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I'm learning the piano and my teacher always says to me: "just focus on the melody, sing it in your head, and voicing and phrasing will go along", which works greatly as long as the piece is a mix of bass/accompaniment/melody.

When I do that I can maintain good phrasing in the melody, and with pratice, I can also keep somewhat keep track of the phrases present in the accompaniement/bass.

In addition, I recently read somewhere that some people have the capacity to follow multiple melodies at once (up to something like 9, I believe), and I don't recall if this is something that you can train or not.

While playing fugues, in order to maintain good phrasing on all voices at once, do pianists rely on hear (and focus on all voices) or is it just a matter of pure muscle memory ? Perhaps it is a mixture of both, in which case the pianists switch their attention rapidly between voices depending on their needs, and put the others on autopilot meanwhile ?

I find myself doing the latter a lot, but of course fugues bring things to a whole new level, and it might not be satisfactory enough to proceed like this, hence my question.

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The main thing you're talking about is called audiating, which means hearing the music in your head. Being able to audiate is a very important skill for all musicians, and it is a learned skill.

Right now, it sounds like you are audiating at a level that most people start with. You can hear the melody or the most important line of music as you play. Humming along with that is also a good tool to reinforce the audiation and help you keep track of the music.

As you develop, you'll find that you can audiate other parts of the music and also audiate more than one part at a time. You should consciously practice this. Learn a part of the music other than the main melody and hum it while you play.

So the answer to your question is that each musician audiates to the level to which they are capable. Some may pick a single line to audiate while playing a fugue, others may be audiating all the parts at once. There are some musicians (perhaps forever amateurs) who rely entirely on muscle memory and do not audiate at all.

Switching voices in your audiation is a good exercise, especially if you change when and to which voices you switch each time you play. I expect the best musicians in the world are the best partly because they have more highly developed secondary skills like audiation.

  • I actually practice audiation a lot through ear training and mental play, but I never thought of practising audiating several voices at once ! I can only imagine how much time and effort would allow me to audiate fully a 5 voice fugue at tempo. Would you say that it is a common skill amongst professional musicians (I mean the several voices at once part) ? – abernard Dec 30 '17 at 9:49

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