As a singer, being able to accompany yourself while writing, practicing and gigging is a huge plus because you don’t have to rely on the band. It has opened a lot of doors for singer-songwriter Brenda Earle Stokes. Brenda has been a closeted singer for four years. She didn’t identify herself with piano at first. But when she started honing her piano skills, it opened up a lot of opportunities for her to showcase her talent. Now, she helps other musicians make money from music by expanding their skills. Tune in to this episode and find your key to earning more as a musician.
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How Learning Piano Skills Can Help Singers And Songwriters Get More Opportunities With Brenda Earle Stokes
I am so happy to be here with Brenda Earle Stokes. We are going to talk about her journey about how she helps musicians make money from music in ways that you haven’t thought of or by expanding some of the skills that can open up whole new markets to you. This is what I’m excited about. This aligns well with some of my stories. We will get into that as well. To start us, Brenda, I would love to know a little bit about your journey in music. You’re a piano player. You’re very multifaceted. I would love to find out how you started, what made you focus on piano and voice and the way it played out in your career.
Thank you. It’s great to be here. I did what I call middle-class piano lessons from the time I was five. That was what we did. Both of my parents played a little bit. I was never super committed to it but when I was in high school, I was in every band. I accompanied the choir. I sang in the choir and played clarinet in the band. I was obsessed with it but piano hadn’t connected with me in that same way until my high school band director played a recording of Oscar Peterson, the jazz pianist. I went, “That’s what I want to do.” As soon as I heard two notes of it, I went, “This is the thing that has been missing.” At that point, I turned all of my attention to becoming the next Oscar Peterson.
I practiced all the time. I ended up moving to Toronto in Canada to do my undergraduate degree, which was at York University. Oscar Peterson was the chancellor of the university. I got to know him a little bit, which was amazing. I had done some singing through high school and elementary school. It was the era of Diana Krall. Everyone kept saying, “You must be a singer.” I wanted to be taken seriously as a pianist. I was a closeted singer. I sang in a closet for four years. I started to sing out after I graduated. I started doing some jazz gigs and recorded my first EP CD around that time. From there, I decided it was time to get out of Dodge. I moved on to a cruise ship for a couple of years doing a sing-along piano bar.
If you want to learn how to be a professional musician, a cruise ship piano bar is the place to figure out an audience and songs. I did all of that for several years. I finally moved to New York to live the jazz dream where I did a Master’s degree in Jazz Piano and Voice at the Manhattan School of Music. Subsequently, I’ve done everything. I’ve 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. I have my online membership of online courses. I’ve done it all.
It’s interesting that you didn’t identify with the piano until you heard the thing. You’re like, “That’s it.” For me, it was like that with the piano too. When I had to play classical pieces, I’m like, “It’s fine. It sounds pretty.” I didn’t get excited about it. What got me excited about piano was accompanying the songs that I wrote or being able to use them to lead worship since I was a church musician. That’s where I was like, “It’s worth it to learn how to play the piano because here’s how I can use it.” Do you find that a lot of musicians are like that? It’s like, “I took lessons for a few years. I have basic skills but I don’t know how to apply these to something that could make me money.”
Make the money or find the engagement, the grip or something to hold on to so that it can make sense. That was my story. I have some form of musical ADHD that I do all the things in music. I’m interested in everything. I was a choral conductor and a church organist. I’ve done all kinds of crazy different stuff and because of that, when I’m working with people, I always stop to say, “Let’s figure out what’s the thing. What’s your Oscar Peterson moment? Let’s give ourselves the peace and the space to figure that out.”
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.
I’m assuming 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 I came into creating these online courses. I have a series called Piano Skills for Singers. I was very active in vocal pedagogy. My singer friends would take me aside and say, “I have to confess. I’m super ashamed of my piano skills. They’re terrible.” I would work with them in secret. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone they came for a lesson. It was under the shroud of night. It was a thing. I was never in any of the piano classes I tested out of them.
What I realized is that what a lot of the colleges are teaching is not serving anyone. It would serve somebody who wants to be a musicology major or a theory person. I don’t know what you do with that. For somebody who wants to be a professional singer, that stuff doesn’t serve you. We need something that is going to be more like, “How do you sit down and play? How do you support what you’re doing?”Singers, you don’t have to marry a piano player. You can be your own person and not feel like you have to rely so heavily on other people to make the music for you. Click To Tweet
“Why do I need to know all of my scales in four octaves?” That’s the thing that I had to do in college.
Why is it Bartók Mikrokosmos come out all the time? I have no idea. Everyone is carrying it around. What in the world are you doing with that or Hanon exercises? What people ended up happening is the story that they start to tell themselves, which is, “I couldn’t do that so I’m not a musician.” It affected me very deeply when I started to connect with so many of my singer friends.
We’re talking about people who tour with major international touring acts. They’re backup singers, featured singers and people who have been nominated for Grammys who 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.
Most of the time, is it that they’re needing to learn because they need to plunk stuff out on the piano that they’re trying to learn how to play or sing? Is it that they want to accompany themselves as a singer?
