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Hearing voices?: Addressing the subject of balancing voices in pianistic textures.

Accomplished performing musicians must pay close attention to many musical elements simultaneously. One might ask, "Am I observing all the composer's indications in the score?" "Are notes articulated clearly and intelligibly?" "As much as possible, is my interpretation in keeping with accepted stylistic performance practices?" "Am I communicating with the listener on a personal level?" "Am I consistently coaxing the most beautiful, varied, engaging sounds possible from my instrument or voice?" Musicians address such questions and countless others each time they launch into practice sessions, rehearsals or performances. In addition, pianists, whether soloing or collaborating with other musicians, must pay close attention to what commonly is called "voicing" or "balance"; they must bring musical lines of greatest import to the fore while subduing subordinate ones. Mastery of this difficult and often-neglected skill can separate merely good pianists from those who are genuinely exceptional.

Why is voicing so important for pianists? One answer is that, while the modern piano's timbre is the same throughout its entire pitch range, most pianists, for greater tonal variety and coloristic appeal, wish to imitate the timbral diversity of ensembles such as orchestras, choirs or string quartets. But when listening to an orchestra, for instance, one's ears can readily differentiate the timbres of various instruments playing solo lines or similarly important material. The volume levels of supporting lines must be monitored carefully, of course, to avoid drowning out those more important, but composers adept at orchestration often utilize the orchestra's numerous timbres to help highlight significant lines. Pianists must rely more heavily on differing volume levels to distinguish voices. By doing so, however, they can create the illusion of having a wider variety of pianistic "touches" and a breadth of sonorous possibilities matching the broad spectrum of pitches their instrument is capable of producing.

Balancing voices adeptly may positively impact the listener's perception of a pianist's tone production as well. Unlike most instrumentalists, pianists must perform on whatever instrument is made available to them. Some pianos have lovely tones, while some do not, and pianists have very limited control over the tone quality of any one pitch. Those who have mastered how best to play notes relative to one another, however, give the impression of actually drawing more beautiful sounds from the instrument, overcoming, to an extent, the tonal shortcomings that may exist in some pianos. Similarly, the "singing tone" pianists prize is, in part, the result of keeping accompanimental material in its proper place while presenting melodic material with a full, round tone. Theodor Leschetizky, renowned teacher of Ignace Paderewski, Artur Schnabel and countless other great pianists who thrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, described his reaction to a recital given around 1850 in Vienna by Bohemian pianist Julius Schulhoff:
 Under his hands the piano sounded like another instrument.... I began to
 foresee a new style of playing. That melody standing out in bold relief,
 that wonderful sonority--all this must be due to a new and entirely
 different touch. And that cantabile ... a human voice rising above the
 sustaining harmonies! I could hear the shepherd sing, and see him. (1)

It seems clear the young Leschetizky's overwhelmingly positive reaction to Schulhoff's playing was the result, at least in part, of the latter's ability to balance voices exceedingly well, forging a wide range of timbres and a radiant, expressive tone.

Projection of musical character also hinges, to a degree, on how lines are balanced against one another. A pianist may change the musical tone from dark to bright by simply bringing out higher pitches slightly more than usual, producing more sparkling, penetrating sonorities. Conversely, a heavier bass line can produce a darker, more ominous hue. The third of a triad may be emphasized above its root or fifth to create a "sweeter" quality in a dolce passage. Such coloristic possibilities are limited only by the performer's listening skills and imagination.

The term "balance" takes on added meaning for collaborative pianists. When performing with additional musicians, one must consider not only the balance within one's own part, but also the balance between all the performers. Let us, for convenience, focus on pieces written for a duo of one singer or instrumentalist and piano, since balance issues become more complex as chamber ensemble sizes increase. Perhaps the most important rule of thumb in duo settings is to avoid playing accompanimental material too loudly when it lies in the same register as the singer's or instrumentalist's pitches. If this principle is not adhered to, the pianist will rightly be accused of "covering" the other musician's part. Inexperienced pianists may react by simply playing softly at all times. As a result, their playing goes from overbearing to dull and nondescript, and the overall impression the music makes upon the audience is severely compromised. The finest collaborators, however, can create true fortes when necessary while de-emphasizing specific parts of the texture that would otherwise interfere with their musical partner's efforts. Pianists performing in collaborative settings must, as a rule, stress bass lines slightly more than in solo playing, for they often are called upon to supply the bass line, the harmonic foundation, for the entire ensemble and not just for themselves. This does not typically create balance problems, since pitches of lower frequencies tend not to mask those of higher frequencies. Listening and experience are indispensable in honing the exceptionally advanced voicing skills chamber music and accompanying require.

