“FAKE PIANO” - THE TERRIFYING AND WONDROUS TRUTH BEHIND WHAT PIANISTS ACTUALLY DO AND THINK"

or

"WHY ALL SINGERS NEED A FAKE PIANIST"

by Robert Graham

First of all, I would like to thank all of you who responded to my previous blog post “The Secret Life of An Audition Pianist” or “Tips on How to Ace Your Audition - From the Least-Expected Source”. If you missed it you can find it at my website (www.robertgraham.org/writing), or if you are currently reading this AT my website you can see it directly underneath this blog. I was blown away - not just by the number of people who reached out, but also by the variety of people for whom the piece resonated - and not just pianist and singer/actors. So thanks! You have encouraged me to write more, so you can only blame yourself for what you are about to read! 

This blog is about “fake piano” - in particular as it relates to collaborative pianists. Before I dive in and talk about what fake piano is, I want to, first of all, apologize to all the pianists out there who already engage in this wonderfully creative and little-known or understood practice. I offer this apology because to a certain extent I will be exposing some of your secrets to the wider public. However, I am only doing this because, as I will explain in the article, there are many pianists out there who could benefit from adding a bit of “fake” playing to their bag-of-tricks. It could simultaneously save them from horrible humiliation and also help them improve their collaborative abilities. It is literally a “win-win” for them. And it’s definitely a win for singers too.  

In most cases, I believe playing “fake piano” is an overall positive thing to be able to do and I have a great deal of respect for pianists who can do it well. Likewise, there are many singers who could benefit from their pianist (who they often have never met until they are performing together) being able to “play fake”. So my apology to my fellow pianists is sincere and I hope those pianists who are already “fake experts” will see that my intentions are noble and in the interests of humanity! 

When and where did I first hear the term “fake piano”? It was not that long ago actually - maybe three years ago. I was hanging around in the hallway with two of the staff pianists/vocal coaches at the campus of Sheridan College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning. No-one calls it that by the way - everyone calls it “Sheridan”. Sheridan is in Oakville, which is part of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in Ontario, Canada. It is regarded by most as the premiere tertiary Music Theatre program in Canada (although there are other excellent ones in Canada).  

The staff pianists at Sheridan are simply spectacular. The students have no idea how lucky they are to have them. The senior piano staff have been there for a very long time and they are sublime musicians and wonderful teachers. I was lucky enough to be called out there to sub for one of them every now and then in the eight years I lived in Toronto. I always came home feeling wonderful because a) the talent level of the students was so high and like all pianists, working with amazing talent is one of the things we all yearn for, and indeed live for and b) the teachers (and by “teachers” I mean both the vocal or acting specialists as well as the pianists) were very insightful in the way they approached the students and the repertoire. It was inspiring to see the way they were able to encourage the singers to think differently about what they were singing, and how the teachers were able to incorporate their own experience on stage (and in life) into their critiques. They also allowed, facilitated and invited the students to draw on their own experiences - not to mention the discussion of the context of the songs and how they related to the source musical itself, and how the students might better comprehend, and relate to, that context. It was inspirational to go there and play in that environment.  

Anyway, there I was one day, three years ago, at Sheridan, subbing for one of these awesome pianists. One of my students was late for their coaching, so I poked my head out of my little teaching room to see if I could spot the student - or rather to see if I could see a student who looked like they might be the name on my list, as I have never met them. By chance, two of the senior pianists were talking outside their doors because both of their students had not yet turned up for their assigned coaching either. They knew me (a little) because of my previous gigs subbing there so I joined their conversation. Of all the times I went to Sheridan, it was the only time the three of us were in the same room. I was a little awe-struck but soon we were talking amicably and one of them asked the other how their preparation was going for a big concert they had coming up. From memory, it was a concert where he had to perform classical repertoire, as opposed to the normal musical theatre repertoire he largely played. The pianist answered: “Oh my God, it’s so weird doing a “real” concert as opposed to what I do mostly do here!” I’ve been playing fake piano so long it’s almost like I’ve forgotten how to play real piano!” 

The other pianists nodded knowingly. I too could relate instantly. It literally made me laugh out loud. I had never heard the term “fake piano” before. But I knew straight-away what he was talking about. It was such a brilliant term for what I, and many collaborative pianists, do a lot of the time. And I have been thinking about it ever since. How does one describe this “thing” that we do -  a “thing” that the people we are performing or rehearsing with at the time don’t even necessarily know we are doing? Should I even try to describe it? Who would be interested? Possibly no-one. But now there is a global pandemic happening so if I don’t make an attempt to do it now I never will! 

I play “fake’ piano a lot. I am not ashamed. Usually, the word “fake” has negative connotations. “Fake” watch (cheap). “Fake” flowers (tacky) “Fake” personalities (gross). But, in my view anyway, being someone who plays “fake” piano is (almost always) nothing to be ashamed about. It is a true art. And done well, it is actually a force for good in this world. And that is not “fake’ news!  

How to define “fake piano”. First some background. Let me start by saying that earning your living playing piano is very challenging. It helps if you are a good “all-rounder”. I suspect even the very best “specialist” concert pianists, jazz pianists, or pop keyboardists have found themselves, at some point in their career, struggling to earn a liveable income. Why that is could be the topic for another blog post. If you are not in that top bracket (either because you are not as skilled, or have just been unlucky) and yet you are still trying to earn your living as a “specialist” it is even more difficult.  

