Voice with Vielka: Teaching Kids To Sing With Confidence

Voice Lessons Without The Piano?

November 03, 2023 Vielka Season 1 Episode 4
Voice Lessons Without The Piano?
Voice with Vielka: Teaching Kids To Sing With Confidence
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Voice with Vielka: Teaching Kids To Sing With Confidence
Voice Lessons Without The Piano?
Nov 03, 2023 Season 1 Episode 4

This episode explores some of the unintentional consequences of using piano in voice lessons and challenges the traditional model of playing for young singers. Keep an open mind as we examine singing lessons without the piano.

Click here for Transpose Browser Extension.

Learn more about Vielka at www.vielka.com and follow us at @voicewithvielka.

Graphic Design by
Jeff Yas
Podcast Music by
Andrew Markus

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

This episode explores some of the unintentional consequences of using piano in voice lessons and challenges the traditional model of playing for young singers. Keep an open mind as we examine singing lessons without the piano.

Click here for Transpose Browser Extension.

Learn more about Vielka at www.vielka.com and follow us at @voicewithvielka.

Graphic Design by
Jeff Yas
Podcast Music by
Andrew Markus

Voice Lessons Without Piano?

[00:00:00] Welcome to Voice with Vielka, the podcast dedicated to the ongoing quest for finding how to best teach kids to sing with confidence. I'm your host Vielka, and I'll share my experiences as a performer, educator, founder, and mother for the last 20 years here in the heart of New York City. Thank you for joining me as I share with you the amazing people, practices, and talking points to help us grow together as singers, educators, entrepreneurs, and human beings.

[00:00:40] How can I teach voice if I don't play piano? Or have a piano? Voice lessons without a piano??? I am so excited to talk about this topic with you today because I've become very passionate about it over time. [00:01:00] So it all began once upon a time when I was standing outside of Steinhardt at NYU and I was asked by my voice teacher for the first time if I was ready to take on my very first voice student. And what entered my head, although I had already been studying voice for about 10 years and was about to finish my master's degree was first panic, feeling like, do I know how to do voice and how to teach voice? And then the second thought that I had was "But I don't play pIano." 

[00:01:37] Now, of course, that's a little bit of an exaggeration in that, you know, I can do scales. I play a little bit of piano, right? I mean, I've been in music for a long time, but I'm definitely a far cry from being a great sight reader or being able to accompany. That's just something that I never got to that level, uh, doing. And it really became this bigger, [00:02:00] bigger question of "am I really not able to teach voice if I don't feel confident about my piano skills?" 

[00:02:07] So, over the years, I developed a lot of rationale as to why voice is actually, in my opinion, better without piano, especially for our younger singers who are just starting out.

[00:02:24] So today we're going to take a look at unintentional and intentional consequences of having piano in voice lessons. So first we're going to take a look at the unintentional consequences that maybe you have not thought about before and I certainly didn't think about for a very long time until I was really in that position of needing to teach, not feeling super confident about my piano skills, and looking for work-arounds, and what the literature said as far as what would be most helpful for my students. 

[00:02:56] So, I was actually reminded of this [00:03:00] just within this past month where I observed a lesson and got to also experience it from the other side. That is, not from being a voice teacher, but from the student perspective. And here's what I saw.

[00:03:11] I'm going to paint the picture for you. As you open the door, you see a voice teacher standing behind a keyboard or piano. And on the other side of that is perhaps a chair or perhaps just some space for you as a singer to come in and stand and be the student. And what I realized is especially when you're just starting and it's It's maybe the first time that you're meeting someone, that it unintentionally sets up what may be perceived as a power dynamic.

[00:03:45] In other words, it's kind of that feeling of walking into somebody's office and they're sitting behind the desk and showing you where to sit down. And you already kind of feel like, or could feel like, am I in trouble? Or this is a bit of a. [00:04:00] You know, it's not equal ground and something that I really want to foster in my own studio and with my teachers is this idea that there are really two experts in the room.

[00:04:11] There's yourself as a voice teacher and voice expert and what you want to share and you have in front of you someone who's an expert in themselves and an expert in being their age in that year, which is totally different than what you will have known as a teacher. So this idea of having a common ground and taking away the piano, keyboard, or maybe it's off to the side and we're just welcoming into a shared space I have found is really effective in helping to build that trust and rapport that we want with our students. 

[00:04:50] The second thing is that a lot of times having that piano playing along with the melody. or the accompaniment, but oftentimes [00:05:00] with the melody, right? So imagine you're learning or teaching a new song to somebody and they don't know how it goes yet.

[00:05:08] And so traditionally, uh, very common, typical way of doing it would be for someone to plunk out the notes of the melody line on the piano and then for the singer to sing back. Or that the teacher is guiding the student to sing while they're playing the piano, sometimes some notes stronger than others if there's a particular note that needs a little extra help.

[00:05:29] And what it does is it sets up the piano as a guide and really as a crutch. So let's take something as basic as a major scale. A major scale is Such an important tool for singers to be able to learn to sing and be able to do it independently in tune so that they can really listen and hear their own voice and understand the little micro tuning that happens once you get familiar with your voice and different ways you can, [00:06:00] you can use it.

