Teaching Voicing

This is not an easy skill to acquire, and alas, it is even more difficult to teach. Voicing is playing some fingers of the hand a different volume than the others. (What the other hand does is quite immaterial. This is a "local problem"!) Voicing is usually needed when the hand has a melody note in addition to accompaniment notes. The melody note can occur simultaneously with accompaniment notes (as in a chord), or it can be separate (which is easier to do and which should be taught first!).

First I'll tell you the methods that I discarded, but you may like one of them better than the method I'll present below, and you might need one of these as a back-up approach for some students. Remember that each student learns differently!

The first method is to play the melody note ever so slightly ahead of all the accompaniment notes.

Another is to hold the melody note finger higher than the rest so that more momentum is developed as the fingers fall toward the keyboard.

Another is sort of the "Prof. Hill Think Method," wherein the player concentrates on playing the melody note louder than the other notes in the hand.

I had a very low rate of success with all three of these methods combined, so I devised something else. Here it is:

There are 6 steps:

Note: in step 5, if you prefer not to use the piece of literature the student is presently studying, choose something else (perhaps easier) that has the the melody completely in the top voice. If you prefer, use a string of parallel thirds. Use this fingering so you can get four note groups for the exercise: 1-2, 1-3, 2-4, and 3-5.

This is not the work of a week or two! Encourage your student to be patient with herself. If she has worked through technical problems before with you, she will have confidence that if she works systematically and is patient, she will master this challenge, too.

Now do the same thing with the left hand. This may take longer (or not), depending on how dexterous the student is, how long it took to master this skill in the RH, how diligently and slowly the student works at it, etc. Warn your student that the LH may take longer. If this is true, you're right on the money. If it doesn't take longer (or even takes a shorter amount of time), the student has the satisfaction of "beating the odds."

Having given the solution to the problem first, let me tell you about some preliminary steps that ease teaching this knotty skill.

First the student must be able to play forte in one hand and piano in the other. Teach this if your student cannot do it already. Spend a couple of months perfecting this skill before turning to voicing. You don't want to overwhelm your student!

Now turn to some literature where voicing is required but where the note to be emphasized is struck alone (and usually held) and the accompaniment notes in the same hand are struck at another time. Both hands are legato.

The next step is the reverse: the accompaniment note is struck softly first and the melody added forte on top. As above, both hands are legato.

You may wish to devise a little melody or exercise if you can't find anything suitable for the previous two steps. (That's what I did. When time permits I'll put it up here, but I can tell you it's uninspired and strictly utilitarian. You can do better, I'm sure!) 8 measures is plenty.

Burgmüller's "The Clear Stream" (Op. 100 #9) is a good next step. The melody is clearly notated in long notes. True, the melody is in the lower fingers, so either use the accompaniment notes as the melody or soldier on because it's such a cool piece! (I don't have the score under my nose, but I recall there are no problem spots where the melody note must be played simultaneously with accompaniment notes in the same hand. If my memory fails me and there are spots like this, apply the remedies discussed immediately below.)

Then try Stephen Heller's Op. 125 #13. You will have to make some slight changes in the score, and it makes no difference at all in the outcome (unless the student is playing this in competition). Measures 1-16 are clear sailing. In measures 17-18 and again in 21-22, let the LH take the alto notes (LH is up in treble clef, a third from the alto voice). For measures 19-20, omit the alto notes entirely (D, C, B-flat, A). Smooth sailing again in measures 2335. For measure 36 and 40, move the alto note (G) to the LH. Measures 41 to the end are particularly helpful to the student because of the rhythmic writing, but still, it is easy to voice.

Op. 45 #4 is a challenge because now soft and loud notes must be struck simultaneously by the same hand. In addition, there is finger pedaling in the LH.

A different sort of voicing problem is presented in Op. 45 #22. Here the RH must play accompaniment and melody, but the accompaniment notes are "sandwiched" in the LH arpeggio and the LH also has the final melody note of the measure. And for a twist, it has a feminine ending!

The études of Heller are vastly under-used. I suggest you get yourself down to the music store and look at Opera 45, 46, 47, and 125!

The next step in this process - - and one started by Op. 45 #4 - - is bringing out the top note in a chord (if it is the melody, of course!). Lots of examples of that, such as Chopin's "Funeral" Prelude (Op. 28 #7).

Chopin's "Raindrop Prelude" (Op. 28 #15) is a good follow-on.

Mendelssohn's "Venetian Boat Song in G Minor" (Op. 19 #6) is an excellent challenge.

Through all of this, of course, you have interleaved other literature so your student has other technical problems and melodies on which to spend time. (This is another reason teaching voicing takes a while.)

You must constantly ask your students to bring out the melody in their music. They will start rolling their eyes when they know they should have remembered, and then you know you're making progress! It's just that it's a great deal more difficult when the melody does not stand in isolated splendor!

copyright 1998-2003, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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