It’s a bit of everything because unless you’re Adele, you’re doing a bunch of things. A singer needs to have piano skills to be able to do a voice lesson. What is a voice lesson? 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 that you can create a harmonic landscape so you’re not always relying on the pianist or the guitar player in your band.
My joke always with my singers is, “You don’t have to marry a piano player. I want more for you. Let’s find you someone else to be able to be your person and not feel like you have to rely so heavily on other people to make the music for you.” It’s women’s empowerment. It’s singer empowerment. It’s to make singers feel empowered that they’ve got most of what they need in themselves.
That resonates so much with my story. For me, it was more like I couldn’t tour because all my band members had day jobs. I was like, “If I don’t learn how to be a one-woman show, I’m not going anywhere. I’m stuck here in Southern California to be able to do a few gigs on Friday and Saturday nights and maybe Sunday afternoons. That is it. Still, I have 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. I wanted to be like, “I can do this gig. I’m all good.” My struggle was, “How do I play and sing at the same time?” I told myself it was impossible for me, “I can’t do it. I could play and sing.” I can’t do it at the same time. How do you help people to overcome that?
I have a method that I have been working on for many years. I deliberately teach singers how to play. A lot of what it entails is a true mastery of chords, not that you know what they are or you can figure them out but that you can go ping and they’re all there in your hands like Sonic the Hedgehog, the chords. You can tell I’m a boy mom. I’m developing 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.
You’ve got something for a power ballad, a general pop ballad or something that would work for Hello by Adele, Hey Jude by the Beatles or something that works and then another one that works for mid-tempo pop rock. If you’re going to do Rhiannon by Fleetwood Mac, you have something that works for that. That works for every other medium-tempo rock song out there. 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.
This is what I discovered when I was on the cruise ship because I was green when I went out there. I didn’t know anything. People would come up to me and say, “You’ve transcribed the whole record. It sounds exactly like whoever played.” I thought, “That’s interesting because I’m faking it. I’m pulling it out of thin air.” What was I doing? I was playing enough of the hook or whatever the hook is and then all the right chords. I was trying to sing it in a way that sounded as if I’m singing Jon Bon Jovi. It’s got to have that quality to it and then play a groove that comes close. If you do that, everyone is happy.
The groove is where we struggle as pianists because it’s like strumming patterns for guitarists. I tend to arpeggiate the same way all the time. I don’t want all these songs to sound the same.
I’ve compiled a pretty elaborate collection of these. It’s one of the things that I include in all my courses as a starting place. I’ve started creating tutorials for a whole bunch of different songs to show people, “Here’s how you would break something down to make this.” There are a ton of variations of it but a lot of times, most people could get away with it if they had maybe 5 or 6 of these rhythmic grooves and then collected the rest of the identifying material. That would be enough for most people to be pretty satisfied.
Do you think it’s important for singers that are learning piano to know how to transpose or be able to do it on the fly?
I would put that further down the ladder of things that I would want them to be able to do because most keyboards have a button that you can push. I’m all about triage. Let’s stop the bleeding. What do we have to do? What’s the next thing you need to do? I realize how precious people’s time is, not only as freelance musicians. We have to do our social media and send our newsletter out. It’s booking gigs. If you’re going to spend time, transposition would be something useful in some circumstances but for most gigging singers, I don’t think it’s super necessary.
It depends on what you’re doing if you’re working with voice students and you need to be able to change the key because it’s not working for their voice. You can use a keyboard. My problem is I love playing the grand piano. I want to be able to change the key if I want.
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.
It’s all those theory classes that we took.One of the most effective ways to market yourself is to just be a really good musician. Click To Tweet
They don’t teach that there either because it’s in Roman numerals and stuff. You think, “It’s Let It Be. It’s 1-5-6-4 and 1-5-4-1.”
That’s how I think too because of my great theory training. I can think in numbers and relationships, which makes it possible. I want to talk about something that you mentioned that I agree with. You said, “We’re having to be so focused on marketing all the time.” That’s important but 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?
With my experience for years before I got into creating online courses, I didn’t even have a teaching website until a few years ago because I was turning students away all the time. It’s an example because somebody would say, “Why does she keep getting all the solos? What’s her secret?” I was their secret. It’s being the best possible musician and seeking once every year, every six months or every season to stop and say, “Where do I feel the deficiencies are in my playing ability?” Usually, it’s the place that you feel yucky when you have to think about it like people’s rhythm, their sight reading or their piano skills. Flesh those out so that you can be indispensable.
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.
You talk about diversifying your musical background. What do you mean by that? Do you mean playing more instruments? Do you mean different genres?
The genres are a big one. It’s important. It depends on what you’re doing but if you are a voice teacher and you’re classically trained, it’s a great idea for you to expand out, have a breadth of understanding of contemporary styles and know music theater. If you’re a singer-songwriter and you tend to write in one certain vein, it’s a very good idea to branch out wide into what other singer-songwriters do.