[00:06:01] So with that major scale concept or a song, whatever it is you're singing, if the piano is there helping you, especially for beginning singers, naturally they're going to keep an ear on the piano to help them and then it makes it that much harder to pull away from the piano and to be able to just hear their own voice.

[00:06:25] So I really love No piano, no piano and just using, uh, their singer's own voice by itself so they can really hear and get to know their voice. So voice to voice as opposed to piano to voice as a model. 

[00:06:46] And that segues right into modeling.

[00:06:50] Imagine if you were a clarinetist and it would never occur to a clarinetist that you are going to learn how to play [00:07:00] clarinet. by modeling a piano, right? I mean, very different instruments, right? So, unfortunately, we as singers have gotten used to this idea that, oh yes, we should be modeling the piano. But I think it's one of those things that's really unintentional in that it was meant to be a guide, meant to be helpful, and has under the radar become a bit of a model.

[00:07:28] And here's what I mean. I've noticed probably decades later, I don't know what took me so long except to think that it was just so standard that I didn't question it. But what I came to notice is that let's say we're doing stepping and stepping up. So if we have, um, playing C through G and just stepping up on the piano and if you're plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, something like that, right?

[00:07:53] That there is, Of course you can play it more legato, but even the most legato on a piano [00:08:00] is different level of legato and a different mechanism than the voice, right? So as singers, we are able to actually give even more of a legato line, even more of a sliding and smooth connected line through the notes. A piano model is kind of clunking or plunking along and the steps become really prominent, dum, dum, dum, dum. And if you model that as a singer, as a student might, right, uh, they're going to feel that little clunking within the larynx and get that sound.

[00:08:37] That's a little bit more choppy, a little tiny bit of tension, not obvious, super under the radar. And it's still there. So one thing that I've loved about getting away from the piano is that it really allows singers to understand their own instrument, the instrument of voice and how it's actually extremely [00:09:00] different from the piano and that there's really no need for us to do that type of a model from the piano, that it might actually hinder instead of help.

[00:09:13] Next, accompaniment. And I know this was a big one. Well, if there's not a piano, and if we can't play piano, then how are we going to accompany our students? I'll tell you what. This day and age, most of my students would rather use a karaoke track from YouTube that sounds like the accompaniment of the artist of, you know, whatever song they want to sing.

[00:09:38] In other words, most music that our singers are listening to is contemporary commercial music. Uh, it is music that is not just piano only music, right? So it's much more rich and fulfilling to hear the sounds of a full orchestra, or the sounds of a rock band, or the sound of [00:10:00] a guitar, or whatever the instrument is.

[00:10:03] that matches the song that they want to sing and the original way that was set up. Now, of course, I'm not saying that it's not lovely to have piano as accompaniment, I'm just saying that it in no way makes it difficult to not have a piano. And in fact, I think it makes it so much easier.

[00:10:23] And here's what I mean. Rather than having the piano or keyboard play the accompaniment, where, by the way, my teacher focus would then be on the sheet music, on the piano, it would be split, right? I would be... Accompanying and looking at the sheet music and playing the piano as well as listening and maybe sometimes glancing and if I'm really have it down and I'm just at that level, I could just play and be focusing on the student, but let's get honest here.

[00:10:54] You're multitasking and we know that really if we want to be [00:11:00] all in and do our best learning Single focus is the way to go and I want to be singly focused on my student That means I'm watching their whole body head to toe. I'm listening with my ears to their voice I'm noticing the nuances and I don't have to worry about the accompaniment and so I can use my phone, my computer.

[00:11:22] I can have playlists. I can easily pull up YouTube. Oh my gosh, I love, love, love some of the apps that are out there. There's a free browser extension called Transpose that has been amazing. I will put it in the show notes. I mean, everybody should have it because it's just the best thing. You can change the pitch to change the key and you can change the speed, the tempo, so that you put that onto your browser.

[00:11:49] And then if you go to YouTube and play karaoke, you can immediately just with a few clicks, change the key, change the tempo. And it's so satisfying and necessary [00:12:00] for especially our younger singers. So, I mean, just think of that with a few clicks, I can have virtually every song. in the key that I want, as opposed to playing the accompaniment, maybe having to transpose mentally, or get different sheet music.

[00:12:18] There's just so much more to it, right? And having this divided focus. So again, this has been another aspect that I have loved from letting go of the piano and just finding other workarounds. 

[00:12:32] So just a quick review. There's an unintentional power dynamic that can get set up, teacher behind the piano, student on the other side, that there's an unintentional crutch, piano is a crutch, that's really acting Not so much as a guide, but as a crutch, and that's not helping the student get independent with their inner musical thinking and hearing.

[00:12:59] [00:13:00] Third, is that students are able to effectively model the piano, which is not voice, and therefore we can have a little extra tension and a little more clunkiness, staccato to the sound that we really don't need, it's not necessary. Fourth, that there are other ways that we can do accompaniment rather than having our focus go to the piano as teachers.

