work.

I’ve had singers ask me, what key do I sing in? Well, you sing in every key. It’s, you really don’t choose an overall key for your voice. What you do is, individual songs, you can move the key of that song to sit in a certain place in your voice. A perfect example is a man singing a female song, or a female singing a male song. Basically, the male and female voices are about a fourth apart. A woman’s voice tends to lie about a fourth higher than a male voice. Of course, that changes, considering voice types, if you’re dealing with basses or high sopranos. But in a rough, ballpark way.

So if you’re looking at a male song, if you raise it up a fourth, it will sit in about the same place in the female voice that it did in the male voice. So that the chorus goes into that nice, middle, exciting voice. Male songs that sit really high, some of those you don’t really need to move at all. Journey would be one that comes to mind.

But understanding keys is really, really essential. And for voice teachers, even more so. I remember, I knew a teacher who was actually pretty successful getting some big name clientele, but she really couldn’t play piano beyond the scales. And didn’t understand musicianship and keys, and moving keys around. And when you’re starting to get bigger clients, and you’re charging more and more money, I think that’s a skill set that you kinda owe your clients to have.

If you don’t play to the level of accompanying a student, then at least understand musicianship to the point of being able to change keys, being able to make cuts for musical theater auditions, being able to plunk out melodies. Just so you can play along, as the student is singing. Even if you’re not playing a piano accompaniment, just giving them guide tones can be a really good idea.

And if you understand the key, it’s much easier to find those tones. If you’re going to accompany, the good news is, you don’t need to be that great of a player. If you just get some basic grooves under your hands, and you look at the chords. Most sheet music will give you the chord charts above. And that’s basically how I play.

And I’ve even known really good piano players, one teacher in particular, Dean [Kaylen 00:07:57] who started off as a accomplished piano player, and he then became a very successful voice teacher. But amongst voice teachers, he’s one of the kings of piano players. I actually know a few, just amazing piano players who teach voice. But he even said how simply he plays, when he’s accompanying during a voice lesson. Not a performance, but during a voice lesson. He wants his attention on what the voice is doing. So even he plays simplified parts, although his simplified parts are much better than mine.

But I can play enough to teach. And one of the keys is just understanding chords, the chords of the key, and very typical chord changes. Now, if you’re getting into musical theater and things like Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown, well those chords get a little more complicated. But you can even break some of those chords down into simpler constructs, in order to accompany.

If I don’t have the chords with the sheet music, then I can at least play the melody. Or I can figure out a very, very simple accompaniment if I spend a little bit of time with the sheet music. But I can’t sight read right and left hand, full piano music. But if you gimme the chords and a melody line, most songs, I’ll … the basic groove, I’ll be able to clump along. And that’s all I need. I mean, I’m not playing for auditions or recitals. I’m teaching, and I’m able to give the students enough that they can sing the song.

And the reason that I like being able to accompany versus karaoke, and I will use both. But karaoke tracks very often are repetitive, and when you wanna stop and correct something, you have to stop the track. You have to rewind it. You have to hit play again. Oops, I didn’t go back far enough, oh, I went too far back. Now you gotta wait for it to cue up to where it is that you need to come in. Sometimes, the tracks are repetitive. You can’t hear where it is, you’re supposed to come in.

Not that this is the end of the world. But it slows the lesson down. And I really like to try and get maximum benefit to the student during a lesson. And I don’t like to take time going back and forth in a karaoke track.

So what I like to do is, while I’m utilizing the track, if I need to stop and just spot check a section. Maybe go over a line a couple of times, I’m able to then play it. Or at least some reasonable facsimile of it. I know enough about how keys work, what the common chords will tend to be, what the common melody lines will tend to be, that I can usually pluck them out pretty quickly. I don’t have perfect pitch. Even my relative pitch isn’t great. But if you do it enough, you’ll get faster and faster at it, and better and better at it.