I see this, especially in younger singers who are like, “I want to be the next Billie Eilish.” It’s like, “Let’s start with Billie Eilish. We’re going to bounce back to Tori Amos and then listen to Kate Bush.” Have that breadth of understanding because if your inspiration is too current or too narrow, then you’re going to sound like them. It’s going to be a sound-alike situation. If you want to have that breadth of knowledge, you need to do what the masters have done.
I watched the Beatles documentary on Disney Plus. They were talking about all the rock and roll and all the old songs. They were singing old folk songs, music theater songs and such a range of sounds and artists. They knew their music inside and out. Why don’t all of us do that? Why don’t we all try to expand as much as we can within our genre and outside? There’s so much to do. All this stuff is free. You have to listen on Spotify, do a YouTube search and start to gather all your resources.
Especially as a classically trained singer, luckily I was also performing in pop and acapella groups while I was in college, which helped make sure that I didn’t get stuck in that classical vein but it’s easy to not be able to sing pop all of a sudden because you’ve trained your voice in one way. If you diversify this way and you’re learning the different styles and stuff, how do you then jump into suddenly being a performer of that style when you haven’t done it before? What’s the easiest way to break into a new style when you don’t have experience in that area?
A great way to do that is to find someone to mentor you into it. Frequently, this is what I’m doing, especially with my college-age students, adult students or even high school students who are coming in. They have somebody that can walk them through it because that’s why teachers exist. We’re here to simplify the process for you so you don’t have to do all the stuff we had to do to figure it out.
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. They have a million camps out there. They have camps for grownups where you could go and spend a week doing jazz band every day or a rock band program. There are a ton of offerings out there or ways for you to get that knowledge. Sometimes you have to rip the Band-Aid off, put your set of ten songs, invite people over to your house or your backyard, ask your friend who owns the coffee shop if you can do it and do it.
Sometimes you do have to do it. When you can have a house concert with your friends, why not? That’s a good idea.
Livestream it to your Facebook friends. That’s something else we can all do. We all have a Zoom account. Even put a secret YouTube channel up. Hide a YouTube video and send it out to some friends. There are a lot of ways to do these things that don’t require you to pay for a recording studio and have to put a kit together. You can dip your toe in.
Is there anything else you wanted to cover while we’re here as far as why they should be diving into becoming the best musician that they can be and how piano skills can help vocalists?
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.
They always say, “Singers have no rhythm.”
There are a million jokes about singers. Since this is female empowerment, there is a sexist connotation to all of this that a huge majority of singers are women, especially in jazz programs, which is where I came through. The only women in the program sometimes were singers. They were treated as less than. They didn’t have a special dummies class for drummers. There is something to it that’s taking empowerment away from women. There’s a culture of shame around that.
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.
I remember feeling that when I first started playing and singing together. I’m like, “I’m never going to be able to do this.” I wanted to hide behind the other instrumentalists because I knew that I wasn’t good enough. I had to buckle down and do it. I had to schedule a performance, which was my first time playing and singing together. I had to use a crutch. I did on a couple of songs use a backing track and play along but I got through it.
I was like, “I didn’t make that many mistakes. Next time, I’m going to take away the backing track from this song.” Eventually, after a few times, I was able to do it. Sometimes you rip off the Band-Aid but I also had to say that I’m never going to be able to do this if I don’t buckle down and say, “I’m going to practice every day for an hour in front of my kids so there’s somebody paying attention when I make mistakes.” It’s different than when you’re practicing just you.
A year could go by and you could still be feeling the same way. This is something in the Atomic Habits James Clear book. If you spend ten minutes a day, in a week that’s more than an hour. By the end of the year, that’s a ton of hours. You think of ten minutes a day how much further you could be. A year from now, it could be a different story. I’m a big believer in, “Do the thing. You will figure out the details. Find a partner, somebody who can help you or someone who can support you. The worst thing that could happen is that you could learn how to accompany yourself and feel good.”
This has been awesome and so empowering for many of the people reading. How can people connect with you online, on your website and on social media channels?
My website is PianoAndVoiceWithBrenda.com. There is a hub for all the things. I have 200 blog posts on a whole bunch of different resources. I have a lot of free printables and downloads. You can learn about my membership site, The Versatile Musician, which is the online home for all of my tutorials and my Piano Skills for singers’ courses. All of that is there. On there, you can also find my YouTube channel. I have 200-something videos on there. On Instagram, I’m @BrendaEarleStokes. I’m on Facebook somewhere as Brenda Earle Stokes too. I’m around.
This has been so great. Thank you so much. I appreciate you sharing all of your knowledge and experience with our audience.
Thank you so much for having me. This was a fun time.
- Brenda Earle Stokes
- Atomic Habits
- The Versatile Musician
- YouTube – Piano and Voice with Brenda
- @BrendaEarleStokes – Instagram
- Brenda Earle Stokes – Facebook
About Brenda Earle Stokes
Brenda Earle Stokes is a singer, pianist and composer with a passion for education. In addition to an internationally recognized career as a performer and recording artist, Brenda has created a highly successful suite of online courses geared towards empowering singers and music teachers to expand their skills. Brenda is a proud Canadian who resides in New York City with her husband and young soon.