Balance at a slow tempo

By Robert Estrin

For this newsletter I’m going to talk about why balance is harder at slow tempos – and why it's far easier at quicker tempos! What am I talking about with balance? I’m talking about where one hand or one part of your music is louder than another. Why should the speed at which you play have anything to do with making it easier or harder to differentiate volume in your music? I’m going to show you here today. I’m going to use a Heller Étude in C major to demonstrate this.


Why is balance harder at a slow tempo?

I’m going to play this étude at an extraordinarily slow tempo, which will instantly make it apparent why playing slowly makes balancing the volume harder. The reason why it’s harder to achieve balance between parts on the piano, whether it’s between the hands, or parts within a texture that has more than one note in each hand, is because when you play the piano, the notes are fading away. So when you’re paying more slowly, you can’t sustain notes long enough without using a great deal of energy.


Watch the video to hear the demonstration!

I’m going to play a little bit of this Heller étude up to performance tempo. You’ll hear the nice balance that’s achieved. You can hear the beautiful singing melody, and the accompaniment is very hushed. But listen to what happens if I play this dramatically under tempo. The right-hand melody notes, which are slower than the left-hand notes, fade out! The low notes overtake the melody unless you really delineate the melody. At a slow tempo, you have to use tremendous energy to project the melody to get the notes to overtake the left hand. If you were to play with that much differentiation between the melody and accompaniment at a faster tempo, it would produce grotesquely exaggerated playing.



At a slow tempo, you must use more energy to bring out the melody.

The slower you play, the more differentiation between melody and accompaniment you must have in your playing to get the same balance because of the envelope of the sound of the piano where the notes have a strong attack, then a decay, and then a slow sustain that decays further. So when you’re playing very slowly, the held notes are on the very quiet part of the sound after the loud initial attack. You must make up for this by using tremendous energy to project a melody over the accompaniment.


At a faster tempo, balance is much more intuitive.

When you are playing fast, you don’t have to have such an extreme difference between melody and accompaniment. To be cognizant of the envelope of the sound of the piano, try playing some of your pieces on an organ. You’ll be astounded at how loud those long notes are because you’re used to compensating naturally to get the proper balance. It’s an organic part of playing the piano, overcoming this natural limitation of the tone of the piano. It’s a limitation that we have to deal with in order to achieve the illusion of a singing line, and to be able to create balance by adjusting the intensity of the melody depending on how fast the melody is. I hope this is helpful for your piano playing!


Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin here at