Topic: Working with a Singer or Pianist  (Read 3960 times)

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Offline Bart Elliott

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Working with a Singer or Pianist
« on: February 09, 2002, 07:13 AM »
Often times it can be difficult working with a female vocalist or a pianist who typically plays solo (without a rhythm section). What has been your experiences in these situations?

I've had similar experiences as Ernie had mentioned on another thread; Female singers who drop beats (even measures) as well as pianists who tend to play a lot of solo piano ... but don't work well with a rhythm section.

As far as the singers go (and this doesn't not mean ALL female singers, but a large percentage), I think it comes from not working with live musicians. If they only practice and sing at home, they tend to have an awful time trying to work with live musicians. The same is true for pianists who tend to do a lot of solo work, playing by themselves. They are not used to working with live musicians ... so they take a LOT of liberties. I think the simple key for these individuals is to work with LIVE MUSICIANS .... and a metronome at home.

Singers who play and instrument tend to have this problem a lot less. I think it's because they are more aware of the music, rhythm and phrasing. Perhaps male singers fall into this catagory because all the male singers I know PLAY AN INSTRUMENT ... not just sing. There are LOT of women who only sing ... so perhaps that's the crux to the matter.

I've also noticed that pianists who sing tend to have better time than the ones that don't sing. I'm referring to solo pianists ... not all pianists.

So, knowing all of this ... what are we supposed to do at the gig when things start to fall apart? What do you do?
I'll add more comments and share what I do later.


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Re: Working with a Singer or Pianist
« Reply #1 on: February 12, 2002, 09:28 AM »
This discussion didn't seem to take off, so I'll give it some attention. :)

I can talk from one perspective: working with a pop singer/songwriter/pianist. (Maybe others can comment on just singers or just solo pianists.) Anyway, she's played solo (piano and singing) most of her life but has only been performing solo in front of audiences regularly for about a year and a half. We've been doing the full band thing for about 6 months.

Two issues come to mind (she visits here every once in a while so I have to phrase this well. ;) )...

First, I think when singer-songwriters play their whole lives solo, they're going to develop their own sense of time, both as writers and as performers. As writers, they will incorporate dramatic pauses to fit the mood of the song. As performers, they will always rely on themselves to drive the music's tempo. Getting together with other musicians can sometimes be difficult at first in getting down that sense of "band" time (and understanding the need to no longer command the time and let the drummer be the engine of that band time). I think this comes through with practice and there's really no need to mention it (IMO) unless it's something that doesn't correct itself.

But the drummer also has to have some give here (reminds me of the "immovable time" thread). There are areas in piano-based music written as a solo artist where there are fluctuations in time that help make the song what it is. As drummers, we can't be so tied to metronomic time and need to adapt to the writer's intentions. I think it's vitally important in piano-based popular music for a drummer to have an awareness of when it's necessary to be fluid.

Second, there's the occasional problem of busy-ness. Solo artists have to fill everything up themselves with melody, harmony, counter-melody, rhythm and dynamics. Then, once in a band context, there is a danger if that "solo" focus is retained. Once in a band situation, the artists should pay special attention to not drive everything. They need to be aware that the guitarist can sometimes handle that additional melodic line, or provide the big chord that helps establish the dynamic element the songwriter is looking for. Similarly the bassist can take on much of what's happening with the left hand on the piano. And everyone needs to lay back when there's a particular drum fill during a transition.

I think this second aspect might be the most tricky. The first item can come through naturally with practice. The second element often needs to involve a conversation when collaborating. Musicians need to tactfully speak up when things are becoming busy, and the songwriter needs to trust others help achieve the desired effect. That way the song takes prominence rather than the execution of it, and the music has the space it needs.


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Re: Working with a Singer or Pianist
« Reply #2 on: February 12, 2002, 09:44 AM »
I have found that with singer/songwriter types, the phrasing is the most common problem, with time(dropping beats, adding beats, etc) a very close second.  It seems like they commonly want to play 11 bar phrases, because they want to let it "breathe", but they don't take in to account how strange 11 feels to the listener.  I have no problem with odd number phrase, or odd time sigs(in fact i have a gig this weekend with a band that has a ton of odd number phrases), but they should be done intenionally.  I think they forget to play for the audience, and would rather play for themselves.  That's great, but if they want to play for people, they should probably play FOR people, ya know?

I think these problems are usually caused by a lack of experience with other musicians.  I also would like to point out that these are my ideas for the majority of the time, not the minority of the time.

Offline Matt Self (Gaddabout)

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Re: Working with a Singer or Pianist
« Reply #3 on: February 12, 2002, 02:49 PM »
My very first experience as a drummer was playing drums in my father's church (he was the preacher and led worship). He was famous for forgetting or changing words, which often led to meter change. We also put together the first known 4/4 version of Amazing Grace, complete with a 16th-note funk groove the bass player and I finally worked out after my father sang the song in that time signature one too many times.

Since nailing the rhythm to the lyrics is quite often counter to what instruments are playing, I don't begrudge singers for occasionally blowing it. What they do is hard enough.

But keyboardists should know better. A keyboardist who *always* plays out there -- especially in a swing or small combo situation -- is a lot like a drummer who plays way too many 32nd notes. At some point or another it detracts from the music. I also think too many keyboardists spend too much time playing with digital musicians and not enough with real-life, interactive musicians. Keyboardists who live and breathe in their personal studios often have the false impression that drummers and bassists live to support a keyboardist's quirky rhythmic phrasings.
Odd meter isn't broken. It doesn't need to be fixed. - David Crigger


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Re: Working with a Singer or Pianist
« Reply #4 on: March 27, 2002, 03:59 PM »
A long time ago I played with a not too serious band that had a keyboard player who tried to play keybass and melody at the same time.  To put it kindly, he struggled with it.  On the other hand, having a keys guy with good timing is wonderful.

As for singers with timing issues, all the ones I ever ran into were amateurs.  Pro level ones usually nail it.  As for female ones, there have been ones I just loved, and then there have been ones I wanted to kill.  Depends on the attitude.


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