There are other pianists who take a different route - they decide to be “all-rounders” or “jack-of-all-trades”. Some make a conscious decision to do this - they genuinely love all kinds of music and want to earn a living playing all kinds of music. Or maybe their need to put bread on the table has forced them to adapt their careers in that way - forced them to turn from their preferred genre and become a jack-of-all-trades just to survive. 

I greatly admire the specialist pianists who are at the top-of-their game in their preferred genre. But I also admire the jack-of-all-trades pianist. Despite the fact that the term “master of none” almost always follows the term “jack-of-all-trades”, I have to say that I have met a very small number of pianists whose ability to play, and yes “master” in a way (whatever that means), a multitude of genres - classical, theatre, jazz, rock, pop, country, etc,  is absolutely mind-blowing. The best ones can not only read music, but they can also sight-read (i.e read music they have never seen before) exceedingly well. They can improvise and jam in a multitude of styles with the best of the best. They are talented enough to be both soloists OR collaborative pianists in any genre. Some can even sing at the same time and some even write their own music. These people are rare! 

I am in awe of these people. When I was younger it used to really bother me that I was not able to play all styles of music like a specialist. But of course, as you get older, you realize that these people are just “next-level” and you go a bit easier on yourself. Or at least I do. There has to be something good about getting older right?  

In my experience, often the best “all-rounder” type of collaborative pianists (meaning, in this case, those who read music) can be found in the Music Theatre realm. Maybe it is because the genre encompasses so many styles. In musicals, you can find elements of opera, pop, jazz, swing, blues, classical -  in fact, every style. It’s a big reason why fans of Musical Theatre love it so much I think. And it’s a perfect place for an “all-rounder” to shine.  

It’s also a perfect place for “fake piano” to thrive. Why? Because a lot of times if you are a music theatre pianist you are constantly being asked to sight-read. You are being asked to play music you may have never seen. Or music you last played thirty years ago. It may be in a masterclass where a renowned singer is critiquing student singers. It may be a rehearsal for a musical where the regular pianist is sick or got a better offer that night. It may be playing for endless auditions. At Sheridan, I would get five minutes with each singer, playing music I had often never seen - maybe 10 or 15 students in a row. Then I would have to immediately play for these students in front of a class of 20 and their teacher, who as I said, was a highly respected singer/actor in the industry. That is living on the edge. Several times I have even been forced to engage in fake piano during an actual live and public performance of a musical, cabaret, or concert. Musicians do this all the time, believe it or not - and not just pianists. 

What all these situations have in common is that there is usually a group of people (sometimes even a lot of people) who are all staring at…...the singer(s). Not at you, mainly because you are either on the side of the stage, or behind the singer, or off-stage, or under the stage, or because the singer is the one getting critiqued - not you (luckily). They will only notice you if you fail. If you bomb. If you “break-down”, musically speaking. It is the ultimate lose-lose situation. This is where the ability to play “fake” piano becomes a necessity. You are forced to play fake-piano or you will die (metaphorically-speaking) Yet, even in these dire situations, fake piano can still be a wondrous thing. 

I keep promising you a definition. I’ll do my best.  But the fact is, as I said, there isn’t an easy way to describe what “fake piano” is. And bear in mind - this whole article is just my opinion. Why is fake piano so hard to define? Because “fake piano” is so many things. Sometimes you are forced to play “fake piano” through necessity as I said. But sometimes you choose to play “fake piano’' because it makes the performance better. Still confused? I can’t blame you. 

Maybe it is easier to first describe what fake piano “isn’t”. Fake piano is not the same as sight-reading. Sight-reading is when a pianist gets given a piece of music and they play it note-for-note, to the best of their ability, as it is written. If they are good at sight-reading they will play well. If they are not good at it they will make mistakes - or in the worst-case scenario - bomb. Both these scenarios are not fake piano.  

Fake piano is also not what a pianist does when they are asked to “solo” over a chord progression in a jazz or pop song. That is “improvising” or “jamming”, or “soloing” etc. Fake piano is not that either. So what is it? 

Wow, this is hard. Okay let’s try this - my personal definition of “fake piano” “Fake piano” is:  

a) Whatever a pianist does to ensure a piece of music does not grind to a halt because they cannot play exactly what is written (for whatever reason) 

b) Whatever a pianist does to add to the written music in order to better showcase the singer’s voice or to make the accompaniment - and thus the entire performance - more compelling. 

c) Whatever a pianist does to subtract from the written music, in order to better suit the singer’s voice or to make the accompaniment- and thus the entire performance - more compelling.  

There you go. That’s the best I can do today to define “fake piano”. As you can see a) is very different from b) and c). This is what I mean when I say that fake piano can be both “terrifying” and “wondrous”. Context is everything!  

Let’s look at a) first. Let’s say you are a pianist and you have been asked to play at a masterclass, or an audition session, a rehearsal for a musical or cabaret, or even (god forbid) an actual performance. Music will not be provided beforehand. There could be many reasons for this: 

1) Because it is a last-minute subbing situation and there is no time to get the music to you. Or technically there is time, but people are too busy.  

