Using Your Voice as a Musical Aid
November 17, 2018
Pianists are blessed by having access to the most beautiful of instruments – no, not the piano – human voice.
Things for which our voice can be used for in order to improve our playing.
#1. The voice enables us to play legato.
In the hands of a master the piano sings and a melody can sound truly legato. For the rest of us the piano resists our attempts in these directions. However, our singing voice (no matter how bad) cannot but sing legato. Our voice does not stop and then start when changing pitches, it can remain smooth throughout the change. At the piano, the beginning of a new note is always the moment that contains the greatest, sudden contrast between degrees of softness and loudness.
Just as the motions of dancers seem to us to suddenly be less fluid and continuous in space when the accompanying music suddenly stops, so the pianist who is accompanied by their own singing – whether externally audible or audible only in their imagination, nudges the recalcitrant sound of the piano over the boundary that exists between, on one the side, separate and discrete notes, and on the other, a fluid and continuous flow of sound.
#2. The voices refines our ability to play evenly.
The spoken voice can be made to speak a series of syllables that is more regular, as well as even in timbre and in duration, than can be controlled by the fingers at the keyboard. However, if the fingers are inhabited or possessed by the speaking voice they will ‘utter’ their notes as evenly as the voice. It’s just a matter of knowing who’s boss: the fingers or the voice. If the issue is in doubt, shift to the the voice quality of a Marine Drill Sergeant.
#3. The voice can determine and then create the ‘shape’ of a phrase.
Throughout our lives we have gradually learned to communicate in words with a voice that carries a meaning, and guided by that meaning are ‘shaped’, ‘inflected’, and ‘cadenced’. Without the shape given the voice by meaning, we would not be easily understood by others. Pianists need only use their own voice as a model for what a series of “sound-syllables” could “sound like” when under the molding and shaping power of a “meaning”.
Though the meaning of a musical phrase cannot truly be described in words, or vice versa, the two are not so utterly unalike that what goes on in one cannot prompt, promote, model and cajole what the other is doing. By modulating our speaking voice we can shape a phrase at the piano as long as our playing mechanism is under the control of the voice.
#4. The voice can ensure that rhythm is under the control of the meter.
If a quarter note beat is divided into a group of four sixteenths, it is not enough that the four notes be even. It is not even enough that the four notes are shaped or inflected (as by the voice) to become a unit of musical meaning in the architectonics of the of the phrase to which the notes belong (although this is important). There is still the more important demand to be made of the four sixteenths by the meter. They should clearly manifest the meter of the measure.
Any measure in 4 / 4 time should (with only rare intentional exceptions) “sound like” 4 / 4 time. This is imperative regardless of the rhythmic breakdown of the measure (what one might term the ‘modulation’ of the rhythm against the meter). The same for every other meter. The clarity of the manifestation of the meter is probably the most foremost factor in bringing notes to life.
Though ordinarily I find certain combinations of rhythm and pitches harder to play than others, my fingers have no choice but to follow my cheer leading voice as the embodies the incarnation of the meter: “one two three, one two three…”. The cheerleader does not recite the Gettysburg Address. Rather everything is put simply, emphatically, with no room left for doubt or interpretation. Meter will always shed light on rhythm. It will insure that each note in the rhythm has a meaning depending on placement in the measure. And if, momentarily, I notice that my counts are suddenly out of sync with the note I am playing, it is usually because I wasn’t feeling that note in its proper relation to the measure (I had left the decision on how the note should articulate up to the fingers alone).
#5. The voice can eliminate tension in playing.
Whatever is the mechanical effort involved in speaking, it has at least been practiced by us for more hours and years than we have practiced the piano, and therefore requires little conscious effort. The mechanical motions involved in playing piano are a more widely varied set than the postures of the mouth, tongue and lips, and often can lead us into a state of tension among the muscles. We should remind ourselves at these moments that the movements in playing piano are natural body motions and can be done without effort, and that the best form of this reminder is provided by our audible speaking voice, moving in tandem through time with the piano’s notes.*
#6. The voice can overcome the impact of the decay in a long note.
