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.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Making of Steinway L1037 Airs on PBS

For all of you who love and appreciate piano music, you will want to watch Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037. It will be airing on PBS beginning this Monday. You can check your local listings at:

This 1 hour program describes the making of a Steinway concert grand from the selection of the wood for the cabinet and sound board to the finished product found in homes and concert halls throughout the world. Did you know that a Steinway grand is made up of 12,000 parts, takes 12 months to manufacture, and involves countless hours of work by 450 craftsmen to complete the finished product.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of a personal tour of the Steinway factory when one of my adult students was in the process of selecting a Steinway B model for his home. The Steinway B is just under 7 feet long. My student drove us to the original Steinway factory in Astoria, Queens, New York on a quiet morning. We were given a personal tour of the factory by the sales manager and saw pianos in various stages of production. We even saw where the original coal fired furnace was. The building dates from the 1890s. Of course everything is modernized today. We tried a few of the pianos that were still in the factory, and then the sales manager drove us across the bridge to Manhattan where I helped my student choose a beautiful Steinway B for his home.

For more about the program visit:

Friday, September 4, 2009

Mastering Piano Technique - Clean and Articulate Runs

One thing that I pride myself on is that my students are able to play clean and articulate runs in their performances. By following a logical sequence of pieces with each piece progressively more challenging technically while still within the student’s level, every student can achieve the goal of clean, sparkling, and brilliant runs.

The Sonatinas

Intermediate students can gain practice in performing runs by studying the Clementi and Kuhlau Sonatinas. These Sonatinas are charming, delightful pieces which will give your students a sense of accomplishment and mastery. By studying the Sonatinas, piano students gain mastery of technique without the need to practice boring exercises while furthering their reading, phrasing and interpretive skills. The skills gained through a study of these Sonatinas will ease the student into later study of Sonatas by Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart.

After studying a sequential group of the easy piano classics such as those found in Schumann’s Album for the Young, the delightful pieces in the Anna Magdalena Book of J.S. Bach, and other selections found in some of the excellent early classical piano collections, the student is ready to begin Sonatina in C Major opus 36 #1 by Clementi. The student is introduced to in runs in a 1 or 2 octave range with turns on the 3rd and 4th finger. By introducing gradually more advanced Sonatinas, the student gains proficiency in performing increasingly difficult runs and scale passages.

One of my favorite Sonatinas is the charming Sonatina op. 20 #1 in C Major by Kuhlau. One of the reasons that I am particularly fond of this piece is that it is one of the few Sonatinas with runs in the left hand. Both hands must be equally developed to play the more advanced music to come. I find that when a student can accomplish all three movements of this Sonatina, he or she is can easily make the transition to the Mozart Sonata in C Major, k545.

Mozart Sonata in C Major, k545, First Movement

Many students will experience some difficulty with the runs in this movement. The first set of runs occurs in bars 5 through 10 in the right hand. To master these runs, I have students do the following:

1) First have the student play each run slow, heavy, digging in. Repeat 3 to 5 times with the right hand alone. I usually do the first repetition with the student. I play along emphasizing playing loud, slowly and with evenness of touch. The weight of each finger must be evenly placed. Make sure that the fingers of the hand are rounded similar to grabbing a tennis ball or shaking a hand. Weight must be distributed on the fleshy part of the finger tip, not on the nail. Give special attention to turns. As you make the turn, keep your thumb raised at a 45 degree angle. This will help keep your runs smooth and even. A flat thumb will create a bumpy sound.

2) After the student has practice the run slow, heavy, and digging in, I have the student play the run 3 times in a natural manner. I have the student play the run in tempo and lighter. Sometimes I add a bit of bounce to my own 16th note passages to help gain clarity, evenness, and articulation.

3) If the hand gets tired during the slow, heavy, digging in practice, have the student practice the left hand chords. The better the student knows the accompaniment, the more he or she can concentrate on the more difficult right hand.

4) Students should pay extra attention to accuracy of fingering. Remember that the surest way to mess up the run is to be careless about fingering. With this particular piece, make sure that you hold the eight note that begins each run passage for the correct time. I sometimes have students count 1234 for each beat rather than 1 and to help get perfect timing.

In the development section of this sonata, short runs occur in both the right and left hands. The same practice methods apply. One of the most problematic sections in this piece for students is the runs that occur in the left hand. Again, use these same practice techniques and give special attention to learning the correct fingers. Learning the correct fingering will go a long way in achieving mastery of this difficult section.

Another Exercise to Achieve Smooth and Even Runs

The most difficult part of the run occurs right at the turn. The student can create an exercise practicing just the turns. In fact,the exercise can be called turns or before and afters. Simply play the note before the thumb, the thumb note, and the note occurring after the thumb.

For example, if the fingering or the run or scale looked like this:


Practice the following:

Play the 3-1-2 combination 5 times slowly and then 5 or more additional times gradually increasing the speed. Do the same for the 4-1-2 combination. Be sure to stand your thumb up at a 45 degree angle to create a smooth and even turn.

These exercises are applicable to a wide variety of pieces at various levels of difficulty. E-mail me or leave a comment if you have any questions on how to perform the exercises in this blog. Happy practicing. :-)