2) The person running the masterclass/rehearsal/whatever (let’s call them “Carl”), or the pianist you are subbing for - let’s call them “Joni”)  are confident that you won’t need to practice the music beforehand because they think you are “awesome” and you will be able to sight-read the whole thing. Carl may think this because he works with his regular brilliant pianists all the time (maybe in a music theatre program) and may be unaware that the reason they are brilliant every day is, at least partly, because they practice the music at home a lot. So Carl is under the mistaken impression that ALL pianists can faultlessly play whatever is placed in front of them all the time, so he needn’t provide you with any music. Also 1) may apply to Carl in this situation. 

3) Carl doesn’t even know you are subbing for the gig because Joni didn’t tell them - or did tell him - but Carl forgot about it almost instantly.  

4) Carl and/or Joni are too lazy to get the music to you. Or they just forgot. Or Carl thought Joni would do it - or vice versa.  

5) The people who are performing in the masterclass/rehearsal/whatever have not yet provided the music to Carl or Joni. 

Incidentally, I have to say something: All of these scenarios (except for maybe number 1) involve Carl, Joni, or the singers involved placing you - as the pianist -  in a position that they would probably never accept for themselves: i.e being asked to perform their craft in public, or in front of respected peers, with literally no preparation time. Imagine asking an actor to step into a play that everyone else involved has spent weeks rehearsing, and play their part with a script that they received for the first time when they arrived on set. I’m not an actor but I don’t think that would be fun (unless you like “fake acting’). The reasons why, for time immemorial, people like Carl have placed musicians (particularly pianists) in this position - a position they themselves would avoid like the plague -  is an ongoing mystery to myself and other collaborative pianists. Another potential blog post for sure. 

However, in fairness, and to be very honest, there are a few others reasons why you may find yourself in a “high-risk” sight-reading situation and may have to engage in a bit of “fake piano”: 

6) You are swamped with other work and wouldn’t even have time to practice the music even if you DID have it beforehand.  

7) Being even more honest, you have assessed the situation and decided that with your sight-reading and “fake piano’ skills, you should be able to handle the gig without seeing the music first. You are confident you won’t seriously bomb, and you would rather spend your time preparing for an upcoming gig involving “real” piano which is more important to your career and for which you are running out of time to practice. 

8) Being even MORE honest, you think your skills are sufficiently up-to-snuff to handle it and you have a hot date, or a movie night booked with the family, or an important sporting event to watch, and would rather do that then a) chase people to send the music to you, or b) once you receive the music, “cram-practice” for a masterclass or rehearsal the next day.  

9) Being BRUTALLY honest, you realize that by the time you put in the required practice to play the music at a level that is acceptable to your high standards, you will have earned far less than minimum wage by the time the whole thing is over. All of a sudden that Disney movie is looking pretty good. In other words, sometimes all of this is your own damn fault! (8 and 9 are rare but they DO happen - don’t judge me!) 

Before I go into the specifics of what a pianist is actually “doing” when they are playing fake piano I have to say one more thing: There are some situations where you should NEVER play fake piano. If you find yourself in one of these situations you better start praying: In my view, as a general rule, fake piano is not recommended for classical music, particularly classical music that is being performed in public, or in an exam or masterclass. There is a different standard for classical music and always has been. In classical music playing what is on the page is very important. Improvising or fake-piano is frowned upon big time and quite rightly. That does not mean there is no scope for personal expression in classical music. But as a rule, you need to play the music exactly as Beethoven or Brahms composed it all those years ago. That is what your employer, the other musicians/singers involved, as well as the audience, expects. The only exception is when you are playing for a masterclass or a rehearsal, and you are sight-reading, or have had insufficient time to learn the music. If the other musicians, the conductor, or the audience (if there are people watching the class) are informed of this sad state-of-affairs then they will probably accept a few “slip-ups”, even a couple of “blunders”, and will understand it you engage in some fake piano playing in order to fulfill the first part of my definition, i.e. “ensuring that a piece of music does not grind to a halt because you cannot play what is written”. Most people involved should be understanding in this situation and there is no shame in letting the participants know of your circumstances as a means of explaining why you are not yet completely ready to play it as well as the other performers involved can. Unless of course you were given the music months ago and were too lazy to practice it, in which case you should keep your mouth shut and hope for the best! 

Please try to never find yourself involved in a) a public performance of classical music where you are sight-reading, and/or being forced to play fake piano, and b) no-one knows you are sight-reading. This is one of those “praying” situations - especially if you are the only musician on stage with a singer or group of singers. If you HAVE placed yourself in this situation then you are either very confident with your sight-reading abilities and/or you think your fake-piano skills are so great that you think the other musicians and the audience won’t notice. Either that or someone has either bullied you into this terrible situation. Or you owe someone a huge favour. Or they are paying you tons of money! In my opinion, if you think everything will be fine in this situation you could be fooling yourself. But that’s just my opinion.  