How might piano teachers guide students in developing skills associated with voicing? From a technical standpoint, there are many effective ways to bring out certain notes while subduing others. The following are a few ideas proven effective in my own experience. When playing a solid chord, one must be able to channel the arm's weight down from the shoulder through a relatively relaxed hand and into one chosen finger at a time. If the hand is too rigid, all pitches will be equal in volume. By the same token, if the finger's first joint (closest to the nail) buckles under the arm's weight, or if the pianist's bridge (the arch underneath the hand that structurally supports it when playing) is not strong and flexible, efforts to differentiate voices again will be undermined. Directly aligning one's wrist behind the finger playing the note to be brought out is helpful because it focuses the arm's weight on the proper fingertip. When done correctly, one should feel pressure on one fingertip, while the others remain relaxed. To give an effective tactile demonstration of this, simply "play" a few chords on a student's forearm, "bringing out" different pitches each time. He or she immediately will sense which of your fingers would create the fullest tone at the keyboard.

In addition to this technical advice, many effective pedagogical approaches may be employed. A simple exercise for chordal voicing is to play all notes of a five-finger pattern at once, bringing out one note at a time. Students who have mastered this exercise may make it more challenging by emphasizing the notes of familiar tunes whose pitches fall within the five-note pattern, while still playing all five notes simultaneously, of course. This exercise may be played hands alone at first and later with hands together. One also can practice chordal voicing by playing the pitch to be emphasized in a given chord alone and at a higher volume level than the remaining notes of the chord, which are played softly a moment later. After several successful repetitions, the louder note may be played ever closer in time to the others, eventually approximating a grace note. At this point, sensations felt by the fingers, hand and arm when playing pitches of differing dynamic levels will be memorized, and the student is ready to play the chord's tones simultaneously, listening closely and retaining the tactile sensations now ingrained.

Perhaps the simplest voicing task students encounter involves playing a single line in one hand (usually the right, since it commonly carries the bulk of melodic material) louder than a single line in the other, as would be appropriate in the excerpt, shown in Figure 1, from the second movement of Franz Joseph Haydn's Sonata in F Major, Hob. XVI:23; L. 38. To accomplish this, encourage students to imagine one arm is extremely heavy, with gravity exerting great force upon it, while the other is light as a feather. Use of such imagery can produce immediate, audible results. This may be practiced away from the piano by having the student hold a crayon in each hand, drawing parallel vertical lines simultaneously down a sheet of paper, alternately making one line darker than the other. Eventually these skills may be polished by practicing scales, arpeggios and the like hands together, with one hand at a higher dynamic level.


The next step is addressing how to bring out a melodic line, usually in the soprano, in clear relief above a more elaborate accompaniment. The piano's construction, with its longest strings and the majority of its soundboard in the lower register, makes bringing out soprano lines especially difficult. Moreover, the majority of notes in many soprano melodies--particularly those emphasizing the highest pitches of chords--are played with the weaker fourth and fifth fingers of the right hand. The bass is commonly the second most important line in homophonic textures, for in combination with the soprano it provides the melodic/harmonic framework that is "fleshed out" by the inner voices. When attempting to bring out bass lines in proper proportion, pianists benefit from the instrument's construction as far as volume is concerned, but they must listen particularly closely for articulative clarity in the somewhat muddy-sounding lower registers. Like soprano melodies, bass lines in thicker textures employ the fourth and fifth fingers a great deal, but here the left hand's weak fingers are taxed.

After explaining this basic voicing hierarchy, teachers may apply it to any appropriate piece. First, they should ask the student to play the soprano line alone, with a relatively full tone. Next, students isolate the bass line, at a softer dynamic than the soprano, and then the inner voice(s) at an even quieter level. In Figure 2, from Robert Schumann's Of Strange Lands and People, I suggest playing the soprano line mezzo piano, the bass piano and the triplets that lie between pianissimo. If properly executed, the combination of these volume levels will produce the desired dynamic--piano--though not all voices are actually played at that level. One must differentiate voices within any dynamic, so it follows that supporting lines in fortissimo passages likely will not be played above mezzo forte or forte. Since dynamics are relative, what matters in the end is whether the listener grasps the overall dynamic the performer wishes to convey. After playing all voices individually, students are ready to begin combining voices, while still retaining dynamic differentiation. In the Schumann example, I suggest combining soprano and bass parts first to establish firmly the "skeletal structure" of the piece. Next, the middle-voice triplets should be coupled with the bass, then the soprano, before students attempt to combine all three textural elements. Following this methodical sequence will make clear the roles various lines play, while separating the difficult task of playing the entire texture into several relatively easy steps.


