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Exercises to Improve Voice Performance on Piano

No, not your singing voice. Don't panic!

When we talk about voices on the piano, it can often lead people who are fairly new to the game to wonder what it actually means. Whilst it is true that I did write a blog that explains this in a little more depth some months ago, I will gladly recap here before getting onto the exercises:

What is a Voice in a Piece of Music?

In short, a voice is each individual part.

For example, the melody is a voice.

Any harmonised melody or counter melody alongside that is another voice.

Chordal accompaniments can be considered as a single voice if they all progress together (for example if you have triads playing in every bar and each note is a semibreve / whole note), pedal notes / drones would be a voice and basslines would also be a voice.

When we start learning piano, we normally learn no more than two voices at the start. This is a usually in the form of a monophonic (only one note at a time) melody in the right hand and a monophonic accompaniment in the left hand.

Playing two voices - one in each hand - is the simplest form of playing more than one voice. If the melody is in the right hand and the right hand is in a higher register than the left then it is easier still due to the natural tuning in of the ear to a higher register rather than a lower one (we always want the melody to dominate).

However, it won't be long on your piano adventure that you do begin to incorporate more than one voice and - as we only have two hands - it's true to say that at least one hand is going to be performing more than one voice a lot of the time!

Seeing Multiple Voices in Practice

Let's take a classic beginner's piece - 'Merrily We Roll Along' / 'Mary Had a Little Lamb':

In this piece of music, the right hand takes a monophonic melody. Therefore, this is one voice.

Each bar in the left hand has three notes at any time. Because these three notes all move together, this can be considered as an individual voice... add a third voice, note how the above example now substitutes crotchet beats for the lower note of the left hand chord. Because this is different to what the other notes are doing in that bar, we consider this a new voice - a third voice... further exemplify, the above music adds a fourth voice. In the right hand, we now have our melody happening at the same time as we hold a semibreve. This is our new, fourth voice.

Other Ways to Identify Voices

As well as voices often being clearly different from one another rhythmically, it is often possible to identify voices using other methods too:

  • Stem Directions: one of the most obvious examples is to look at the directions of the stems. Whereas in music with just one voice per hand the rule of thumb suggests that the stem goes up if the note head is below the middle line of the stave and vice versa, using multiple voices forces the stem directions of an individual voice to be consistent with one another. In my example above, the crotchets in the left hand would ordinarily be stem up because of their position, but because of the placement of higher notes they are stem down. Needless to say, if these higher notes were shorter than a semibreve (e.g. minims) they would be stem up.

  • Phrasing: in my example above, we can pick out the individuality of the top voice of 'Merrily We Roll Along' by the use of the slur. This implies that what it covers or what it falls under is all one voice. Because this slur is above the bars, it is safe to assume that the notes that are generally on the top (the semibreves) are its reference. Another such way that you could dissociate these slurred notes from the melody is to recognise what a slur actually dues - it creates legato. The melody in the right hand features too much note repetition (E-E-E in bar 2, D-D-D in bar 3) to justify this type of articulation. Note how the melody line is also stems down. It would be inconsistent notation to put a slur over a passage of music where the majority of the stems were on the opposite side of the stave.

Multiple Voice Red Herrings

As with anything, the above is your starting point. Three notes doing the same thing don't necessarily count as being one voice when done so in the context of a bigger piece.

For example;

Going by the logic I have just taught, you'd be forgiven for assuming that the left hand in bar 4 could be interpreted as one voice. However, look at the second bar left hand - note that this has a semibreve held underneath a vamp. This splits the voicing into two. We would consider the left hand to be in two voices here because the semibreve is different to the vamps above it in that second bar.

The third bar - despite changing from a two part harmony on top to one note at a time on top - stays in two voices. You don't add voices on unless you could see a distinctly different third voice there.

Meaning that we are still in two voices when we come together for the chords at the end. The score reflects this, as the bottom note of the triads in the left hand stems downwards. However, this is something you may gloss over in the early stages of reading multiple voice music so it is worth mentioning.

Now let's get thinking about how we can perfect our performance of playing a piece with multiple voices:

Ensure Chordal Even-ness in the Hands

When we start doubling up on notes in any hand on the piano, we are normally doing so to create a chord to accompany the melody. As such, we generally consider this to be one individual voice. Think of a voice like a different sound of the orchestra - if your right hand is playing a melody that could be attributed to flute or clarinet, perhaps your left hand could be a chord that would be taken by a split violin section. As long as it all moves together, it can be considered one voice.

