Practicing, Technique

Practice Tips: Bringing out the Melody

About a week ago, I received an email from a reader who states that he is learning the Bach-Petri transcription of “Sheep May Safely Graze.”  (You may recall me posting a YouTube video of it here.)  He writes:

I am by no means a concert pianist, but I did take piano lessons for 14 years (1 year into college), but I have never encountered such a challenging melody as is presented by this piece.

Obviously, this piece will take a lot of time to master, but I am determined to learn it.  However, I was wondering if you could please  offer some practice tips such as how to bring out the melody, for instance, in measures 10 & 11?  I just don’t know the best method to train my 2nd and possibly 3rd fingers to bring out the melody while the other fingers play the counter melody.

Learning to bring out the melody properly is not easy!  However, the good news is that once you’ve developed this skill, you will likely be using it again for situations in other pieces.

Here are a few general practice tips for bringing out the melody:  

  1. Play the RH part with two hands instead of one. This may seem strange and perhaps pointless, but dividing up the chord to play between two hands allows your ears to hear how you’d like the end product to sound.  Once it’s in your ear, somehow it helps your fingers know what to do!  I’m always amazed at how helpful this is when I’m practicing.
  2. Sing/hum the melody while you play. Similar to what was mentioned above, this helps your ear/brain hear the melody and learn what the end product should sound like.
  3. Practice playing just the melody line (using the fingering you would use if you were playing the harmony notes too). After you master that, try practicing just the harmony notes (again, using the same fingering as you would when playing everything).
  4. Keep the non-melody fingers as close to the keys.  In fact, see if you can make them maintain contact with the surface of the keys at all times.  The fingers playing the melody line, however, should lift and drop (as usual) in order to make those notes sing out.
  5. Break up the chords and take them out of their rhythmic context. Try playing the melody note first and hold it, and then play the rest of the chord staccato.  Find other ways to break up the chord and take it out of rhythm for the sake of practicing (try playing the chords in a long-short-long-short rhythm, then try short-long-short-long).  And don’t forget – practice slowly!

The tough thing about this Bach-Petri arrangement is that the melody is not always the top note of the chord!  You can view the first page of the sheet music here at  This is not an easy piece to learn.  I have not worked on this piece myself, but I imagine it requires a great deal of control to bring out the melodies/countermelodies in a musical way.

Have more practice tips about bringing out the melody?  Share them in the comments below.

Photo Credit: katinalynn | CC 2.0

Further thoughts?

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2 thoughts on “Practice Tips: Bringing out the Melody”

  1. First off – I LOVE this piece! I first heard it at a Leon Fleisher recital and fell in love with it! I played it at my senior recital in college. It is so beautiful, and I think that is because of all of the great melodies and sub-melodies going on. Joy gave some great ideas – here are a few more:

    When I learned this piece (and this could go for other pieces as well – particularly fugues, etc.), I found it helpful to take a colored pencil and trace the main melody that I wanted to stand out with one color, and any little sub-melodies or lines that I wanted to come out (but maybe not as much as the main melody) with a different color. This helps me to visualize which lines I need to bring out more. My score has the main melody (which is usually in the right hand, but often not on the top) in yellow, with a lot of important little sub-melodies in green (which are mostly in the left hand).

    Playing different dynamics in the same hand can be so tricky, as Joy has discussed! One way that I succeed in doing it is to think of the finger playing the melody as being heavier, or playing deeper in the keys with that finger.

    Because this piece is SO soft, it makes it even trickier. Try to keep everything except the main melody as SOFT as possible, and strive to get a nice ringing tone on that melody note.

    Another way you can bring out the melody is through duration, not necessarily dynamics. Many of the melody lines in this piece are marked with a tenuto, so if you can make sure to give those notes their absolute full value, that will help them to stand out as well.

    Another idea is to practice VERY slowly. Now, this piece is pretty slow anyway, so that does help. In my opinion, I like this piece a lot better if it is played on the slower end. When you are playing slowly (and doing LOTS of slow practice) your brain has more time to coordinate which fingers are playing louder than others. And LOTS of hands alone practice in this piece will be needed to truly master all of the little nuances and melodic lines.

    Lastly, something that helped me a lot was to imagine the piece as if played by an orchestra or other ensemble (or you can even go to youtube and find a recording that will help!). Maybe the melody in measure 10 (which is in the lower part of the right hand) should sound more like an oboe, which has a beautiful warm sound but can cut through some of the other sounds going on. Maybe the top notes (the sub-melody) are the strings or flutes. This helped me to really work on the sound of each individual line and make each line sound unique.

    Good luck! Hope that helped. Sorry to write a novel…. 😉

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