In my experience, there are also some musical theatre songs you should never use fake-piano for when you perform - unless - like above - you are sight-reading them. This is because, in my opinion, the accompaniment is so well written, and is so well-matched to the melody, which is also so well-written, that you just have to play it “as is” and leave it alone. Sondheim is like this, and some of Jason Robert Brown’s music. JRB is not only a great modern music theatre composer but I assume he is also a great pianist. His accompaniments are challenging at times for a pianist, which is why you may need to “fake-piano” it to get by if you are sight-reading or don't know the song well and people are watching you. Also, the melodies are often rhythmically challenging for music theatre singers, who are often not extensively trained in music theory (and thus rhythm) because they are too busy also learning how to dance and act all the time! Because they don’t have the skills or the time to learn the rhythms properly in a JRB song they go on youtube to work out how to sing it by listening to other - often more famous - people sing it. The sad thing is, those more-famous people may also be deficient in musical theory. I have never coached a singer who sings JRB songs with the correct rhythms right from the first coaching.  

By the way, please don’t think I expect singers to sing all songs exactly the way they are written all the time. But I always encourage singers to sing JRB songs exactly the way JRB wrote them. Why? Simply because when the singer sings the melody exactly as written, I believe it sounds better than when they “interpret”. Not to mention the fact that JRB probably wrote it that way for a reason. If the pianist does the same thing it also sounds better than if they “fake” it. The best part: when BOTH are performing JRB “as written” there are so many amazing things that happen: things that leap out of the music, things that mean both the singer AND the pianist establish the groove, musical things that can break your heart when combined with a certain word, things that the music does to highlight the significance of a lyric, or support the growing or changing emotion or narrative arc of the lyric. These are JRB’s “reasons”. I have seen singer’s faces melt when, having been coached to sing a JRB as originally written, they hear for the first time how it is “supposed to sound”. It is often a visceral reaction, and their previous version is almost always immediately discarded. So, no fake piano with JRB. There are other examples of course. 

Back to part a) of my definition. 

a) Whatever a pianist does to ensure a piece of music does not grind to a halt because they cannot play exactly what is written (for whatever reason) 

My worst nightmare as a musician is not being able to play the music - even for a few bars - or for a few seconds…..screwing up - or far worse - grinding to a halt because I literally can’t play the music…... for whatever reason. It could happen in an audition where if I grind to a halt because the music is too hard the result is that the singer’s audition is torpedoed. In a masterclass it could result in all the participants staring at me en mass - often for the first time in the day - with a look on their faces roughly akin to “Oh my God, where on Earth did they find THIS guy?” 

It is horrible when this happens in public for obvious reasons. When I was younger I was once berated publicly on stage by a singer in a bar. I was playing a genre that I was not great at playing. “You can’t play this!” she shrieked. It still sends shivers down my spine when I think of it. 

But it is, in a way, more horrible in a rehearsal where you are either playing with other musicians or singers that you respect, or that you don’t know. If I ever find myself in a situation, in real-time, where I fear I am about to screw-up a passage, a fear compounded by my dread of ever appearing incompetent and also being a perfectionist (drilled into me by a classical upbringing - another potential blog topic), I will do whatever I can to avoid that happening, i.e. I will very quickly revert to “fake piano” playing mode. This is the “terrifying” part of the art of fake piano I mentioned in the title of this article.  

Maybe the tempo suddenly becomes really fast, maybe there are suddenly a million sharps and flats, maybe there are long extended 32nd note passages flying in front of my eyes, maybe the “genre” or “style” of the music changes on a dime, maybe there are lots of “stabby’ funk style rhythms that suddenly appear on front or me with lots of weird rests/notes combinations. In this situation what I really want to do is yell “Okay stop everything! Can you give me 30 seconds/a minute/5 minutes/2 hours to work on this?” But that is not an option. I guess I could say, at least in an audition or masterclass, “Um….stop, please. This is too hard, can you sing something else?” I have never done that because I am too proud but I admire anyone who has done it (I know it has happened.) 

Incidentally, the following story is just one of the many examples of the extreme lengths to which I have gone to avoid public humiliation. I remember once I was playing a day of auditions for a theatre company in Toronto. I was having a great time and feeling very comfortable because they were casting people for a 60’s style musical. I was playing lots of old rock and pop tunes that I had either played before or “knew how they went” (i.e. they were much easier to sight-read). After a long morning we took a lunch break, and having returned from lunch I walked back through the waiting room where there was a solitary young woman there waiting for us all to come back. I was the first one back from lunch. We engaged in some small talk and I happened to ask her what she was going to be singing for her audition. She said, “Oh, I’m singing an Elvis tune”. I immediately felt great about that -  I have played lots of Elvis in my life. No stress. So when I asked her “Oh cool! Which one?”, I was expecting her to say, I don’t know, maybe “Suspicious Minds”, or “Love Me Tender” or something like that. But she didn’t. She said the name of a song I had never heard of (I can’t remember the name now). I suddenly could feel the beginning of a nervy kind of cold and sweaty feeling come over me. I said “Oh, I don’t know that one! Could I see the music?”  

She obliged, I opened the music and all of a sudden I was staring at my worst nightmare. What kind of Elvis song is this? No chord chart - lots of very fast notes, and weird rests/note combinations. Not easy to sight-read at all. I was shocked!  

