This post first appeared in the November issue of The Piano Bench Magazine.
A few posts ago, I talked about how to identify and isolate a melody line, and I’d like to now expand a little bit on that by talking about how to then bring out that melody line once you’ve found it, something I only very briefly touched on.
A Basic Chord Exercise
To recap on what I said about learning to accent different fingers when the whole hand is playing different notes, I mentioned an exercise from Heinrich Neuhaus’ “The Art of Piano Playing”:
In a similar way, any sort of exercise with chords where you accent one of the notes in the chord will be fine. I recently learnt a rising and diminished seventh exercise. Here’s how it works.
Rising and Falling Diminished 7th Exercise
Basically, you play a rising chromatic set of diminished sevenths, while accenting only a series of three notes each time. For example, you might start on the C. A C diminished seventh chord consists of a C, an E flat, a G flat and a B double flat, or an A, as seen below:
The next chord you’d play is a C# diminished seventh:
And then, you’d go progressively up a chromatic diminished 7th scale, all the way up to B diminished 7th, like this:
In terms of voicing and accenting a specific sequence of notes, for this one, you’d accent A, A sharp and B – this would mean the fifth finger for the first three chords, the third finger for the next three and the second for the next three before the first for the last three. Here it is highlighted:
You then do the exact same thing, but reversed, on the way down.
A basic melody/accompaniment exercise in one hand
Another exercise given in The Art of Piano Playing is the one below, where you bring out the top notes in the first section and the lower notes in the second. This is good for developing experience for when the melody switches positions or hands, and is also a good introduction to highlighting the melody line when it isn’t in a series of chords.
Another thing you could play, if you’re feeling brave, is a few bars of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata where there is a sustained melody floating over the triplet accompaniment. There is no need for the left hand if you’re just playing this as an exercise to practice voicing.
Skim playing sections of the piece
I often did this when I was younger because I had trouble separating the melody from the accompaniment a lot and I found it helped in both an auditory and physical sense. The premise behind skim playing is that although you “play” all the notes, you don’t actually press down on any of the notes that aren’t in the melody line – you just tap the top of the keys.
It takes a lot of getting used to, and is significantly easier if the melody isn’t spread across one hand, but I’ve found that it is useful when combined with a slower tempo. When I get it right though, I find that it helps me not only understand the melody line and clarify what I’m trying to bring out (because it’s the only thing I’m hearing!) but it also helps me differentiate different pressures along the different fingers for different sections of the music.
And if all else fails
Then you really can’t go wrong with a Bach Fugue.
Post edit (3/12):
In promoting this post on Facebook I had the good fortune to come across another exercise suggested by Andrew David Charles Thayer, who says that the best exercise is to play the melody line legato, while playing the accompaniment staccato at very slow speeds.
This works because it inherently teaches finger independence, allowing you to later on implement volume and tone.
Thank you, Andrew!