Great love affairs: singers and pianists

Great love affairs: singers and pianists

Jenna Simeonov

Up there on the list of life’s great pairings - like wine & cheese, peanut butter & jelly, and bubble baths & books - is the formidable combination of singer and pianist.

They certainly exist independently, but when singers and pianists are united, they tend to make better musicians of each other. It’s a beautiful sight: a piano of any shape or size, accessorized with the audience-grabbing power of a singer, often nestled in the lovely curve of a Steinway grand, or leaning cavalierly against a cozy upright (or perched atop, for the more coquettish occasions).

They’re such a staple team of the musical world - both onstage and in that ubiquitous pre-stage process of rehearsing and auditioning - that it’s easy to forget that pianists and singers are one of the clearest examples of how opposites do indeed attract.

Singers can make sound that sustains, transforms, and bends. They are what most other instruments strive to become; string players work for years to imitate the natural vibrato of the voice, and good composers know that even the most organic ideas of phrase length and rhythm come from what a singer can do with their lungs.

Pianists, on the other hand, can play more than one note at a time (yes, an exceptional shout-out to Tibetan throat singers is due), and span a range of pitches that trumps most singers’ laryngeal capabilities. The percussive nature of the piano offers rhythm on top of pitch, and the speedy dexterity of our ten fingers can usually surpass even the most blindingly fast coloratura from a singer.

In short, pianists and singers are perfect partners; one brings to the table what the other cannot. There has always been something inherently - perhaps even biologically - affective about the human voice, and that affect extends to the broader concept of being able to sustain a note, to make a sound continue to mean new things. And like most great art or architecture, that meaning must come with context and support, like the piano’s ability to play fuller harmonies and layers of rhythm. The voice gives a focal point to the piano’s symphonic offerings, and the piano builds structure around the voice’s visceral, solo power.

It’s like a really great relationship, romantic or otherwise. There’s common ground in the broad concept of “music,” and the way a singer and pianist each get to that music-making goal are totally different, and both right.

One reason that this whole Schmopera thing started is because its creator, a pianist (and singer under booze-fueled duress), loves singers so damn much. For many pianists, the act of playing seems to make more sense when singers join in. And the love goes both ways; any singer worth their salt will waste no time giving a big, singer-sized nod to their beloved pianists.

So, perhaps we’ve dubbed this Friday “Hug a Singer Day” for the pianists out there, and “Hug a Pianist Day” for the owners of lovely voices. Together, singers and pianists are our favourite example of something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. We figured this clip of Liza Minnelli and Charles Aznavour was apt:

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