The human voice is the natural embodiment of propelling one sound forwards through time, until it spills over the brim of the vessel containing its duration, and eventuating or blossoming into the next sound. What better model to directly counteract the state of every long piano sound: by which it gets weaker and weaker moment by moment, only to have, in its old age, its pathetic life cut short by the guillotine of the attack of the next note. The voice models the result of when there is a more sustained moment to moment sound in the piano.
One may object that the voice has no power to effect the decay of a note. For more about this objection see “Rekindling A Note (geriatrics for old notes)” https://joebloom.com/3-brief-blogs-technical-situations-that-seem-the-same-but-arent-counting-out-loud-sustaining-a-dying-note/
There are many other purposes for the use of the voice in piano playing, some of which I list in brief in below, and I hope you find others and let me know.
#1 To get to the heart of the music and make it speak emotionally.
#2 To generate excitement and enthusiasm.
#3 To bring out one note (or several notes) in a chord.
#4 To bring out one voice among several or bringing out a hidden voice.
#5 To apply the brakes on a runaway tempo.
#6 To hit the energy accelerator to push the tempo out of being lifeless.
#7 To augment or create a crescendo or decrescendo.
#8. To express rising action towards a long term goal.
#9. To avoid any single note from coming out haphazardly. To “take charge” of every note.
#10. Yo raise the identity of the names of the notes to a higher level of conscious awareness.
#11. To raise the level of conscious awareness of the order in which we use the fingers by saying these finger numbers out loud as we play each note.
#12. To give voice to the ‘whoosh’ of the pulse that propels one sound-event in time into the next.
#13. Yo make small intervals sound like, or feel like, wide intervals, and vice versa.
#14. To allow the body to figuratively take a breath before starting a new phrase by taking an audible breath with our lungs. A to make an audible and prolonged exhalation of air to keep the sound of the notes sustained so they don’t flag.
#15. To emphasize the notes that form the “sonic glue**” or the “physical glue***” in a passage.
#16. To “lasso” a group of notes so they adhere together in a melisma.
#17. To keep the pulse tight and animated.
#18. To give a clear feeling of pitch to the notes at the extreme ends of the keyboard.
#19. To mix together “pulse” and “flow”.
#20. To bring out a detail in a phrase.
#21. To play in a speed that is faster than the fingers can do alone.
#22. Yo push the phrase when the fingers are unwilling to do so.
In all of these cases the purpose is to surround the sound with a vocal ‘glow’ that causes that part of the sound that comes from the piano alone, to incandence.
*For playing a rapid series of notes, especially a prolonged series, a nonchalant and understated voice, one sounding almost apathetic and seemingly devoid of caring, is a perfect model for an absence of overexertion physically.
** Sonic “Glue”. Creating a flowing line is more than a matter of connecting each note to the next. It is also a matter of looking within a measure for repeating pitches, notes that repeat in the same or different octaves but are in a different voices, the other hand, or a different finger. And then insuring that they all sound the “same”, and create a homogeneous sound despite their individual differences.
Sometimes these notes create a separate rhythm than the prevailing melody or the rhythm of the accompaniment. Focusing some of your attention on this rhythm is another way of gluing the sound of the measure together. It can strike the ear as a ‘mysterious’ melody that seems to come out of nowhere.
*** Two complimentary examples of physical “glue”.
Ken Burns pioneered the technique of seeing an historical event refracted through the eyes of various individuals. A Civil War battle would be seen through the eyes of a General, but also through the eyes of a Private who had no special claim to fame in the battle other than they were one of many who were there.
We usually do not pay much attention to a finger that is not at that very moment pressing a key down to make a sound. However, for certain very complicated passages, there is an advantage to tracing the history of one particular finger, one “private” in the army, and noting the notes (‘scenes’) within the passage in which that finger takes action to depress a key. For example, in a certain measure, on the first beat, the second finger is playing a B. Nearer to the second beat of the measure the second finger again is used to play a G#. And so on. It gives us a thread to follow through the intricacies of the narrative. Following the history of just one finger gives us feedback, in the form of check-in points, as to whether we are still on the correct path through the passage.
Another example doesn’t look so much at which finger plays which note but which notes may be played more than once in the passage, though by different fingers (from the same or different hands). By playing just those notes, and leaving out the notes in between, we form a structural filament, as if of a spider’s web, to hold the passage together.