Heinrich Neuhaus spoke of the pot-bellied monster, a fault in piano playing where the harmony swallows both bass and melody. I find myself discussing the layering of sound all the time with my students, the ability to do this skillfully is such a crucial aspect of fine piano playing. If we want to build a hierarchical sound where we can sense foreground, background and middle ground it is not just the volume that counts, but also the texture – the type of touch we use within a given dynamic level.

In this example from Schubert’s G flat Impromptu, it is not hard to see that the harmonic middle needs to be played more softly than the top melody, but the rippling quavers also need to be extremely even tonally and yet rhythmically structured. An impressionistic wash won’t do here:

Schubert

Whenever we see fortissimo, it is as though there were an unspoken command that we’ve got to try and play everything on the page as loudly as possible. Let’s now look at the climax of Rachmaninov’s beautiful Elegie that someone brought to their lesson today:

Rachmaninov

The three-layered structure is clear here, with the main melodic line in the RH, the bass A (that needs to last all the way through the two bars in one long, deep pedal) and the middle part. Now, this middle part supplies not only the harmonic filling but also forward momentum and a certain turbulence but it should not be on the same tonal level as the top or bottom. Experiment with omitting the middle part completely and you will discover that you can already achieve an ample triple fortissimo without it, especially if you have wrung out the maximum amount of good quality juice from the bass octave. The middle part contributes little to the overall decibel level of the passage, and rather than hammer it out it is much more effective to shape it so that it starts life at a single forte and rises to no more than a single fortissimo by the second bar. At no point should it cover the top line.

Very often a composer will create three layers in the texture but not complicate the page by notating this explicitly – they expect educated musicians to know what is happening. One such example is from Chopin’s D flat Nocturne, where the task of the LH is to create not only a transparent harmonic background for the RH melodic line but also a more substantial bass line that underpins the whole.

Chopin

How do we achieve this?

  • Play the bass notes tenuto – hold them a fraction of a microsecond longer than the rank and file semiquavers.
  • Play the melody and the bass line minus the middle.
  • Practise the contents of the LH stave with both hands so you can make an aural blueprint more easily – when you have this clearly in your ear, the LH alone will be better able to reproduce the sound.
  • Play the RH and the bass line while miming* the middle part.

The Art of Piano Playing – Heinrich Neuhaus (click here)

*Miming is a practice tool – I describe this in detail in Volume 2, Chapter 7 (Miming and Other Types of Silent Practice) of Practising the Piano eBook Series