Piano Voicing Melodies – Tips and Tricks
This article is for piano teachers who are helping students voice, or project, a melody against the harmony of a piece. Tips and tricks shared here are beneficial for a wide range of students starting with those who are beginning simple pieces with intervals played along with a predominant melody line, through early advanced students who have a more complex accompaniment.
As a piano teacher, how many times do you hear yourself say, “let’s bring out the melody line,” in a given week? It’s an important point of musicality, but one that can be difficult to explain to students at any variety of levels. The reason is that by the time a student is playing more than just a single line melody, much thought and coordination has to be put into playing several voices at once, and adding the fact that one voice, or note, needs to be louder than the others can prove to be quite confusing! So for fellow teachers, here are some tips and tricks that you can use to help your students “bring out the melody” and enliven the musical texture they create.
Voicing the Melody Starts with Identification
The first step in projecting a melody starts with having a student identify where it is in the piece. This may seem like an obvious point, but it’s worth reviewing with your student to make sure they know which part should be louder than others. Sometimes I find that a student not being able to identify the melody in the first place is the core of the issue with voicing, and can reveal that we need to take a step back in understanding the piece. It’s not always the easier piano pieces that can prove this dilemma for students, either. Many times, it’s the more complicated pieces for more advanced students that have a more difficult melody to uncover.
Once the melody lines are identified throughout a piece and separated from the accompaniment, or harmony, help students by making notes throughout the piece as reminders of what should be projected, and what is considered “background”, or softer.
Getting the Melody “In Your Ear” Through Isolation
Following identification of the melody, I like to practice just the melody line of the piece with the student several times. Depending on the level of the student, bringing in phrase shaping ideas can also be helpful, but the main goal is to help the student focus in on the exact part of the musical texture that should be louder than all the others. Through isolation, the student becomes more familiar with just the melody, and then he or she will know what voice to listen to as the harmony component is reintroduced.
Listening for the Melody Against Other Voices
Once the melody has been clearly identified and practiced in isolation, it’s now time to add in the other voices! I like to start with a listening exercise that involves the student playing all parts together and trying to listen only to the melody line as they play. Encouraging prominent hearing of the melody can cause the student to naturally make it louder. This is not the final step in the process of bringing a melody to the forefront, but it’s a great starting step that gets the student’s ear involved and focused on the most important musical idea.
The Most Difficult Step: Coordination in Making One Hand Louder Than the Other
All the steps thus far are really part of the journey in helping a student execute the most difficult task in voicing a melody: making one hand (or part of the hand for more complex pieces that have an accompaniment and melodic figure simultaneously in one hand) louder than the other. This involves a “deeper” touch and a quicker attack for the melody line, and a slower attack for the harmony figure. It really surmounts to doing two completely opposite movements.
I like to work with closeness to the keys as the starting point. For the melody, more movement from the fingers and wrist will help in projection of the melody line, while the other hand playing the accompaniment should stay close to the keys with less movement. Sometimes, I even like to try playing one part while the student plays the other back and forth a few times before combining the two to solidify the difference in touch.
Though this step can be difficult at first, simple repetition and reinforcement of the movements and sounds that need to change can make all the difference. Sometimes a student is unaware that they are not balancing their coordination of quick and soft attacks in the best way, or even aware that the melody is not being clearly heard. Pointing out these differences make a student sensitive to the sound they are trying to achieve.
Final Tips: Recordings and Exaggeration
Recordings are one of my favorite tools in helping a student understand their sound. In the moment of playing, many students are not acutely aware of what sound they are producing, and in voicing, this tool is excellent. Simply record your student playing a piece where the melody needs to be voiced, and listen together. If it can’t be heard by the student, he or she will see how much more projection is needed to cut through the musical texture, and even monitor improvement in voicing efforts!
Lastly, I love the art of exaggeration. If a melody isn’t being voiced and you want to affect change, have the student over-do the difference to an extreme amount between the melody and accompaniment. From that point, it’s always easier to minimize the contrast and bring it back to a reasonable difference.
Piano Voicing a melody is not just a difficult task for piano students to learn, it’s also a tough point of musicality to teach. However, with continued development of your student’s ear and steps along the way to emphasize importance of the melody line, you can create this contrast in a very noticeable way!