Therefore, it's important to ensure that you can play chords with evenness in both hands. Take the typical C major triad (C-E-G). Naturally, we will likely tune into the top note anyway (G) due to its higher register, but we do need to ensure that we're not giving any additional weight to one or more notes. The fingers should not only play the keys at the exact same time, but they should do so with even velocity, thus creating an even dynamic.

It's very important that you perfect this technique first before attempting to play around with different voices, mainly because we need to approach multiple voices in one hand with a different technique. In this instance, we actually do want to dominate a note in particular, and we need to be comfortable switching our technique according to what is required of us.

Play the above notated C major triad - hands separately and hands together using standard fingers (5-3-1 left hand, 1-3-5 right hand) - ensuring that you hit all keys evenly and at the same time, listening to check that the sound between each note is even.

Apply this to the first score of 'Merrily We Roll Along' above, and ensure that not only do you hit the chords cleanly and evenly, but you play the right hand slightly louder so that the melody sings out above them. Don't forget that even if you play both hands at the same dynamic, the left hand can be anything up to three times as loud as you are playing three notes at a time here as opposed to the one note at a time in the right hand.

Once you feel comfortable with this, let's advance our technique and look at playing multiple voices per hand:

Adding Another Voice into Each Hand

It's up to you whether or not you would prefer to start with the left or the right hand, but for this exercise assume that the bass clef is the left hand exercise and the treble clef is the right hand exercise (they are effectively the same but one octave apart):

Right Hand Voice Exercise

Left Hand Voice Exercise

Please be reminded that:

  • you need to be comfortable in playing evenly before you advance onto these exercises, and

  • these are difficult exercises! It looks easy on paper, but trust'll probably not get it straight away. Just take it at your pace and keep working on it and never feel like it's beating you.

So let's take a look at the exercises:

The exercises use the first two notes of the C major triad (C and E) and we will assume the same fingers as we would in each hand if we were playing a full C major triad to begin (5-3 left hand, 1-3 right hand).

Each bar can be repeated as often as you like, but you need to be mindful of three types of markings:

  • Dynamic: one finger will be playing piano (softly) and one will be playing forte (loud). It's difficult to get into the mindset of this - especially when the lower notes are to be more dominating than the higher ones - but it really will help you bring out the important parts of pieces of music you play. If it helps, physically rotate your wrist initially so that the emphasis falls naturally on the finger you wish to play forte, and imagine that your hand is falling heavily onto that finger. Be careful, though - you still want to play both notes at the same time!

  • Staccato: the dots above / below some notes are staccato dots. This means that you need to jump off the notes more. For this exercise, the staccato notes are intentionally given to the quieter notes (piano) so that you can make something more of the forte notes - something that comes much more naturally.

  • Tenuto: the lines above / below some notes are tenuto markings. Tenuto is like the opposite of staccato - make sure you hold these notes on for the full length notated (in this case - 1 beat).

This will take time and it's also not something you wish to be practising a lot. It will tire your fingers quickly if you overdo it - especially if you have to exaggerate your hand position in the initial stages!

Have a look and a listen to the video below for an idea of how it should sound:

When you're feeling a lot better about them, try playing around with the fingers - perhaps finger 1-2 in the right hand, or fingers 5-2 in the left. If you wish to change the interval between notes to make it a little more comfortable on the fingers for the sake of the exercise, by all means do, but bear in mind that you will be setting yourself a harder challenge the closer your intervals are (for example, try the exercise with a C and a C#/Db together. It's hard to get one to dominate out of that muddy sound!)

Putting It into Practice

Let's refresh our memory of our four voice 'Merrily We Roll Along':

I have deliberately left out dynamic markings to allow for you to play through this with different interpretations. Ordinarily, you will see a piece of piano music marked with no more than two dynamics at a time (right hand and left hand) - and even this isn't that common. Usually you just see an overall dynamic marking between the staves to suggest that the whole piece is to be played - for example - piano or forte.

Therefore, it is up to us as the interpreter and performer to work out which bits require the attention. Usually we give the most attention to the melody.

In the case of the above, this would not be the semibreves in the right hand, and so the semibreves will need to be balanced nicely at a quieter dynamic than the melody. This is especially true on bars 1 and 3 where the note is higher than the melody (bear in mind bar 2 is tied so the note will be fading away by this time anyway).

In the accompaniment, it is often advisable to make prominent the lower end to give a broad range of frequency. Therefore, it stands to reason that we play the lower crotchets a little louder than the semibreves. This is further advisable in that this will be giving a distinctive rhythm, so bringing that out a little more may benefit the flow.

But use the piece above as a blank canvas. Try playing with different dynamics around the whole thing and see what you can create!


See me talk more about voices on my YouTube video below:

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