I had two minutes to spare before she was supposed to start her audition. So I did what any self-respecting audition pianist would do in the situation. I gave the music back to her and headed straight to a place where I knew I had the best chance of being by myself - in this case, the men’s bathroom. Once there, I sat down and googled “Elvis” and the name of the song into my phone and listened fervently. As soon as the song started I instantly relaxed. It was basically a standard 12 bar blues. That’s all I need to know. For some reason the arrangement looked like Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” but it really was a piece of cake - once I heard it. No problem. Crisis averted. There would be some fake piano for this woman’s audition - but not stressful fake piano. I was in control. Thank you, Google.  

So what can I (or you - if you find yourself in this situation) actually do, to avoid stopping everything and asking the singer to sing something else? If you are too proud to do this, then what exactly happens in that moment where you have to flip the switch from playing perfectly sight-readable music to playing fake-piano? The moment you begin clinging on for dear life? My overall advice is to PLAY SOMETHING - ANYTHING! Easier said than done I know. How exactly do you do that when the music is all of a sudden too difficult for you in that moment and the singer’s eyes are boring into you, begging and imploring you not to break-down. Well, here are some practical tips: 

1) Chord charts: Stop reading the written accompaniment and see if there are chord charts in the arrangement. All music theatre songs (and a lot of jazz and pop songs too) have fully fleshed-out treble and bass clef accompaniments (ie standard piano music). But some also have chord-charts on top of the lyrics. These are symbols that  “summarize” the piano part into a general harmonic sense for the whole song. If there are chord charts, and you have the ability to read them (another good reason to be a “jack-of-all-trades) then you can “fake” a section of the song by just reading the chart and following the lyrics the singer is singing. Do this (importantly) in the style or genre they are singing in. Read the charts and tune into the genre, the emotion of the singer, and the intent of the words. And PLAY SOMETHING - ANYTHING! 

2) Look left: What If there are no chord charts, and the music is really wack? I always go to plan B which is: I focus all my attention on my left hand. Why is that? Well, the left hand generally provides the root of the harmonic structure for the song, simply because it is the ‘lower” part of the piano - just like the roots of a tree are found underground. The singer needs the low part of the piano to be reasonably correct because it represents the harmonic “ground” they are walking on. No-one wants the ground under their feet to feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar. If you have survived an earthquake you will know what I mean. If you are playing the left-hand notes correctly (or at least most of them) then the singer will likely have just enough of what they need from you to keep going until the music becomes easier for you to read in its entirety. As an example, if the music calls for your left hand to play a low C,  then at the precise moment there is a generally better than 50% chance you are playing (and the singer is singing) in the key of C. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization but this situation calls for desperate measures! Even if the music at that precise moment is not in the key of C, just play the C note and make an approximate “guestimation” of what is going on in the right hand. This is not a fail-proof method but remember - your job at this moment is not to play everything right - it is to do whatever is necessary to ensure the performance does not break-down. You need to be able to play an approximation of what the singer is used to hearing - until you are able to play what they actually ARE used to hearing. PLAY SOMETHING - ANYTHING! 

3) Waggle your fingers a lot!: If the issue is tricky rhythms - ones that are hard to read correctly at first sight, then you need to play “fake piano rhythms”. Is there a chord chart? If so then read the chart, put your fingers in the shape of that chord, and waggle your fingers in the approximate rhythm you are expected to be playing at that moment - based on what you see in front of you. If what you see in front of you is flying by too fast to read properly then waggle your fingers in a rhythm that you think the song might call for in that precise second. PLAY SOMETHING - ANYTHING! 

4) "Listen to the singer!: This is perhaps the most important suggestion. All of the previous suggestions relate to number 4. Is the singer singing in a blues style, a patter-style, an operatic style, a jazzy swing style, or a rock style? Well, fake-play that way! Follow steps one two and three by all means, but your fake-playing should be in the style or genre of the song - or that part of the song. I know this sounds obvious. You have hopefully played, or at least heard these types of songs before, so do your best to keep going and make it sound like you know what you are doing - by hook or by crook! In your panic do not forget the most important thing - you need to provide something for the singer to sing to. If the singer suddenly goes very soft and light in her tone you should do the same - even if the notes and rhythms you play are not exactly as they are written. If they are suddenly wailing away like Lady Gaga then “dig in” and bang that piano! Take a risk -  don’t wimp out and fail to “support” what the singer is doing because you are too scared to play a wrong note! These are the moments that the term “fake it till you make it” are meant for. Don’t forget - you are a musician - not just someone who reads musical notation! 

5) By all means necessary: By combining all the above tips, or adding a few of your own, do whatever is necessary to avoid the singer holding up their hands, turning to you and saying “What the @$+& are you doing?” Worst-case scenario right there. Especially if Jason Robert-Brown is in the audience. Or your Mom.  

8) Practice: Of course there is always the long-term preventative route. Call me old-fashioned. Practice. Practice sight-reading so there will be less likelihood of you ever having to play unwanted fake piano. Practice playing and reading different types of music for the same reason. Listen to different types of music. Practice reading chord-charts. Practice fake playing music - which is different from sight-reading. Practice sight-reading like you are in an audition or playing in public - i.e do not stop. That is fake-piano playing - the “terrifying” side of it. Hopefully, when it happens in real-life it will be less terrifying because you have practiced. Or it will still be terrifying but you will have done a better job. 

