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Opera 101: Vocal Coaching for Non-Pianists

If the thought of accompanying a singer at the piano makes you break out in a cold sweat, then this article is for you!

Compare various scores

For most of the standard repertoire, multiple different piano reductions are available. These fall into three categories. 1) Piano-conductor scores are typically the most complex. Sometimes they even expand out into three or four staves in order to include as many details as possible about the orchestration. Piano-conductor scores are wonderful for conducting (if there’s no orchestral score available), but they leave the non-pianist feeling completely overwhelmed. 2) Other piano reductions are designed for virtuosic pianists who have no problem with complicated runs, big leaps, and dense 10-finger chords. Stay away from these as well. 3) The most useful reductions are designed with the everyday needs of a vocal coach in mind. They show what a coach should play rather than what a virtuoso could play or what the orchestra will play. Shop around and compare the various editions to find one that comes close to matching your skill level.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and talk details. You can apply the tricks presented below to even the most complicated repertoire out there (including Wagner and Strauss), but we will use Fiordiligi’s aria “Come scoglio” from Così fan tutte as an example. Feel free to read this while sitting at the piano.

Here’s how the first page looks in a typical piano-vocal score:

Simplify octaves and ornaments

First things first—ignore the octaves. Playing arpeggios in octaves with both hands can be quite tricky if you are not a pianist. Simple arpeggios with single notes are more than adequate. Piano-vocal scores are full of octaves, especially when the left hand is standing in for the cello-bass section of the orchestra. Simplifying octaves can quickly clear up the texture of a difficult passage and free up brain space for more important matters. While you’re at it, leave out the trills and other ornaments, too. Fancy fingerwork doesn’t contribute to the underlying structure of the music, which is what singers need to hear. You can also end the opening phrase with a single note (instead of a sixth) at the top of the arpeggio to make things even clearer.

Here’s the opening once again with the original version on top and the simplified version below:

Simplify dotted rhythms

Dotted rhythms can easily trip up unschooled fingers, especially in the left hand. I often leave the dotted rhythms to the right hand alone while the left hand plays the basic beat. In this section, you could even leave out the dotted rhythms altogether and play quarter notes in both hands.

Here’s what those two simplified versions look like—right-handed dotting in the top version and no dotting at all in the bottom version:

Add fingerings

Good fingerings can make your life so much easier. There’s nothing more satisfying than an arpeggio that sits so comfortably in the hand that you don’t even have to look down at your fingers while you are playing. There’s nothing wrong with looking at your fingers, of course. The problem is that you can look either at your fingers or at the score. The less time you spend policing your digits, the more time you have to let your eyes absorb the notes on the page. Don’t try to add fingerings everywhere; there’s never enough time for that. Just chose the tricky spots. Starting in the second measure of “Come scoglio,” try adding fingerings for the arpeggio and bracketing the treble-clef notes that you want to play with the left hand instead of the right. Using both hands in this phrase allows you to play a couple measures in one single hand position without adjusting and, ideally, without needing to take your eyes off the score. By the way, if you are a violinist who does not use the thumb, these are piano fingerings with the number 1 representing the thumb, number 2 the index finger, and so on:

Add chord symbols

Adding chord symbols to your music is a great way to help your eyes get the most out of what they are reading. Many opera coaches make a veritable lead sheet out of their vocal scores, which enables them to get through massive amounts of repertoire in a short time frame. Again, don’t label every single chord in the piece. Just choose the most complicated harmonies. That way you don’t get stuck over and over trying to decipher the individual notes of your favorite augmented sixth chord with the double sharps. You can also add chord symbols to passages where you do not intend to play the notes as written. Maybe there is a great swell of scary-looking runs and arpeggios that ends up boiling down to just one single harmony sustained for several measures. Vamping is allowed!

Here’s the phrase starting at measure nine of “Come scoglio” with the original version on top and the version with chord symbols below. Notice that you can also simplify the octaves in the left hand and keep that rogue diminished chord in the same octave as the chord before it to avoid a big leap in the right hand:

It may be easier on your eyes to add the chord symbols in between the staves rather than on top. You may also find that simpler chord symbols are more helpful, leaving out inversions, for example:

Here’s the entire first page of the aria simplified according to these principles. Give it a try at the piano:

And if that version is still too difficult, here is an even simpler version that requires you to play no more than two notes at a time:

These simplified versions may look like a mere skeleton of what Mozart originally composed. And that is precisely the point! The singer needs nothing more than a sketch or a skeleton of the accompaniment in order to sing well in coachings and rehearsals. Leaving out virtuosic flourishes in the piano part helps the singer to focus on singing and you—the conductor—to focus on listening. As long as your simplified version includes clear harmony and steady rhythm, you are good to go. Believe me—I use these tricks every single day at my opera house, and they work.

Good luck on your first coaching session—you can do it!

September 25, 2020


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