I have studied classical music for a few years. I have a good understanding of basic harmony and I can play some pieces of acceptable difficulty on the piano (sonatas by Mozart or Beethoven, nocturnes by Chopin, etc...).

But here's the thing: I can't do things like sitting at the piano and start accompanying myself while singing some song that I know (not necessarily song written for piano)... more precisely: I can do it but the result is far from natural and musical... I'm like a robot playing the chords in block form or arpeggios but in a rhythmically trivial way. The result is awful.

This is something I can perfectly do with my guitar (even when it is not my main instrument and I only play it like a hobby). I know it is easier, but I can take my guitar at any moment and if I know the chords, start playing and singing a song that I've never played before and the result is completely nice and musical. I don't start playing chords in blocks at every quarter note like a zombie...

I've just seen this video that can make the point explicitly (if you allow me the comparison... obviously I'm not in the same league as them...). I know this song but I've never played it. I know that I can bring my guitar here and do "exactly" what Ed Sheeran is doing (again, sorry... you know what I mean), but I feel that in order to do what Tim Minchin is doing, I should practice a lot before I achieve it. I know Minchin's part is harder, but I'm a pianist more than a guitarist!

I don't know if it's related (I suppose it is) but I also have problems improvising at the piano (simple things, I'm not talking about improvising jazz). I have the theoretical background to do it, but when sitting in the piano trying to play something is like I'm blocked and need a lot of time to switch between chords. That is, I don't have them in my "muscle memory" as I do on the guitar (again, I know that in the guitar case this is easier... but piano is my main instrument and guitar is not).

Another detail that might be relevant is that I have very poor first sight reading at the piano. The reason for this, I think, is lack of practice. For that I have a pretty strong memory and then, when I start studying a piece, I usually memorize passages of it way before I play them fluidly... hence, I've never felt the real need to play while reading (I know it is not a good habit and I should work on this

Someone could bring me some light on this issue?

Thank you!

  • It is unclear whether you are asking for advice about how to play through changes, advice about how to comp, or advice about how to play while singing. – David Bowling Jan 26 at 17:39
  • You are right. The question was too broad. I was asking for advice about how to play while singing, mainly. – notagoodimproviser Jan 27 at 17:04

While it is not entirely clear what the issue is that you're experiencing, I think you already hit the nail on the head.

The reason for this, I think, is lack of practice.

The more you practice, the less robotic it will feel to play - especially as it relates to improvising.

  • I do not think this deserves downvoting. Fundamentally, to play the sort of "informal" way you are talking about means you simply know the piano so well, possibilities just come to you. Rather like the difference between speaking a language fluently, and knowing "enough" words and grammar. That's basically just a difference made by practice. – Brian Chandler Jan 25 at 9:46

From my experience, this is pretty common. To use myself as an example, I've been playing piano for 26 years and doing theater accompaniment for about a decade. I can sing while playing, but it's hard. On the other hand, I'm a very rudimentary guitarist yet I can play and sing okay. At the very least, singing doesn't hinder my guitar playing much. My hypothesis is that guitar accompaniment takes less brainpower, leaving more brainpower for singing.

On guitar, you can fill a measure with two high-level ideas: a chord shape and a strum pattern. You put the chord shape down and can stop thinking about it, and strum patterns aren't very hard. There's lots of room left to think about singing. Sure, this is basic, but it works fine.

On piano, there's so much more to think about. While there are chord shapes, pianists don't really think about things that way. If you try to approach your chord selection like I described for guitar, you end up playing block chords and it sounds horrible. You have to consider the voicing of every chord and the voice leading of the lines you create. And there are so many voicings to consider, whereas on guitar there's only going to be one or two, depending on where you've decided to camp out on the neck.

Then you have to do something with it during the bar, which is a lot more to think about than a guitar's strum pattern. If you just hit the chord at the top of the bar and then wiggle your fingers around to make an arpeggio, it gets cheesy quick.

In short, guitar accompaniment can be put on autopilot, and it doesn't take much skill to get to that level. Piano has no autopilot.

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