What is legato for a pianist? We all know that legato passages are marked with slurs. And hopefully we all know that legato actually means “smooth;” not quiet, as is a somewhat common mistake among students.
I remember as a young violinist that slurs made perfect sense: simply combine all of the notes under the slur in a single bow. Of course, as I matured musically, the world of slurs and legato playing broadened and I learned that there is much more to a beautiful legato than just combining notes in a bow. However, my point is this: beginning string players have a very simple, but correct way to mechanically play legato. At the same time that I easily comprehended the straightforward explanation of slurs in my violin studies, I was downright confused about them in piano. I did understand that slurs were different from dots (staccato; short), but that was about it.
It wasn’t until I was in my fourth year of advanced piano studies that the mechanical means of producing a beautiful legato across the ivories began to dawn in my mind. My teacher assigned me a series of exercises to further the development of finger independence (see below). I was to practice this first staccato, and then legato. Suddenly one day during practice, something clicked. The physical, muscular action required from my hand on the keys made sense. Now, this may seem elementary to any pianist who reads this, but it was a massive hurdle overcome for me. The secret is (and I’m talking about very fine, note-to-note detail work here): pianistic legato is achieved when the first key is released at the same time that the subsequent key is depressed.
Now, how to play advanced literature and church music with a lovely legato touch is beyond the scope of this study, but I want to discuss the importance of teaching this to our young beginners and elementary students, as well as few things to help give a jumpstart for application.
Most piano methods introduce slurs early on in the study, which is wonderful. I as a teacher have come to realize that, with some of my first students, I failed to begin teaching legato playing from the time it was introduced in the method, at least in part because I was teaching these students at the same time I was endeavoring to understand the concept myself. Thankfully, my mistake was brought to light in time to fill the gaps I had unintentionally created.
Learning to play legato is crucial if a student is going to advance to playing even mid-level literature, and playing it well. It is common for elementary students to approach the keys with a course, pounding effect – understandable when they are just learning the basics of note-reading and other foundational items, but utterly inexcusable for a true pianist-in-training. Teaching and enforcing legato technique can help soften the touch of immature musicians on the keyboard, helping to develop a feel for “kneading” or “massaging” the keys.
It is also helpful in forming the hands to the correct position – rounded hands, curved, not collapsed, knuckles, and straight wrists – as it is nearly impossible to play legato with improper positioning.
Another benefit of early legato training is that it helps to relax the muscles in the hands. The sidekick that almost always shows up with beginner key pounding is extreme tension. Again, this is understandable, but ultimately not acceptable. Overmuch tension in the hands, arms, shoulders, or anywhere else in the body can lead to serious and painful muscle problems, also known as musicians’ injuries.* So, teaching our little tykes to play legato lays the foundation once again, this time for practicing and performing high-stress pieces in the future, during which it will be crucial that they stay relaxed.
But how are we supposed to teach this? The most effective “method” I have found is simple, careful explanation and demonstration. You don’t want to bore your 6 year-old (who is probably having a hard time sitting still on the bench anyway) with a drawn-out sermon on how to play legato and why they must practice it. Keep it short each lesson. This is a skill that they will use the rest of their lives, and it may take several lessons to master it and that’s quite all right. Here’s a basic outline of how I approach teaching this skill. Most students aren’t going to get it right the first time, and you may need to repeat segments or the entirety of the below list several lessons in a row Be creative and change it up to fit your teaching needs and style. Teaching ideas are not meant to be “cookie cutter” from person to person.
- Tell them what legato means in English. Sometimes it’s fun to ask if they already know, but be sure that they know that you are not necessarily looking for the right answer. It’s okay to guess!
- Contrast verbally the difference between staccato (short) and legato (smoooooooth). The more drama here, the more memorable the difference in terms will be.
- Demonstrate the difference (a slow scale works well as a demo piece), pointing out what your hand is actually doing – playing each note individually, or connecting the notes in a long string where each two consecutive keys are lifted and depressed simultaneously.
- Let them try! Scales always work well for this sort of experiment, but if you haven’t introduced them yet, a short, one-hand piece previously mastered should work, too. Encourage liberally, pointing out any and every little element of success.
Exercise for Finger Independence
This exercise can be played on any major penta-scale and is increasingly effective for finger independence with many accidentals. Here it is in C Major for the right hand only.
1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5
C D E F G C D E F G C D E F G C D E F G C D E F G
- Keep the thumb (Middle C) depressed while playing the successive fingers staccato ascending and then descending.
- Move on to the next group of 5 and repeat the process, keeping the second finger sustaining its note while the other four fingers play in order ascending and descending.
- Continue until each of the five fingers has been held out, and be sure that your hand position remains correct. If you are new to finger independence techniques, you may need to stop frequently to relax. By all means, please do!
- Repeat with the left hand, only this time your fifth finger will be on C (one octave below Middle C) and the exercise will appear to be backward.
Repeat the exercise with each hand, playing legato. This is usually more challenging, so take a deep breath, relax, shake out your hands, and try it again!
There are many variations for this exercise, and I’ve listed some below. Master the original, and then pick and choose, combine and create to find what best fits your needs.
- Metronome – play quarter notes at 60 BPM; gradually speed up if desired
- Hands together – parallel motion, legato and staccato
- Hands together – contrary motion, legato and staccato
- Reversal: play exactly as written above (right hand), but working right to left, descending and then ascending. The same can be done for left hand, following the same backwards finger order from step 4.
*There are many types of musicians’ injuries and a number of causes to match, often depending on the instrument being studied. Do your research and play wisely. This post is not intended to diagnose, prevent, or cure any issue. Please seek professional musical and medical advice as needed.
If this article was beneficial for you, please consider leaving a review in the comment section below. Also, click here to read the article about teaching eras of music.
Looking for a good piano method? Consider Keys for the Kingdom, a Christ-centered and musically sound curriculum for laying a firm foundation in the lives of young piano students.
|look inside||Keys for the Kingdom Level A Method Book. Shawnee Press. Christian Instruction. Softcover. 64 pages. Shawnee Press #H5001. Published by Shawnee Press (HL.35012003).|
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