Whenever the right hand carries the melody along with the accompanimental material, students may benefit from playing the melody alone with the right, while playing the remaining notes of the right-hand part more softly with the left. The passage in Figure 3, from Felix Mendelssohn's Song of the Pilgrim, Opus 67, No. 3, lends itself well to this procedure. Here, the lower notes of the top staff could be played by the left hand, beginning with beat two of the first full measure, until proper balance was achieved. This instills an ideal balance that serves as an aural goal when playing the part with just one hand, as written. It also is a good sight-reading exercise for less advanced students. Another way teachers may create a voicing model is to play all accompanimental notes while students play the melody, trading roles when both teacher and student agree suitable balance has been achieved. This tradeoff mandates that students be sensitive to musical roles, lest they rudely obliterate the melody played by their instructor.


Teachers should point out that piano solos with clearly identifiable melodies and accompaniments, such as those in Figures 2 and 3, are like song literature--the pianist filling the singer and accompanist roles concurrently. He or she must therefore take care not to overwhelm the imagined singer with accompanimental material. Students should sing the "vocal line" aloud in practice sessions while playing the "accompaniment," thereby clearly differentiating the two parts they must ultimately play simultaneously. The sensitivity to balance developed through incorporating singing into practice will be apparent when students return to playing the entire texture at the keyboard, and they may play melodies with greater attention to tone production, dynamic shading, breathing and inflection as a byproduct.

Clearly communicating the hierarchy of voices in more complex textures poses greater difficulties. The "layered" textures favored by composers such as Claude Debussy and Sergei Rachmaninoff certainly fall into this category. In the excerpt below from the prelude Feuilles mortes (Figure 4), Debussy used three staves to make the texture more visually clear. While less experienced students initially may find three staves harder to read, they benefit from this layout when encountering passages like that in Figure 4. In this example, the melody in measure 25, marked p, stands alone on the middle staff, with its supporting chords and the intermittently tolling, bell-like G-sharps of the pp bass line on the bottom staff, and with colorful, floating ppp chords, so typical of Debussy, filling the top staff. By indicating a different dynamic for each staff, and by writing un peu en dehors above the middle staff, he left little doubt about the intended voicing hierarchy. To successfully execute this passage, students may follow a procedure similar to that described for the Schumann example, practicing each staff separately at its proper dynamic level, and then combining two at a time before attempting to play the entire texture at once. Further refinement of this passage may entail emphasizing slightly the top note of the right-hand ppp chords to create a shimmering sound, while the left hand, which plays both the middle and bottom staves, favors the thumb when playing the melodic top notes of the chords on beat one of measures 25 and 26.


In Rachmaninoff's Prelude in B Minor, Opus 32, No. 10 (Figure 5), the texture again has three perceptible layers, yet the composer notates it on the traditional two staves and marks only ff for a dynamic level. Surely, Rachmaninoff did not intend all textural strands to be equally loud, for such an approach in a texture this dense would sound too thunderous to be intelligible. Pianists, then, must study the score carefully to ascertain which notes must be brought to the fore and which must be suppressed. Rachmaninoff indicates that the tenor carries the melody by placing accents over each of its notes. Meanwhile, strong octave Bs in the bass, along with the lengthy pedals necessary to sustain them, create the tremendous resonance this passage requires. The dense repeated chords, played by both hands in triplet eighths, are the portion of the texture most likely to obscure the tenor if steps are not taken to "clear space" for it. The performer must not play these chords too heavily, for they must sound transparent enough for listeners to hear the melody through the chords, just as we may see things through visually transparent objects.


Sometimes it is not perfectly clear which voices should predominate and how much one should stress them. In such cases, performers must make decisions based on theoretical analysis, careful listening, instincts, experimentation, personal taste and experience. In the excerpt from Frederic Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Opus 52 (Figure 6), for example, one must decide how strongly to bring out the alto line so beautifully woven into the texture. The soprano melody above it has been heard several times by this point in the piece, yet it sounds unnatural to ignore it completely in favor of the alto, a newly added contrapuntal element. Most would agree the chords played by the left hand on the second, third, fifth and sixth eighth notes of both bars may be relegated to the background, but in all likelihood no two pianists would balance the rest of the texture exactly alike. Different solutions may, in fact, work equally well within each artist's overall conception of the passage. Personal prerogative also plays a role in voicing decisions when performers, for variety, highlight one voice the first time through a repeated passage, and another the second. Although this means of varying reiterated material is rarely indicated in the score, it is an effective and imaginative way to make such passages sound fresh and less predictable.


