In theatre, centre stage is reserved for characters or events that should garner the audience’s focus at that moment, regardless of what else might be happening on stage. In fact, whatever else is happening on stage is there to support and enhance the main plot. This doesn’t mean that the audience’s attention is never directed elsewhere, but rather that we tend to focus straight ahead more easily, so that is where the most important actions tend to be staged.
In music, melody takes centre stage. And in terms of physics, our ears naturally pick up and hone in on the highest pitches more easily than lower. This is why in an orchestra 50 violins may be playing at once, but a single flute or piccolo easily soars above them, and our ears take note. Even the gentle ping of a triangle stands out against the thunderous roar of an orchestra.
It’s also why in piano music harmonic accompaniment is generally relegated to the left hand (LH). Its physical location on the piano keyboard itself is below the right hand (RH), in lower registers, and though undeniably darker, heavier and louder, these lower notes do not quench the lighter, higher pitches in the RH, making the RH the perfect melodic host.
But just as the role of sub-characters and sub-plots in theatre is to enhance and further the main characters and plot, so also the job of harmonic accompaniment is to serve the melody: enhance, texturize, colour, flavour, spice and deepen. It does this by blending in and remaining behind-the-scenes, as it were, not by upstaging the melody. Big heavy boots tramping across the stage while a bird is singing detracts from the bird.
Therefore, generally, the harmony must be quieter and more subtle. Occasionally, the RH takes the harmony, and in this case, needs to be softer than the left. Other times, counter-melodies play simultaneously, such as in a fugue, but this still requires balance between the hands. Nobody wants to listen to two people bellowing at each other at the same time. Both counter-melodies need to interact and play upon each other, each bringing out the best in the other.
The skill of keeping the LH harmony quieter while the RH sings above seems impossible to many beginner pianists! But just as you learned to play different notes simultaneously, (the very essence of harmony), a new layer can be added to that skill: learning how to control and simultaneously vary the force with which those notes are struck.
Here are a few simple exercises to help you get started!
Start with just two piano keys – one for each hand. For example, RH: Middle C / LH: the next C below. Repeatedly strike the RH key forcefully while simultaneously trying to strike the LH key with less force. The first few times, they’ll both be about the same decibel level, but if you keep doing it over and over in a row, focussing your attention on the RH, you will start to have a loud RH note, and a less loud LH.
Another helpful drill is to ghost, or as I like to call it, butterfly the key in the LH. Repeatedly forcefully strike the RH key, while your LH finger rests on the LH key and merely taps it simultaneously, without depressing it so that no sound is produced. Focus on the RH. Again, this takes a few tries, but you’ll eventually get it.
A similar exercise is tapping your hands on your lap or on the piano fallboard – make a loud forceful tap with the RH while barely tapping with the left.
Now try it in a simple measure of music. Start with the notes of the 1st beat in each hand, and when you’ve succeeded, add the next.
Once you have success with the LH, practice these exercises in reverse: RH soft and LH loud, for those occasions that the RH takes the harmony.
Learning to strike a pleasing balance the between the hands takes time to master but is one of the most satisfying technical skills because it opens up a whole world of artistic expression as now two forces, two hands, are creating varied, independent dynamics. It truly opens the door to making a piece of music your own.
So keep at it and celebrate your successes! Your skills will deepen over time and so will your joy over the music you create!