7) Avoidance: If you don’t want to do 1-6, then just do whatever it takes to never be in this situation. This is perfectly do-able, but it means you will miss out on the “wondrous” side of fake piano - the other, magical, side of the coin - the lovely artistic creative side. 

This is the side of the definition I gave earlier. Fake piano is also: 

b) Whatever a pianist does to add to the written music in order to better showcase the singer’s voice, or to make the accompaniment, and thus the entire performance, more compelling 

c) Whatever a pianist does to subtract from the written music, in order to better suit the singer’s voice or to make the accompaniment, and thus the entire performance, more compelling.  

All of the scenarios I have laid out are scenarios where you are not-in-control of the situation and are forced to play fake piano. However fake piano, when you are in control of it, is one of the most beautiful things a collaborative pianist can do. It has provided me with great joy in my life. Playing fake-piano under these circumstances is a wonderful way for you to create a more personal arrangement of a song “on-the-fly” - an arrangement based on the tone and quality of the singer’s voice, or based on the acoustic or atmosphere of the room. It might also be based on how experienced the singer is. If they are inexperienced you can change the accompaniment to provide more support than the music - as written - offers. If they are experienced or supremely talented you could pay “less” of the music, or change the way you play the existing music, in order to let their talent really shine. Your “in-real- time” arrangement might also be one that supports more deeply the intent of the lyrics and the unique way the singer is singing them. The feeling I often get from either adding or subtracting to a song is one of the things I live for, musically speaking. It makes my spirit soar. It also changes me from a practitioner to more of a creator - in real-time. It can also really help a singer and improve the overall performance. 

Of course, there are some that will say “ Wait a minute, you can’t add your own “spin” to this music!” or “You can’t play fake-piano by choice!” Luckily for me, I literally no longer care what those people think. Is that bad? Oh well, life is too short to not make yourself happy when you are playing the piano. Besides, in music theatre particularly, singers are always putting their own spin on songs, so why can’t I? I will soon see by the reaction of the singer or the audience if I have made good artistic choices in the way I play. And I will adjust when asked - or at least make a case in favour of my choices - every time. But this rarely happens. Most people like my fake-piano playing. It is subtle. They may not be able to articulate what is “different” about it, or why they like it, but they will often tell me things like “Ooooh, I liked that!” - which makes me feel great. I am not taking over the song completely. I am just adding or subtracting a little to it. And like I said, if the singer doesn’t like it, I won’t do it anymore. I promise. 

So what do I mean when I say playing fake piano is wonderful “when you are in control of it”? You are “in control” of a song when you can play the notes comfortably - whether you are sight-reading or not. In this situation you are in the delicious position of being able to devote less of your mind to getting the notes right and more of your mind to listening to the singer and interpreting (or slightly altering) the music in front of you to make the singer and the song sound even better. You are giving yourself over to the service of the singer, the composer, and the raison d’etre of the song. Is there anything better than that?  

That is another type of rebuttal to the naysayers. I never play fake piano to make myself sound more amazing. I do it to make either the singer or the song sound more amazing - to have a greater impact on the audience. That’s probably why people rarely have an issue with my fake piano habit. Literally it’s all about the song, the individual singer, and the moment. In my view, a good collaborative pianist will never play exactly the same way for every singer.  

So, adding and subtracting. What can you do to make a song or a singer sound better by either adding things or subtracting things? First, let’s look at subtracting things: 

First of all, sometimes less is more. Get out of the singer’s way! An example: a lot of piano arrangements for songs have a terrible habit of including the melody in the arrangement itself. I don’t know why they do that. Imagine if you have Paul McCartney standing next to your piano (wouldn’t that be nice?) He wants to sing “Hey Jude”. There is a very simple but beautiful see-saw rhythm in F major in the accompaniment for that song. That is all you need. You don’t need your right hand to also play the melody - the same melody that Paul (or anyone) is singing - do you? Why are you doubling the melody? Please stop. Paul sounds better than your right- hand. The melody fits the accompaniment so perfectly. Give the melody to the singer and support the singer by playing the see-saw - not the melody. There are a lot of songs like this - songs where the melody should be sung by the singer (not played by the piano). A good fake pianist will change the arrangement and use both hands to play the accompaniment alone: This is fake-piano by subtraction. It is the easiest way to enhance these songs - and the first thing that sprung to my mind. 

Sometimes though the melody is in the top part of the right hand, but there is also harmony or chordal notes in the lower notes of the right hand - and also the left hand. Think of a solo rendition of a national anthem, or a well-known hymn like “Amazing Grace” as an easy example. If you are playing it as a piano solo (with no singer) then you would play it “as written” - with the top note being the melody. But if you are playing it with a singer - try leaving out the top note of the right-hand part (the melody). It means the singer is no longer competing with the piano melody and their vocal interpretation of the melody “pops” a lot more. Like I said - get out of their way! Unless of course, they are a terrible singer. In that case, you should bang the top part of your right hand out as loudly as possible - for the benefit of the singer, the audience, and wider humanity.  

