5 top tips for voicing

By Melanie Spanswick

Voicing, or the highlighting of various musical lines or strands of music, plays a crucial role in good piano playing. Voicing allows us to ‘sing’ a melodic line so that it sounds clearly above any accompaniment. As pianists and piano teachers, we must learn, and be aware of, how to balance piano texture, or else a performance is in danger of sounding dull. Most students need clear direction when aiming to voice various musical lines. Here are some ideas:

  1. Once you’ve decided which musical line must be ‘voiced’ in your piece - it could be a top line melody, middle voice, or a lower voice in either hand - and you know how that theme or motif must sound, it can be helpful to ‘hear’ it in your head. You don’t need to be a good singer to sing it, but the act of singing it will encourage you to become aware of how to shape and phrase that particular strand of music. You may need to think about where the top, or apex, of the phrase occurs, providing a deeper touch and greater intensity on that section of the phrase, for example.
  2. How you approach the note patterns physically is also important. Let’s imagine that your piece is full of three-note chords in the right-hand part. You want to ‘voice’ the top note of each chord as this forms the melodic line. Once you’ve learned the notes and fingerings in each chord, play the top line alone with the fingering that you will use to play it when playing the other notes in that chord; this will help you become accustomed to the weight needed behind each key to produce a full sound, which is required for a melody line.
  3. Next, play the two lower notes of each chord, together. Depress keys slowly with equal weight on each one. Keep the hand in a fairly sturdy, firm position (although there should be no tension here), again promoting equal weight on each note. Try this with the two upper notes in each chord. Finally, play all three notes together, depressing them at precisely the same moment with a firmer hand position, carefully aligned fingers, and well-balanced finger-tips. Notes in the chord should sound at exactly the same moment. It might take a while to learn the ‘feeling’ necessary in the arm, hand and wrist, so that they are able to guide the fingers into place.
  4. The top note must now be emphasized, as it should sound more powerfully than the lower notes. To do this, as you play the chord, move your right hand wrist slightly to the right, so that it can aid the chord’s top note, giving the finger and finger-tip playing that note more support as well as the ability to sound it with a deeper touch, allowing the note to ‘ring out’ with a greater sonority than the lower notes.
  5. The crucial factor is to give the top note a somewhat quicker, firmer key depression than the two lower notes; in other words, the two lower keys will be depressed fairly slowly and softly and the top note, quickly and more forcefully or with a more direct touch; this requires the hand to balance notes using differing amounts of weight, and it should feel different as you play the chord, with more action, power, and gravity on the right side, or outer part (towards the fourth and fifth fingers) and less on the inner parts (the first, second and third fingers). To achieve the desired result, try depressing the top note fractionally later than the lower notes – this won’t be heard because the top note is to be played a little quicker. Each chord’s top note demands a very direct touch, with the weight behind the finger provided by the arm, wrist and hand. It might be described as akin to ‘throwing’ the weight behind the finger, the hand and wrist allowing it to ‘swing’ into the key, at the same time as keeping the two lower notes soft and light. Balance of weight within the hand is key.

Practice regularly until this technique becomes a habit, and then it can be applied to voicing any part or passage within a piece.

Melanie Spanswick