Attaining an ideal balance of voices in strictly polyphonic textures is one of the greatest challenges pianists face. In such works, one must be able to highlight any voice, or any combination of voices, at any time, as musical context dictates. Fugues, the pinnacle of contrapuntal writing, present performers with myriad balancing problems. One of these problems is that, due to the nature of fugal composition, subjects often are stated in the bass or in inner voices, making them particularly difficult to sing out, because listeners' ears are naturally attuned to soprano melodies. The acoustical phenomenon mentioned above--that higher pitches tend to mask lower ones--also works counter to this effort. In the excerpt below of Johann Sebastian Bach's fourvoice Fugue No. 16 in G Minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 (Figure 7), the subject entrances, circled here for the reader's convenience, are stated in the bass and alto voices in stretto, the alto statement beginning before the bass's has concluded. When attempting to highlight these subject entrances, it is important to remember voices may be emphasized by playing others more softly, rather than always playing prominent voices more loudly, a mistake that may lead to dynamic monotony as the piece progresses. Developing the ability to communicate any dynamic level while still differentiating lines is the only way to avoid this monotony. One must always listen carefully to determine whether voices are brought out just enough, too little or too much and if the overall dynamic has been compromised in an effort to highlight a certain voice. In Figure 7, then, the soprano and tenor may be played a level or two softer than the prevailing dynamic the performer has chosen for this passage, while the subject statements may be played at or slightly above the intended overall dynamic.


Extra care should be taken to ensure the E-flat in the alto statement, of the subject, played with the left-hand thumb, does not stand out awkwardly within the phrase, since it is the only note of the phrase played by the left hand, and since thumbs tend to be relatively awkward compared to fingers. Splitting between the hands of inner-voice subject statements is not uncommon in fugues, so performers must learn to play such melodic lines as convincingly with two hands as they would with one, thereby ensuring the listener perceives each subject statement as an unbroken line within the overall voicing scheme.

Rosalyn Tureck, a pianist known for her Bach playing, mentions balancing issues while summing up several of the requisite skills of contrapuntal playing:
 Each finger must be capable of every type of touch while every other finger
 is doing another type of touch simultaneously. The dynamics must be such
 that a different quantity of tone can be produced at different levels of
 playing so that the texture and quality of tone, although different for
 each finger, can be interrelated and can blend in the different motifs that
 are going on simultaneously The finger's touch, tonal quantity and quality
 must relate as the lines move horizontally and contrapuntally to each other
 as, for example, in a four-voiced fugue.

This is a tall order indeed, yet performers wishing to play contrapuntal music well have to master this juggling act.

We must convince our pupils that, to be successful, hearing an ideal blend of voices in their minds before their hands touch the keys is essential. To this end, perhaps the best way we can help students develop these skills is to hone them in our own playing, enabling us to provide better voicing models when demonstrating in lessons. We can make students aware of how much is possible in this realm, and can motivate them to search out ways of producing ever subtler voicing effects in their own playing. Once their ears are attuned to this aspect of pianistic musicianship, their playing will never be the same.


(1.) Theodor Leschetizky, an Intimate Study of the Man and the Musician, translated by Genevieve Seymour Lincoln (New York: The Century Co., 1903), p. 89.

(2.) Stewart Gordon, Elyse Mach and Marienne Uszler, The Well-Tempered Keyboard Teacher, First Edition (New York: Schirmer Books, 1995), p. 366.

Musical Illustrations

1. Franz Joseph Haydn, Piano Sonata in F Major, Hob. XVI:23; L. 38, mvt. 2, mm. 1-2. Alfred Masterwork Edition, Piano Sonatas, Vol. II, edited by Maurice Hinson (Van Nuys, California: Alfred Publishing Co., Inc., 1990; Used by permission), p. 46.

2. Robert Schumann, Kinderscenen, Opus 15; "About Strange Lands and People," mm. 1-4. (Van Nuys, California: Alfred Publishing Co., Inc., 1990; Used by permission), p. 76.

3. Felix Mendelssohn, Songs Without Words; "Song of the Pilgrim," Opus 67, No. 3, mm. 1-4. Edited by Constantin von Sternberg (New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., Vol. 58, 1915), p. 108.

4. Claude Debussy, Preludes, Book 2; "Feuilles mortes," mm. 24-27. (Van Nuys, California: Alfred Publishing Co., Inc., 1990; Used by permission), p. 63.

5. Sergei Rachmaninoff, Prelude in B Minor, Opus 32, No. 10, mm. 22-24. (New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., Vol. 1631, 1967), p. 43.

6. Frederic Chopin, Ballade in F Minor, Opus 52, No. 4, mm. 58-59. (New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., Vol. 31, 1967), p. 46.

7. Johann Sebastian Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1; Fugue No. 16 in G Minor, mm. 17-19. (From Editions Peters 1a; Used by Permission), p. 79.

Thomas Lanners, associate professor of piano at Oklahoma State University, received his master's and doctoral degrees in piano performance and literature from the Eastman School of Music and his bachelor's degree from Florida State University. Lanners is an active performer, adjudicator and clinician.
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Title Annotation:piano teaching
Author:Lanners, Thomas
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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