If a singer is really emoting in a soft, light and ethereal way I sometimes just literally leave notes out of the accompaniment to support that vocal choice. Or I change the octave I am playing the notes in and play them on the higher register of the piano. If you have a look at my music collection you will sometimes see, in some songs, a “reminder note” to myself which reads “Tinkly”. Not a sophisticated word, but it reminds me to do that in that part of the song. Note: I have not written out the exact notes to play in a “tinkly” way, so I may play it differently every time. This has an amazing way of showcasing the singer’s voice and the choices they are making. It can really support the lyrical message of the words too. I even do this when I am playing hymns - to add variety and to support the words - if a certain verse has a softer or gentler lyrical mood. All of a sudden the words become way more impactful because they are being sung with a different musical context behind them. They “pop”. And it gets the attention of the listener - even if the melody has been heard already in the song. 

I also like to drop certain notes from the written chord. This can create a more “open” and “floating” mood - or a feeling of uncertainty and fragility - especially in the higher parts of the piano. Dropping the third of the chord, in particular, provides ambiguity - is it major or minor? And in a lower key leaving out the third can make a rock song sound more menacing and more like a rock guitar. “Open 5ths” are standard fare in the classic rock of the 60’s-90’s (think “Just What I Needed” by the Cars of “Jesse’s Girl” by Rick Springfield) and also suits a lot of the rock/pop songs found in music theatre songs too.  

Now....addition. What can you add to a song that you are “in control of” to better showcase the singer and enhance the performance? Well, lots. It helps if you try to play like you are a whole band, or a whole orchestra, instead of playing “just” as a pianist. 

Often the arrangements of uptempo pop/rock/ jazz songs are pretty minimalist. I am not the greatest jazz or funk player but I like to do things with my left hand. I might imagine that my left hand is actually a bass guitar and play more syncopated rhythms down there to spice up the song and drive the rhythm forward. Maybe I will “push” the beat, or play a 9 going to an 8 to give the bass part a bit of life. Again, as long as it does not detract attention from the singer. The right hand can do the same thing - by mixing up the rhythms. Obviously you don’t want to do this in a classic musical theatre song like “So in Love” from “Kiss Me Kate” or something like that.  

I remember as a teen learning to play Ravel’s “Le Tombeau De Couperin”. I learned it as a solo piano suite but then one day a friend played a recording for me of the same suite arranged for orchestra. It blew my mind. So much color! I never played the piece the “old” way ever again - it changed the way I played it forever. From that point on whenever I played it I was hearing the oboe, the strings - all the instruments in the orchestra as they were featured - not just the piano keys. That was the first time I recognized how much scope there is on the piano for color and variety.   

When I accompany singers I try to imagine the different parts of the song being played by different instruments - orchestral or otherwise. Doing this I can change the way I play the accompaniment - if not the notes themselves  - through my attack on the keys. Or I can add improvised subtle splashes of color - in different registers of the piano -  to help highlight the melody or mood of the lyrics. It is like painting on-the-fly.  

When it comes to rock songs on the piano - it is sometimes hard to approximate a whole rock band on the piano - especially in a song where the drums are an important part. Sometimes all you need to do it is dig in - literally play louder - get to the heart and guts of a song. Some pianists don't like to do this - either because they haven’t played or listened to a lot of rock music - or they just don’t like that genre. Maybe it doesn't suit their personalities or someone in their past frowned on it. But if the singer is really wailing I will pound that piano to keep up and turn myself into a band - as long as the singer is always louder than me. A lot of this depends on the singer, the instrument you are playing, the acoustic of the room, and the proximity of the audience. I will also sometimes drop certain notes, as I mentioned above, to make the performance sound more raw and guttural. 

All these are examples of “fake piano by addition”.  

This blog is now officially too long. But I hope it gives you more insight into the art of fake piano in all its forms - how sometimes it is forced upon a pianist through necessity, or in a perfect world, it is a choice a pianist makes of their own free-will. Yes, it has the power to “save” a performance from going off the rails. But it also can make the musical communication between singer and pianist - and thus with the audience - more glorious in the exact moment in time when it is happening - more intense, more meaningful, and more memorable. What a great thing to be a part of…….. 

Long live fake piano! And long live the fake-makers! 

 

I sincerely hoped you enjoyed reading this blog - I am grateful to you for doing so. Please check out my other blogs here

I would love you to hear some of my songs here

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Thank you so much!

Robert Graham

6 comments

  • Holly
    Holly St. Louis MO
    Robert, Loved the article, thanks! I play “fake” piano all the time, for all of the reasons you mentioned. I’m both a church accompanist and a high school choirs accompanist so there are (usually) not enough hours in the day to really learn all of my music. My fondest (and most terrifying) moment of fake playing happened a number of years ago. I used to accompany a middle school for their concerts only. The teacher would send me the concert music a couple of weeks before the concert, I would learn it, then I would show up early on the night of the concert, we would talk about any ritards, repeats, tempo changes, etc., then we would hit the stage and pretend that we had rehearsed it all a million times. One time early in our partnership (thank God!), I drove to school the day before the concert and actually got to play through the music with the choir. As we’re rehearsing, the teacher says “ok, let’s run through ‘Joyful, Joyful’”. I look thru my packet but don’t see it. I tell her I don’t have it, and she is horrified that she forgot to include it in the packet of music she sent to me. I’m confused at first, then she hands me a copy of the music. It is from the movie Sister Act. I open it and start to sight read, still wondering why she is so upset-then the first “traditional” verse ends, there’s a key change, a significant increase in tempo and HOLY MOSES the song goes from a hymn to a nightmare complete with multiple key changes, intricate syncopated rhythms, jazz voicings (9ths, 11ths and 13ths), double sharps, double flats, the whole nine yards. I had literally one day to work on it and that was not nearly enough to feel comfortable so ENTER THE FAKE PLAYING lol. I’m just grateful that I had 24 hours, because if that had happened in later years there would have been no rehearsal beforehand and I would have had to almost sight read it on stage. 😱 Holly

