Sunday, January 16, 2011

Learning to Bring Out the Melody in Piano Performance Part 1

Learning to Bring Out the Melody in Piano Performance with some tips on tone production Part 1 (Beginner to Intermediate)

To have a truly professional sound in your piano playing, you will want to be able to clearly bring out the melodic line as you perform. Being able to bring out important melodic lines with good tone will add beauty to your playing which will also add to your enjoyment.

This is no easy task, especially for beginners. It takes quite a bit of coordination to be able to produce a louder tone in one hand, whether left or right, and in more advanced pieces to be able to bring out one finger of the hand while striking several keys at one time with the same hand.

To learn this technique, beginning students should choose pieces with a strong and clear melodic line. Always use a light and even touch when practicing the accompaniment. Good examples of this would be an Alberti Bass as found in classical style sonatas and sonatinas. An Alberti bass is simply a broken chord played in a repetitive pattern. An example is the C-G-E-G, C-G-E-G, D-G-F-G, C-G-E-G left hand of the Mozart C Major Sonata K 545. This bass pattern should be played with a light and even touch. At the same time, the strong melodic line must be played with a super legato keeping the fingers close to the keys so as not to produce a harsh tone. For students having trouble achieving an even sound on Alberti bass passages, practicing the bass in chords can help “teach the fingers where to go.” Broken chord Alberti style passages can also be found in right hand passages in more advanced music.

Schumann "Little Song" (Album for the Young)

This delightful piece will satisfy both young and adult beginners. This piece possesses a strong melodic line with clear phrasing. Have the student practice the broken chord left hand with a light and even touch. For students who have technical difficulty achieving the required evenness of touch, have the student practice as an exercise the left hand in 2 note chords for example: C-G, D-G, E-G, F-G, B-G, etc. followed by playing the left hand as quietly and evenly as possible. This also helps with note learning and proper positioning of the fingers. (See my blog post on “Practice in Chords.”

Point out the phrasing in right hand and have the student perform it as legato as possible taking breaths in between each phrase. Explain how a phrase is like a line of poetry or a line in a song with a breath taken before beginning the next line. In our case we will be lifting the finger from the key but not too far. Use a “super legato” where every note is carefully connected. Take advantage of the escape mechanism of the piano by keeping the fingers close to the keys and using a touch and press motion as you connect each finger. Be especially careful of the finger switch on the note E in the second phrase of the piece. Finger switches should be carefully performed. The finger should not leave the feel of the keys as the finger is changed on the same note. This takes advantage of the piano’s escape action to give a connected, legato sound. Explain that there is a high point to each phrase and that generally towards the end of a phrase we taper off and play with a little less sound.

Schumann "The Merry Farmer" (Album for the Young)

This is a favorite of many students. Although a so-called “easy piano classic,” this piece has some complexity. I like to include it in my 3 or 4 pieces that I require students to learn just prior to beginning their study of the Sonatinas. In this piece the melody in the first 8 bars of the piece occurs in the left hand. Have the student work hands alone until each hand is mastered. The left hand melody should be performed louder than the right hand accompaniment since the melody must always be brought out. Be sure that the student carefully connects each note and produces a pleasant tone (see above.) The right hand chords should performed with a light staccato using an up motion of the hand. The correct motion is almost a bounce. Only when each hand is mastered should the student attempt to place both hands together. The student should work slowly to assure the independence of each hand.

The next section of the piece (bars 9 - 14 including the upbeat to bar 9) is more complex. In this case there are melodic lines in both hands. Have the student find the melodic lines. Pay special attention to the held notes in bars 9 - 12. The alto and tenor voices must be played with a light touch and staccato as they are not part of the melody. Have the student practice slowly, exaggerating the held note and staccato as an exercise. Bars 10 and 12 are early examples where the performer has to emphasize the upper note of a 2 or 3 note chord to bring out the melody. This can be accomplished by leaning the weight onto the outer part of the hand.

Schubert Valse Sentimentale

Waltzes can be a fun way to teach this balance between melody and accompaniment. Waltzes also provide beginning and intermediate students with practice using the damper pedal as the pedaling in intermediate level waltzes is usually pretty straight-forward.

The Schubert Waltzes are wonderful teaching pieces for intermediate pianists. One of my favorites is the delightful Valse Sentimentale. The left hand ¾ time accompaniment should be played lightly with a slight emphasis on the downbeat. Make sure that the pedals are clean and not blurred across the bar line. Use a down-up-up motion to achieve the proper sound for the accompaniment. In other words, use a down motion for the note played by the fifth finger and play the 2 chords that follow with an up motion for the 2 chords that follow playing detached and almost staccato.

As before, practice the right hand separately for smoothness. Pay particular attention to the melodic line, held notes, and accents. Always bring out the beginning motif (the melodic line in bars 2 and 3) whether it occurs in the soprano or alto voice. Bars 15 - 17 and bars 21 - 27 contain 2 and 3 note chords in the right hand in which the melodic voice occurs on the top notes of each chord. Although difficult for a second or third year student, demonstrate to the student how the melody appears in the upper voice of the chord and have them lighten up their thumb and throw the weight of the hand onto those outer notes. You almost have to tilt the hand a bit to achieve this balance. Be sure to use good connecting fingering on these right hand chords to achieve a good legato.


Bill Romer said...

For more "play by ear" or non-classical pianists, another suggestion is simply to keep the melody above all the chord tones in the right hand. Of course, learning chord inversions will help with this. For myself, I've found that playing melody lines that are in the middle of other accompaniment tones can be very difficult.

Helene said...

Hi Bill - Thanks for this suggestion. Learning to bring out the melody helps the pianist acquire a professional sound adding to the enjoyment for both pianist and listener. :-)

John said...

Wow, thanks for the assistance. I just found your blog a couple weeks ago, and the content is superb. Will definitely be subscribing!

Larry R. said...

Bill, if you are still following this post I'm interested in learning more about your approach. Mind sharing?

Sayan B said...

Really informative post, I gained a lot of insight that I can pass on to my students. Thanks!