On Keyboards in the A Cappella Rehearsal

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I recently participated in an online conversation about the use of pianos or keyboards in a cappella rehearsals - basically, are they a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? The debate covered the pros and cons pretty much as you’d expect, and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I realised that behind my general que sera sera position on the question lay a more specific, and - to me, more interesting - point.

So the main argument in favour of using a piano is the pragmatic point that we should make use of any available tool that can be useful when helping people make music. Uncomplicated and to the point - not much that needs elaborating there.

The main argument against using them is that they demonstrate poor tuning. Even when a piano is in tune (not to be assumed if you’re rehearsing in a community space - you can get some interestingly honky-tonk specimens out there), the best it can demonstrate is equal temperament. The 5ths will all be slightly flat and the 3rds slightly sharp, and all the semitones will be the same size as each other. It will sound okay if you sing like that, but it will never sound amazing.

(Nice flash-back to my work with Silver Lining in February, when I found myself saying, ‘That would be good enough for a piano, but we’re singers, we can do better than that!’)

My starting position in the debate had been that if there is a keyboard available I may sometimes use it, but most of the time I’m working in spaces that don’t have them and I value the way that has made me develop my musicianship to become largely keyboard-independent. And if other folk choose to use one or not to use one, well that’s their choice <shrug>.

And it was in reflecting on what I might want to use a keyboard for that I found both a caveat to the tuning argument, and an opinion about when *not* to use mechanical aids.

My thinking was this: if a group can sing something accurately enough that a demonstration in equal temperament is going to hold them back, then you don’t need a keyboard. The times when it can be really useful are when the singers are struggling to make sense of how the music fits together. They may holding so tightly to their own note that they can’t hear the chord, in which case giving them the chance to stop singing and simply listen frees up the cognitive space to attend to the whole. Or they may be understanding their note melodically, and trying to make it work in the context of what comes before and after when they need also to be thinking about how it interacts with the other lines.

But you can tell when people just aren’t getting how the music fits together by the way it is significantly less in in-tune than equal temperament. Playing an equally-tempered demonstration in these circumstances can help them get much nearer their goal. And then once they get the general musical shape, you can safely abandon the keyboard and get those 5ths perfect again.

The keyboard here is being used to model what happens when multiple people sing at once, which of course is something a director or coach is generally unable to do. (Let’s all stop to fantasise about Zaphod Beeblebrox as a vocal coach...might be amazing, but there would be hazards too...)

If, however, the thing you want to demonstrate to your singers is something that could be sung by a single human being, then that’s how it should be demonstrated. Sure an accompanist can play the part, and if they are a decent pianist they’ll even overcome the percussive nature of the instrument to make it sound like a line. But even the best pianist can’t model breath, vowel shape or vocal placement on their instrument; it’s built to have other amenities than these.

And if you are labouring under the misapprehension that there are times when you just want to demonstrate only the notes and not how to sing them, then you are insulting your singers and wasting your own rehearsal time. If you’re going to spend time helping people learn the notes, you may as well have them singing them well from the get-go. They’ll enjoy learning them more if they’re demonstrated with full commitment, and they’ll learn them more quickly as they’ll come fully invested with musical sense.

So, executive summary: if a voice can do it, use your voice. If your voice alone can’t do it, consider using a keyboard. But you may not always have a keyboard, so figure out ways to work without one just in case. You may find you end up using these instead of the keyboard half the time anyway.

Hi Liz,
There is an iPad/iPhone app (think it might run on Android too) that enable you to invoke a keyboard that is justly tuned to a given key http://tinyurl.com/qgnqytb

You can plug in an external MIDI keyboard too. The best of both worlds?

Heh, thanks for the heads-up Dyrck!

Not a panacea as there'll still be issues with the practical compromises chromaticism entails, but certainly useful to know about and potentially an excellent awareness-raising tool.

Tuning and acoustics are areas where the overlap between geekery and artistry can be very productive :-)

Well as i'm not much of an artist, I'm happy to be a geek :-)

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