    Robert,
    Loved the article, thanks! I play “fake”
    piano all the time, for all of the reasons you mentioned. I’m both a church accompanist and a high school choirs accompanist so there are (usually) not enough hours in the day to really learn all of my music.
    My fondest (and most terrifying) moment of fake playing happened a number of years ago. I used to accompany a middle school for their concerts only. The teacher would send me the concert music a couple of weeks before the concert, I would learn it, then I would show up early on the night of the concert, we would talk about any ritards, repeats, tempo changes, etc., then we would hit the stage and pretend that we had rehearsed it all a million times.
    One time early in our partnership (thank God!), I drove to school the day before the concert and actually got to play through the music with the choir. As we’re rehearsing, the teacher says “ok, let’s run through ‘Joyful, Joyful’”. I look thru my packet but don’t see it. I tell her I don’t have it, and she is horrified that she forgot to include it in the packet of music she sent to me. I’m confused at first, then she hands me a copy of the music. It is from the movie Sister Act. I open it and start to sight read, still wondering why she is so upset-then the first “traditional” verse ends, there’s a key change, a significant increase in tempo and HOLY MOSES the song goes from a hymn to a nightmare complete with multiple key changes, intricate syncopated rhythms, jazz voicings (9ths, 11ths and 13ths), double sharps, double flats, the whole nine yards. I had literally one day to work on it and that was not nearly enough to feel comfortable so ENTER THE FAKE PLAYING lol. I’m just grateful that I had 24 hours, because if that had happened in later years there would have been no rehearsal beforehand and I would have had to almost sight read it on stage. 😱

    Holly

  • Robert Graham
    Robert Graham Perth, Australia
    Wow, Holly. Listening to your story I could feel my stomach tightening into a knot - and I wasn't even there! I have had similar experiences. I often wish I could wear a hat in those situations - with a big shiny screen flashing above my head with the words: "I haven't been given enough time to learn this music - AND IT'S NOT MY FAULT! ". It is almost the case that the other performers, and certainly not the audience, are even aware of the circumstances under which we are asked to perform sometimes. A lose-lose situation, as I said in my blog. This is why I admire collaborative pianists so much! Thanks for reading Holly. I hope all is going ok for you in St Louis.

    Wow, Holly. Listening to your story I could feel my stomach tightening into a knot - and I wasn't even there! I have had similar experiences. I often wish I could wear a hat in those situations - with a big shiny screen flashing above my head with the words: "I haven't been given enough time to learn this music - AND IT'S NOT MY FAULT! ". It is almost the case that the other performers, and certainly not the audience, are even aware of the circumstances under which we are asked to perform sometimes. A lose-lose situation, as I said in my blog.
    This is why I admire collaborative pianists so much! Thanks for reading Holly. I hope all is going ok for you in St Louis.

  • Jane
    Jane Coolbellup
    Thanks for another entertaining insight into a world I know nothing about! I reckon fake piano is probably really good for keeping your brain in shape, having to think (or maybe NOT think) in a nano-second and keep on going. The only experience I've had that comes not very close is when I have to relief-teach an ESL class and you get handed a text book on the morning with 'they are up to chapter 5', and then you start teaching straight from the book and realise that the book is complete rubbish and it's not going to work. That's when you know it is time to fake teach, and it might be the best lesson you ever taught or it might totally bomb.

    Thanks for another entertaining insight into a world I know nothing about! I reckon fake piano is probably really good for keeping your brain in shape, having to think (or maybe NOT think) in a nano-second and keep on going. The only experience I've had that comes not very close is when I have to relief-teach an ESL class and you get handed a text book on the morning with 'they are up to chapter 5', and then you start teaching straight from the book and realise that the book is complete rubbish and it's not going to work. That's when you know it is time to fake teach, and it might be the best lesson you ever taught or it might totally bomb.

  • Penny Dodd
    Penny Dodd Auckland, NZ
    Thoroughly enjoyed (and identified with) your treatise in the dark art of Fake Piano. It was very encouraging to identify all the component parts and agree with absolutely everything, right down to Le Tombeau de Couperin, and the value of a sneaky google. All the best in these difficult times!

    Thoroughly enjoyed (and identified with) your treatise in the dark art of Fake Piano.
    It was very encouraging to identify all the component parts and agree with absolutely everything, right down to Le Tombeau de Couperin, and the value of a sneaky google.
    All the best in these difficult times!

  • robertgraham.org
    robertgraham.org
    Thanks a lot for reading Penny! All the best to you in NZ!

    Thanks a lot for reading Penny! All the best to you in NZ!

  • mr dias
    mr dias russia
    hi

    hi

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