Singing At Piano Bars

KJ and I had the good fortune to sing at a local piano bar this last week, and I wanted to tell you about this experience, offering some tips as to what is effective the next time you sing at a piano bar. 

1.  Know the actual start time for the piano bar.

This piano bar was advertised as running from 6 to 10pm.  It was our first time and so we thought we better get there early in case there was a sign-in process prior to performance.  We arrived at 5:30, and although the management was nice and let us in, technically the lounge was not open to the public until 6, so it pays to make a call in advance to confirm start times.  This particular piano bar is very casual, and you can simply raise your hand or stand up and go up to the piano when you want to sing, but each piano bar varies in this regard, so find out in advance what the process is.  Also, there was no cover charge to particpate, but be prepared to purchase beverages and/or food from the bar.  Minors were allowed into a certain section of the room until 9:30pm, so keep this in mind if you are presenting early that there could be kids in the audience.

2.  Know what the format is for presenting a song at the piano bar.

We spoke to a friend who had sung at several of the piano bars, and discovered that singers are allowed two songs, one uptempo and one ballad.  This was very helpful to know in advance, in order to select appropriate music and stay within their time frame for each performer.  This piano bar is extremely generous with the singers, in that we get to sing two songs rather than just one, which is apparently customary, so this is a good thing.  You do not want to overstay your welcome at the mic, however, so it’s usually a good idea to keep any patter to a bare minimum.  If you are new to the bar, simply introduce yourself to the audience if the host does not, if you have a show coming up give a quick plug (and always carry your flyers and business cards with you to hand out to interested people after the performance), and if needed a quick (one line) introduction to your first song.  It helps to also know what the vibe is of the room–in other words, is this a high-pressure thing where you are put on the spot, or is it more casual.  In our case, the host and wait staff were very warm, friendly, and very laid back–no pressure whatsoever.  People of differing singing abilities ranging from novice to pros participated, and all were made to feel welcome.  The audience was very gracious with applause and encouragment to the singers, which made for a fun and relaxing experience performing–not a bad thing at all. 

3.  Know the key and the tempo in which you want to sing your song.

I noticed that this took up a great deal of the accompanist’s time, and really was pretty unnecessary if the singers are properly prepared to participate.  You should always, always know what key you sing your songs in, as well as the tempo, and have it written at the top of your sheet music or lead sheets that you give to the accompanist.  I could not believe how many people, who claimed to be singers and wanted to participate, didn’t have a clue what their key was–the mark of an amateur or someone who is unprepared.  Take a piano class, or a voice class, and learn the basics of musicianship if you want to be a good singer.  Many vocalists are too lazy to do this.  This accompaniest was excellent, and he was good enough to allow people to just start singing their songs, and he would come in in the correct key, but you cannot always depend on an accompanist having the ability to do this for you.  Always know your key–if you don’t play piano, work with someone who does.  Buy an inexpensive digital metronome, and determine the exact tempo in which you’d like to sing the song.  Take it with you to the piano bar, and turn it on and get to the right tempo before you go up to sing.  Our accompanist had brought his metronome with him, and when I requested a tempo of 125, he plugged it into his metronome quickly, and confirmed the tempo with me.  Again, not every accompanist is this good, so always be prepared yourself. 

4.  Prepare your music for performance at a piano bar.

 Ideally you will have your music transposed to your correct key–you can hire people to create lead sheets that have the song melody and the chords written in, and this is helpful so that the pianist does not have to sightread and transpose at the same time, and this is most especially important if you are singing a song that is less well known.   If you pick a song that is often done (ie. a standard, show tune, song from Tin Pan Alley or even Vaudeville), the accompanist will likely know it, and can play it off the top of his or her head, but you are taking a chance by doing this on an unusual song they might not know.  As mentioned above, have the key and tempo written in at the top of each chart.  Put your loose pages into plastic sleeves and then place them in a sturdy 3-ring binder, placing them so there are as few page turns as possible–you can always spot an amateur by the loose pages they bring, expecting the pianist to sort things out, or not drop them from the piano while playing.  Take a yellow highlighter and highlight any repeat signs, as well as any fermatas and tempo notes in the music.  You want to make it as easy as possible for the piano player to play the song well for you, so easy page turns and bright spots to catch his or her attention are helpful.

5.  Talking with your accompanist before you begin singing–cover the essentials.

Always be polite and respectful of your accompanist–he or she has a challenging  job in trying to sightread music and make every singer sound good, and they do not need any attitude thrown at them by an unprepared singer.   Bring your music and metronome with you, and perhaps a mic cover if you like, and go over the key and tempo with the accompaniest, and if there is a special style–swing, Latin, etc–that you’d like to perform the song in.  It can be helpful to quietly sing a little bit of the song, so the accompanist can hear the style and the tempo from you.  It is very important to go over the tricky parts of the song with the accompanist, so you are together.  Those would be the introduction to the song, the ending of the song, and any transitions–from chorus to bridge or key changes.  Are you taking a turnaround at the end, or are you repeating a line?  You accompanist needs to know these things, so speak up, and make sure it is clearly delineated in your music.  Ask the accompanist if he or she has any questions, and you are ready to go.

6.  Singing your song–sell it, baby.

It’s always interesting in these situations–you may know some people in the audience, or you may know no one.  Whatever the case, present your song so that it entertains the audience.  You are not there to be nervous, even though if you are like me you will likely feel nerves.  Focus on how you’ve worked up your song, and then present it with the ultimate goal of bringing happiness to the audience by entertaining them.  Never drink water in the middle of your song–it completely breaks the mood you are trying to set.  Stillness is okay–don’t forget that.  There is power in being still on stage.  Play to all sides of the room.  Sing to the size of the room–even if you have a Broadway belt, you may need to tone it back if you are singing to 25 people seated 5 feet away from you in a tiny lounge.  It is impolite to belt in people’s faces, at least I think it is.  I try to make eye contact with individuals when I introduce myself, but only at select moments when I am actually singing.  It can make people nervous and force them to feel like they have to be your scene partner if you look people directly in the face for long periods of time when you are singing.  I pick specific moments of not more than 1-2 seconds so that it heightens the performance of the particular lyrics to look at someone in the front, and again to someone in the back, and then I look in between people, and look just over their heads to the back of the room.  You have to have your subtext going when looking at an audience, or this does not work, so know your acting beats in your songs.  If you do this, people will feel that you are singing to them, and not at them.  Audience members, in the end, are voyeurs in that they want to watch you going through the experience of living and breathing and singing your song, and experience the emotions through you.  They want to watch you, and you have to get used to and comfortable with letting people watch you–this is perhaps one of the hardest things to learn when singing in this environment.  Do be yourself, and not a bad imitation of another performer–sing standards, yes, but sing them in your own way and with your own style, still repecting the music.  When you are done, thank the audience and accompanist, collect your music and quickly sit down, so the next singer can get up to perform.  Always give your best performance, because you never know who might be in the audience who would like to audition or hire you.

If you want to advance in your cabaret song presentation skills, piano bar is a great way to go–highly recommended!

We’d love to hear from you, so leave us a comment–do you sing at piano bars, and what have you learned there in regards to cabaret performance?

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About Athena at McElrath Cabaret

Athena McElrath is an entertainer with a love for theatre and singing. She enjoys delving in the area of historical cabaret, researching the singers and clubs that were in business from before 1920 to the present, in New York and beyond.
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