Why Every Singer Needs A Pianist BFF
Updated: Nov 6, 2019
I had the undeniable and extremely rare good fortune of meeting my best friend and long-time musical collaborator the very first day of graduate school at Manhattan School of Music. Charles Czarnecki and I sat next to each other on the floor at our dorm's “meet and greet." I soon learned that his room was a few doors down from mine and than he was a classical piano major.
We had to go around the group and identify something in life that annoyed us. Charles said, “I get annoyed when people say expresso rather than espresso.” That was it. Seventeen years later and we are still the closest of friends.
Without Charles, neither my career nor my life would be the same. Our friendship has made plain to me that every singer needs a pianist for a BFF. Here are the top (but by no means the only) reasons why.
Music school doesn’t teach you how to collaborate with other musicians
Much of my career has been spent singing with bands. Yet I had zero, yes zero, experience with this upon graduating with a Masters Degree in Opera. I learned nothing about the nuts and bolts of a band, from a "dirty trombone" to the parts of a drum set. I didn't even know how to count in a band or read charts.
Charles taught me all of these things. And he came with my on my first cruise gig, where he taught me how to conduct, how to communicate with a drummer, and how to snap on beat two. These are essential skills for a singer.
Collaboration between a singer/pianist is like a marriage
Jazz and cabaret legend Marilyn Maye once told me that my relationships with my pianists would be the closest in my life. As usual, she was right. I actually spend more time with pianists in a given month than I do with my husband of eight years. I teach with my pianists, who accompany my students. Pianists also coach me on new material, write arrangements for my gigs, commiserate with me over coffee, attend the opera with me, and occasionally, talk me off a cliff.
It's not an exaggeration to say that Charles taught me how to be ME on stage. He knew me and my voice so intimately that he knew how to encourage me to sing more like myself. My extensive conservatory training did not achieve this, alas. I constantly compared myself to other singers and tried to manipulate my voice to sound more like them. I was unsure of what my “real” or “core” voice was and hadn't yet met anyone who helped me to develop this.
My thinking: “Well, they are successful, so I will just try to sound like them.”
Even worse, I tried to look and act like other singers I admired. On some level, I was trying actually to be them. The problem with copying others, aside from the emotional pain that results from suppressing one's true self: the audience can tell.
Charles would call me out when I was rehearsing a song: “I don't believe you,” “That's not true to you.” I had had many fine teachers, but Charles was the first who recognized my authentic voice and encouraged me to embrace it.
I wrote my first cabaret show, “How To Find True Love On A Cruise Ship” with Charles. That show ultimately became the basis of my career. He wrote every arrangement, coached me on my patter, taught me to sing in styles I was not accustomed to singing, and accompanied me on most of my performances. Simply put, Charles helped me find myself as an artist.
The two of us performed that show both in and beyond New York City; it launched me as a headline artist on all the major cruise ships.
Referrals Of Students and Other Musicians
When I started teaching voice lessons, I of course chose Charles to accompany the lessons. From the beginning of this new venture, Charles was there, encouraging me and helping me become the teacher I am today. On a more practical level, he's been the source of some of my most well-known and successful students. As a Broadway conductor, Charles has a vast network of people I never would have met in the worlds of cabaret or opera.
These musicians have played my shows, written me arrangements, taught classes with me. Charles has also referred me to pianists who can play for me when he cannot. I'm blessed to have several pianists I trust and on whom I can call at the last minute to help me with an audition or to write an arrangement for a new gig.
Charles Produced My First Album
Charles was, of course, in the audience at the opening night of my 2015 show, my first foray into jazz. I sang jazz standards in a jazz style with an experienced jazz trio. Needless to say, I was petrified. After the show, Charles said he thought it was some of my best singing and that the arrangements were among the strongest I'd ever sung. He concluded that this material would make a terrific album.
I was both surprised and puzzled by his response, having no idea what would make for a great album. But he was right. The Johnny Mercer songs told the story of his life as well as my own. Mercer made for a cohesive subject, both stylistically and thematically. Yet again, Charles was responsible for a personal and artistic milestone, my debut album, The Long Way Home: Songs of Johnny Mercer
And who booked the studio, negotiated the rates, hammered out a budget, and ordered lunch? Who else? (Don't worry, I thank him profusely in the liner notes.)
I've Been Hired For Many, Many Gigs
This is self-explanatory. Gigs are good.
So there you are. Find yourself a pianist BFF. They are everywhere. They are crucial parts of your career, just as important as your romantic partners, your teachers, and your other close friends.
If you’re really lucky, you may find yourself a BFF as special as Charles.
I believe in you,
P.S. If you’re in music school, go to the piano recitals or knock on some practice room doors. If you’re not, talk to the pianists at your voice lessons, your studio classes, and/or your performance classes. Join Facebook groups like “Accompanist Connection.” Pay them for their time---and always bring them coffee!