[00:13:25] rather than to our student and really being able to give our student our full teacher focus, head to toe, eyes and ears, body language, everything says, I'm focused 100 percent on you and your singing. And what a different feeling that is in the room, rather than being behind the piano and looking away from the student.

[00:13:50] So those are some ways that I think we've unintentionally. I've been experiencing piano, and of course, I'm not saying to throw away the [00:14:00] piano, never bring the piano, all of that. I love piano. I love what it can do. I'm just saying, let's be really intentional about it. And I have found that it's so effective.

[00:14:11] when we really pick and choose how we use it. So, when do I bring in piano and how do I intentionally use it? I use it when I really do want a vocal guide, when I have already put in the work of modeling how to sing phrase by phrase, or really, okay, let's sit down and let's actually hear this phrase and then sing it back.

[00:14:37] But it's a tool that's in addition. Rather than, I'm always playing as my student is singing. It's a very different, specific, focused way of using it. The other way, of course, is when there actually is going to be a collaboration between voice and piano, and what it means to collaborate, right? And really work [00:15:00] together as a collaborative pianist.

[00:15:02] And at that point, it's really Much more of a lesson about how do we breathe together, how do we work together, what are the dynamic shifts and all the nuances that can come. And although it's wonderful to plant these seeds in the beginning, I do find that it's just not necessary. It's not a necessary thing.

[00:15:25] And that the many, many wins of working without and away from the piano really outweigh the benefits of working with the piano. For my beginning to, you know, I don't know, five years in kind of singers, right? That most of the time having a track, even having a piano track in the background, I can still get that 100 percent focus.

[00:15:50] And I just want to share with you a story that I had from one of my students. that I felt was such a win was, um, she'd been studying with me for [00:16:00] several years. She was in middle school and she had this aha one day where she was playing the background track to the song, which was super fun, you know, pop song and it really gave you the whole feeling.

[00:16:13] And I was like, okay, do you want to do it with the track? And she said to me, actually, no, I don't want to use the track because I find that I can really hear my voice better when it's not playing. I know that might seem really obvious, but to have a student become aware and recognize and verbalize and prefer that was a tremendous win, right?

[00:16:37] So she's really thinking like a singer, acting like a singer, wanting to really just listen to her voice and feel her voice and focus solely on the voice. Because it's its own instrument, and how we play it is requiring a lot of really, really diligent and careful listening.

[00:16:58] so I invite you to [00:17:00] challenge some of the traditional thinking around this topic, and to try it out, try it out for yourself. See what it feels like if you've never done it before. Maybe get some feedback from your student of what felt different this time. What did you notice? And just be open minded when it comes to this.

[00:17:20] I now have over 20 years of making this shift and what I didn't say and I'll share with you now is. When we went online overnight with the pandemic and for all of our online lessons, it really reinforces this idea of taking turns.

[00:17:38] And when I say using tracks, I also just want to share here that the majority of the time I'm working with singers, it's acapella, no accompaniment at all, just working with their voice and then adding in the track a few [00:18:00] times, right? It depends what the needs are of the students and where they're at. But in general, I would say a typical lesson would have me playing the track when they first go to sing their song after we've done our beginning sort of voice training work.

[00:18:16] So then they would sing through their song with the track because I think it gives that really whole rich feeling that's very satisfying as a singer. And I want to keep that love and joy alive. That's always number one. And then. And we will work apart from that we'll be chunking sections, looking at challenging parts and how we can make them easier and then working those, working those.

[00:18:40] And then again, by the end, I love to wrap up with another musical, holistic feeling. And that is where I would add the track back in and then sing it through all the way again. And really that idea of. Starting with the whole song, pulling apart little excerpts. And then pulling it [00:19:00] back into the context of the full song really comes from my Kodai training.

[00:19:04] And this also, was a huge influence on this idea of working away from the piano. Kodály teachers are trained to use a tuning fork and really Just make it all about your voice. And so you get that pitch and then you're able to figure out relative pitch, singing up and down the tone ladders, you know, the scales, um, and just working with the voice, singing so many songs without any other instruments.

[00:19:38] There's so much music to be made just with our voices and so much to be learned by Practicing modeling voice with voice. So, I wish you much luck and joy as you discover the many benefits of having a voice lesson without the piano. 

[00:19:58] [00:20:00] Thank you for joining me for this podcast. To learn more about my step-by-step approach to voice education where I've consolidated 30 years of vocal study into four words, even a three-year-old can do. Just go to www.vielka.com. That's V-I-E-L-K-A.com. Happy singing!

#1 - Piano as Unintentional Power Dynamic
#2 - Piano Crutch vs Pitch Independence
#3 - Piano vs Voice as Vocal Model
#4 - Teacher Focus on Piano vs Student
Review of Unintentional Consequences of the Piano
Intentional Uses of Piano
Turn-Taking and Online Lessons without Piano
Typical Lesson Work Using Tracks
Kodály Approach: Whole-Part-Whole