5 Great Piano Tips From Pianist Vonda Shepard
Piano star Vonda Shepard (best known for her stint on TV’s “Ally McBeal”) as Lucifer’s lover Martha tells us that playing music is physical as well as emotional, so much of my preparation for a show involves readying both of those departments. In addition to the following musical tips, I can’t stress enough the importance of working out four to five days a week. This kind of raw, sweat-inducing activity helps build up your immune system and release endorphins, while also relieving stress and relaxing your voice and body. Here are five more strategies she still use when preparing for a live show.
1. Keep a Routine
In addition to getting in good physical shape, keep a daily routine of warm-up exercises. As a singer, the most effective method I’ve found is to begin by humming scales and arpeggios in the shower for a solid ten minutes—the steam really opens up my voice. Then I move on to the piano to practice scales and arpeggios, singing along using closed vowels like “ee” and “oo” and taking breaks every two minutes. I then very slowly move on to more open vowels like “eh” and “ah.” This kind of consistent practice regimen works both your voice and keyboard skills into shape.
2. Mind Your Set List
I usually begin practicing alone and working out a set list two to three weeks before I start rehearsing with my band. I really need that time to feel which songs I’m most emotionally connected to. This might mean going back to a song from my first album, or playing a completely new song. Your audience can sense the authenticity and conviction, or lack thereof, when you’re playing, so always choose the songs you feel you can infuse with the most soul. That being said, it’s also important to balance your set list with both old and new material. I’ve learned over the years that you can create a “free spot” in your set, where you can play a new song right after a familiar one.
3. Hit the Stage Relaxed
Your show day really begins the night before, so make sure to get some sleep. I usually follow a morning routine of having coffee and breakfast, writing in my journal, and then hitting the gym. But if I’m exhausted from being on the road, I don’t hesitate for a second to put earplugs in and take a nap. Then I do a thorough warm-up before sound check with the band. I schedule dinner for three hours before the show so that I’ll feel physically comfortable onstage.
4. Know Your Gear
Whether you play a myriad of electronic instruments or a simple acoustic one, it’s important to find and use the gear that best gets your sound across to your audience. For instance, I’ve designed a very specific technical rider so that no matter where I am in the world, I always sound like myself. These days, I even carry my own piano microphone (the Earthworks PM40T system), which is easy to set up, sounds totally natural, and reduces leakage from outside the piano significantly.
5. Seize the Moment
You don’t have to adhere to your pre-determined set list, stage banter, or choreography. Being spontaneous and open onstage is a gift to both your audience and yourself—though it’s always good to have a few funny lines and a couple of great stories in your arsenal to break the ice. When I used to play keyboards and sing with Al Jarreau in the 1980s, I learned so much from watching him try out a new rhythmic pattern with his voice in front of 16,000 people. He allowed himself to be in the moment, where the magic truly is. Now when I’m singing a song, I try to sink deeply into it. I push away distracting thoughts and really dig in, even if I’ve played that song 5,000 times.
Known the world over pianist Vonda Shepard has played keyboards and sung with Rickie Lee Jones, Al Jarreau, and Jackson Browne; sold over 12 million albums; and won two Golden Globes and two Emmy Awards. Find out more at vondashepard.com.