So, one of the things that I would encourage you to do, is to learn all 12 keys. And this goes for singers as well. If you can learn to play a certain amount of piano, you’re gonna be able to learn your material more quickly. You’re gonna be able to spot check. You basically can become your own teacher, and if you can play the teaching scales, that’s how I learned to play them. Is, as I was studying voice, I would just go to the piano, and I figured these scales out. So that I could stop the lesson, and just focus on certain aspects of it while I played piano.

And it was, it is, remains, very, very helpful. So, singers, I encourage you to do this as well. At the very least, learn all 12 keys. Learn what the patterns look like as you do that formula of the whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half step.

And then, learn the chords of that key. And that’s not as tricky as it sounds. So, if I have the key of C, and I play a C major chord, which is just the one-three-five. If I move that up each step … I get the one chord, the two chord, which in C is D minor. The three chord, which is E minor. The four, which is F. The five, which is G. The six, which is A minor. The seven, which isn’t used very much, is B diminished. I won’t go into that, but it’s basically, it’s a flat third and a flat fifth. Kind of a funky sounding chord that’s usually used in transition. And then, back to C.

If you can understand the one chord, four chord, five chord, you’re playing a lot of songs. If you add the six chord, you’re playing, I would believe, the majority of most pop songs. With those four chords. If you add in the two, man, you’re a long ways there. You will occasionally get chords that come from outside of the key. You’ll often get the seventh degree, will be flattened to a flat seven, outside of the key. And then back in. That tends to be the typical one that comes from outside of the key, is that flat seven.

Otherwise, most pop songs are gonna be in that key. If you can find the root note, and you know how that pattern looks on the piano, and you know how to harmonize that scale, that key the song’s in, you’ll be able to find those chords pretty quickly. The one chord is gonna be the most common. The five chord will be the second most common. The four chord will be the third most common. The six chord will come after that. Or maybe the two chord. The two and the six chord, probably follow.

And that’s basically it. Most music is a construct of that. And then the melody notes will come out of the scale. And as you familiarize yourself with that, you can begin to just grab songs off the internet, and just look at the chords. You can grab song, songbooks, and you can start playing and accompanying yourself very, very quickly. It doesn’t take a lot of work.

So, in order to help you with this, I’ve put together a little video just showing you how to harmonize. How to find your key, what that formula is, what it looks like on the piano, and then how to harmonize that scale so you can find the chords common to that key. And you can start figuring out songs really, really quickly.

And once you start learning to play, you can start composing. You can start getting deeper into music. And teachers, I … You’ll have more fun accompanying your students than just playing karaoke tracks. It really is cool to just get in there, and the student also benefits by having a live musician that they can react to, rather than a static recording that’s gonna be the same every time.

And again, you’ll be able to work more quickly. You’ll be able to change quickly from exercise to exercise, or from one part of a song to another part of the song. Rewind really quickly, focus on one little small element. I highly, highly encourage it.

So, go to the show notes of this episode. That would be John Henny dot com forward slash 64, for Episode 64. And in the show notes, I will have a link to the video showing you how to figure out the key, and how to find the chords within that key. And I trust you will find that helpful.

And I’ll also have, if you go to my website, you can see transcriptions of all these episodes as well. And some people find that very, very helpful, as they don’t always feel like listening to me babble.

Hey, I want to thank you for spending this time with me and for at least being open to increasing your musical ability. And not that you can’t play guitar. My favorite instrument is guitar. I’m a lousy yet happy guitar player. Guitar is a lot of fun, but piano is laid out in such a linear way. Guitar is more abstract. The piano’s just perfect for what it is that we wanna do. And also, it encompasses more range, et cetera.

So, be open to gaining those piano skills. Go check out the show notes, Episode 64. If you want to know more about me, it’s John Henny dot com. You can also see about studying with me. I do like to take on new, interesting students. And if you listen to this podcast, I think that we would get along well. We would work together well.

And if you want to know about my teacher training, you can just click on the link in my menu there. And it will take you to the page, if this is before December 11th. Then, it should be open for registration. If not, it will be open later in 2019.

And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye-bye.