Multitasking is easier for some activities than others. Contrary to how my family would tease me, I’ve always been able to walk and chew gum quite proficiently.
Playing piano and singing well at the same time, however, takes some practice. Both of those activities could require nearly 100% of your focus at times. Obviously, both can’t have your full attention.
I think the key to playing piano and singing well comes down to putting some of your piano playing on automatic. The more you master the technique and technology, the more you can focus on your vocal. (If your vocal isn’t good, no one will really care if your piano playing is good.)
Here are some steps toward making your piano playing and singing both shine.
1. Get on top of your chord inversions.
If you feel comfortable playing some chords in only one position, you will find accompanying your vocal very challenging. You will be forced to jump your hands around more on the piano and distract your singing.
Knowing your inversions to the point where they happen naturally allows you to play smooth chord progressions and support your vocal.
2. Make connections to the song’s key and scale.
I’ve talked a lot about this recently, but it is so helpful. When you have to memorize all the chord names in a progression, “A-minor, F, D-minor-7,” etc., it takes a lot more attention.
When you learn to play chords by the scale numbers they’re built upon, you begin to automatically build connections between the chords. Instead of focusing on chord names, or even their numbers, you begin to hear where you need to go next. Some chords will start to happen automatically without any thought on your part.
3. Add melodies in between vocal lines.
By all means – add melodic riffs in between what you sing. It’s the best way to add interest and rhythm to your piano parts.
However, reserve those melodies for times when you’re not singing, even if that’s only a beat or two. Otherwise, your piano playing will require too much attention – both your own and your audience’s. Holding off on melodic elements until you’re not singing prevents your piano from competing with your vocal.
4. Alter your chords with strong scale notes.
Adding the first and fifth scale notes to chords that don’t already have them is a great technique here. For one, it makes your chords sound stronger. Two, it allows you to keep more notes in common from one chord to the next. That means smoother chord progressions, less focus on jumping around the keyboard, and more mental energy to give toward singing.
5. Get on top of your sounds.
If you are adding sound layers to your primary keyboard sound (and you should!), set them up so you can control them with minimal effort. I add sound layers using Mainstage. I always set them up so I can mix the volume of different layers with MIDI knobs. However, it takes attention to adjust sounds one by one and then assess if I created a good mix or not.
A better approach, when you are also singing, is to preset different mix dynamics by creating separate patches for each dynamic level of a song. I typically set up soft, medium, and loud patches for corresponding parts of each song. That way, I can tap a MIDI drum pad to access the next level of volume instead of turning multiple knobs.
Develop these techniques
Playing piano and singing at the same time definitely takes practice to do well. But using these steps as guidelines will move you toward great performances in less time!