Leading the Pianist – How?

Perhaps the most important matter a singer needs to think about when going for an audition, preparing for a recital, singing in masterclasses, or just singing in general, “how to lead the pianist” remains one of those very-important-but-not-very-much-discussed topics. Before all, what do we mean by “leading” the pianist? To “lead” as a singer, it means to own and take charge of the music and be the primary driving force of the music you sing. There are many instances (especially in an audition setting) that one has to sing with the chief répétiteur or even the music director on the piano. Whilst respecting them for their authority, one has to know how to lead when performing to put oneself in an optimal situation to perform. Below, we will discuss on four main tools a singer can use to lead the pianist: tempo, rhythm, text and voice.


Yes, we always talk about tempo, because it is the fundamental thing that defines the movement or non-movement of the music. It is an important factor to agree between the singer and pianist before performing a music – very important for the pianist, since most music start with an introduction on the piano. So, singers have to treat it seriously when asked what tempo do they take a music. Always inform by singing your own melody (in the tempo you want!). Never sing the piano introduction – unless it is in a complete different tempo from when you come in and we want to know how it goes. The main reason being that you will always know how your melody better, and any good pianist is capable of knowing what the tempo is from just you singing 2 bars of your melody. There are also situations where pianists don’t ask for your tempo because they know how the music goes generally, in which one must know how to inform the pianist if you are more comfortable with a faster or slower tempo.

This proves to be quite difficult for many. But one thing should be kept in mind: if you don’t change the tempo to what you want, you are going to struggle – not anyone else! A useful exercise is to use a metronome, set it to a tempo slower or faster than what you normally sing, imagine the introduction playing according to the metronome clicks, and come in with your own tempo without turning off the metronome. If you can sing a phrase or so without following the “wrong” metronome tempo, you should be alright when doing it with a pianist – for which the pianist will be able to adjust the tempo in just two notes from you!


This is actually related to tempo, because taking charge rhythmically naturally means giving a clear indication tempo-wise. There are many instances in a music where singers can use the rhythm to lead the pianist. Take an example of Faure’s “Green”, by firmly singing “voici des fruit” rhythmically, it gives enough indication of the tempo you wish to sing. In Brahms’ “Von ewiger Liebe”, a firm “kel” of the first word “dunkel” would be sufficient to let the pianist know your tempo.

This is done not only at the beginning of a song, but also at every instance where tempo changes or a ritardando or accelerando is required. The skills of spotting those rhythmic moments and using them to lead the pianist is an essential skill one needs to have in a convincing and authoritative performance.


As the “ambassadors of the text”, singers and pianists perform music written with text as its basis. Therefore a lot of moments in music are based on the usage of text to whether give the music more prominence, less tension, more animation or less movement. The singer who essentially is the one directly pronouncing the texts, needs to have a skill to use the words to lead the pianist. By “using the text” we actually mean the use of consonants. Whether it is a strong words like “orribile” or “schwer” or the less ones like “luft” or “toujours”, there is always opportunities for a singer to use the text to lead the pianist. Any sensitive pianist will follow the text and listen to the pronunciation of them when they collaborate, and therefore the way a singer use the words will change the way a pianist plays. Any good collaborator will enjoy playing with a singer who knows how to use the text beautifully.


Finally and obviously, we talk about leading the pianist with one’s voice. This, in contrast with text, we are talking about the vowels. This is more apparent when a music is written with many long notes or with a slow tempo. When singing this type of music, the way a singer does the line of the word (in the vowels) give a lot of information to the pianist and thus would inform how a pianist should accompany at the moment. This is of course backed by a solid technical foundation to give a clear projecting voice while sounding organic and comfortable.


In conclusion, the skill to lead the pianist as a singer is very important for one who wishes to pursue the highest level of artistry. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the pianists should be the “followers” to singers. Instead, a skilful singer when combined with a sensitive pianist, the collaboration will be exciting, organic and expressive. In an ideal world, we will hope that a singer will have good time to rehearse and discuss music with the pianist and agree to perform with similar interpretation as a duo. However, when that is not possible (which could happen often in a singer’s career), a singer has to understand how to use these four main tools to lead the pianist while performing.

© Apr 2017 Bernard Tan, All Rights Reserved