This episode about piano skills for singers was previously published on the Profitable Musician Show.

Brenda did what she calls middle-class piano lessons from the time she was five. Both of her parents played a bit and she was never super committed to her own playing. In high school, she was in every band. She accompanied the choir, sang in it and played clarinet in the band. It wasn’t until her high school band director played a recording of Oscar Peterson, the jazz pianist, that Brenda realized that was what she wanted to do. At that point, she turned all of her attention to becoming the next Oscar Peterson.

She practiced all the time and ended up moving to Toronto, Canada to study at York University, where Oscar Peterson was chancellor and Brenda got to know him a little bit. She has sung through elementary and high school during the era of Diana Krall. Back then, everyone kept saying she must be a singer, but her goal was to be taken seriously as a pianist, so she was a closeted singer. She started to sing out only after she graduated. She started doing some jazz gigs and recorded her first EP CD around that time. She also moved on to a cruise ship for a couple of years doing a sing-along piano bar.

A cruise ship piano bar is where she learned to figure out an audience and songs. Eventually she moved to New York to live the jazz dream. She took up a Master’s degree in Jazz Piano and Voice at the Manhattan School of Music. Subsequently, Brenda has done everything. She’s recorded a bunch of albums as a band leader, toured, played as a side person, music-directed Broadway musicals, and taught elementary school and high school music. She also has her online membership of online courses.

If somebody wants to have a career in music, there are certain things in general that we want them to be able to do so. We want to cover those bases and make sure that the literacy is there for whatever they plan to pursue. It’s so important for people to get a sense of what’s going to make them excited and want to sit down at the piano or get in front of the microphone every day.

That literacy looks different depending on what you want to do. If you want to play jazz, you need to know how to improvise. If you want to be a side musician with other people, you need to know how to read charts. If you want to be a church musician, you need to know how to read sheet music.

This is also where Brenda came into creating her online courses. She has Piano Skills for Singers. Her singer friends came to her to learn piano skills for singers and she would teach them. She realized back then that what a lot of colleges are teaching are all theory and for people who don’t know what to do with it, it doesn’t serve them.

Some people who tour with major international touring acts, back up singers, featured singers and people who have been nominated for Grammys feel like they’re not good musicians because they don’t feel like they have those skills. It’s because they feel dumb but they weren’t dumb. They were taught stuff that wasn’t helpful.

A singer teaching voice lessons needs to have piano skills for singers. You have to play exercises, teach your student their melody line, play chords or accompany them in a way that makes sense to be able to support and play something that is somewhat inspiring to the person singing but then for you to also be able to accompany yourself while you’re learning songs or if you’re a church musician to be able to hear all the parts, play some of the parts and sing along or if you’re a songwriter to be able to play enough piano skills for singers that you can create a harmonic landscape so you’re not always relying on the pianist or the guitar player in your band.

That was also what I experienced when I had a band and they all had day jobs. I had to make sure that all five of the people in my band can make it. It was super frustrating to me because as the person booking and wanting to get out there and do it, I didn’t want to have to check with anyone.

Over the years, Brenda has deliberately taught singers how to play. A lot of what it entails is a true mastery of chords. She developed a series of rhythmic patterns that work for a wide range of songs. You learn one at a time these simple rhythmic patterns that can approximate different sounds. It’s building up a repertoire of accompaniment strategies that you have available to you. The cherry on top is to put a couple of identifying features for the song. If that’s the guitar line, think of Stairway to Heaven. You have to play that a couple of times and everyone thinks you’re playing a direct transcription of the album. These all came from what Brenda learned while on the cruise ship because she didn’t know anything when she first went out there.

The groove is where singers struggle as pianists because it’s like strumming patterns for guitarists. Brenda has compiled a pretty collaborate collection of these and it’s one of the things that she includes in all her courses as a starting place. Transposing is something you can learn down the ladder of things. Transposition would be something useful in some circumstances but for most gigging singers, it’s not super necessary. If you have a strong enough sense of numerical harmony, then it’s very easy to transpose. Honestly, for most professional pianists like myself, that’s how we’re doing it.

I agree with Brenda that marketing is something we need to focus on. However, one of the most effective ways to market yourself is to be good at being a musician. People will seek you out. I’ve experienced this even now that I’m back in the public. I’m out there performing every week as a church musician, which I hadn’t done for a few years. People start approaching you for all kinds of things. If you’re good at that, they come to you, “Do you do weddings? Do you do funerals? Will you teach my daughter voice lessons?” That all comes out of being a good musician. That’s what you help people do. Can you open people’s eyes to all the income streams that are available to you once you become a great musician?

There are income streams for people, especially singers. Think of things like preschool music classes, music together, teaching voice lessons and running a chorus. There are so many opportunities to play at your local coffee shop or private events. It’s almost an unlimited number of things that you can do in music if you have the skills. If you can go out there as a soloist, you can do anything. There are a lot of opportunities out there.

A great way to do that is to find someone to mentor you into it. Another way is to spend time with other musicians who are in that field. You can hire a guitar player to come and play with you so you can experiment with that. You could find a band in your area and ask to sit in with them. You could go to a jam session or an open mic. There are a ton of offerings out there or ways for you to get that knowledge.

Brenda’s advice to you is this: “For any singers who are reading this of which I’m sure there’s a ton, the way that the shame can be built around the piano stuff especially or the music theory is something that was created by the environment for us, especially if you went to music school. Singers were separated into something else. It was the dumb class or the dummy class. I’m sure we had these experiences. We’re not feeling like we’re as good musicians as the instrumentalists around. This is very pervasive.

What I would say to people is that the shame doesn’t have to be there. It’s something that you can tackle at any point. As long as you’re working with somebody who is respectful of that and has the tools for you, you can get the skills that you need in a reasonable amount of time. You don’t have to feel that way anymore. I’m a believer in mindset work and things like that but a lot of times, Imposter syndrome is a lack of skill. If you can get rid of the Imposter syndrome by fixing whatever thing is making you feel like an imposter, that’s a helpful thing to do in your life.”

You can find Brenda at You can learn about her membership site, The Versatile Musician, which is the online home for all of her tutorials and Piano Skills for singers’ courses. You can also find her YouTube channel. On Instagram, she is @BrendaEarleStokes. She’s on Facebook as Brenda Earle Stokes too.


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