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Pianistic Legato

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.

  1. 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!
  2. Contrast verbally the difference between staccato (short) and legato (smoooooooth). The more drama here, the more memorable the difference in terms will be.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

  1. Keep the thumb (Middle C) depressed while playing the successive fingers staccato ascending and then descending.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.

Cover tiny file 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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Music Pedagogy Question: How do I teach about eras in music?

I had a conversation with a friend and fellow private teacher some time ago and, in the course of our discussion, she asked how I had learned about the various eras of music, and then how I approach teaching them to my students. The question caught me a little off guard because the knowledge that I have in this area isn’t something that I have labored long and hard for, the way I practice a four movement Beethoven Sonata. Additionally, I would be the first to admit that, not having worked intensively on this subject, I am not equipped to teach it on the same level I am to teach difficult pianistic techniques or literature. In a sense, because of the many wonderful teachers with whom my siblings and I have studied, it seemed that this sort of information was “just there.”

“Uh, um, I don’t know…” was my initial reaction. But then I realized that I did know how this knowledge was acquired: our teachers talk about it. Sometimes a large percentage of a lesson will be spent in discussion about a particular composer and the times surrounding his life. Maybe we talk about his family, his favorite instrument, his most commonly known works and more interestingly, the forgotten ones. They talk about the particular musical elements of an era: what types of ideas were popular at that time? How were their instruments different from ours, and how did that influence the music that was written? What are the technical (physical) elements required to recreate that musicality?

It was a lightbulb moment for me as I realized that anything I knew on the subject was due to intentional conversation on the part of my several teachers. They each in their own way have made a habit of discussing eras and composers with us throughout our lessons, especially when we begin to study a new piece. And then, they acknowledge our responsibility as the student. One teacher in particular strongly encourages us to look things up for ourselves when we have a question. After all, you are your own best teacher (more on that at a later date).

After several years of struggling to develop the disciplines of observing and intentionally looking for information beyond the notes on the page, it has finally become habitual for me before commencing the study of a new piece to observe the composer and the dates of his life. From there, I should know, or have enough information to research, what era I am dealing with and what the stylistic elements are of that era.

 “All of this is good and well when I’m the student, but what about when I’m the one responsible for training the minds and hands of the next generation of musicians?”  That’s a great question, and one it has taken me years to articulate so I could discern what was missing in my teaching and then work to find solutions.

Here’s a quick-start checklist of things to know as you introduce eras to your students:

  1. Memorize the dates of the four primary eras: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern.
  2. Familiarize yourself with 2-3 commonly-known composers from each era.
  3. Learn 3-4 descriptive adjectives to describe the style of each era.

Make a point to just talk through these things in the lesson as you study a piece. You don’t have to talk about all three points at one time if you aren’t comfortable jumping into it all at once. If it’s a moderately challenging piece, the student will probably be studying it for a few lesson periods and you can research and/or brush up what you need to have ready for the next lesson during the week. Be natural, and don’t try to say what you don’t know. Those things can keep until the next lesson when you’ve collected your thoughts. At the same time, don’t be afraid to pause and look something up in your music dictionary during the lesson. It’s okay for your student to know that we are all learning and growing together, and seeing you use your resources could be just the example and encouragement they need to become excellent musicians and teachers themselves.

Introducing: [a new arrangement for] The String Quartet

We at Neely Marketplace would like you to meet four of our very dear comrades from the music department: Miss 1, Miss 2, Mammoth V, and Big C. We hope you enjoy your time with them.

 

Violin 1: Almost everyone has heard of the string quartet, haven’t they?

Cello: Probably; everyone has heard of you and your assistant, and most everyone has heard of me (thoughtful contemplation)

Violin 2: Yes, and I believe most everyone knows specifically what role I play, and is familiar with the expression “2nd fiddle…”

Violin 1: And nearly as many could tell you that it is formed by four members (though not the four) of our amazing relations. In fact, many weddings today are gracefully offset–

Cello: Ehem. Excuse me, Miss 1.

Violin 1: Yes?

Cello: Before you expound on our primary occupation in the 21st century, we should remember our companion.

Violin 1: That’s an excellent point, Big C.

Violin 2: Yes, many people think that our fourth player is just a random “3”.

Viola: Most don’t even know my name.

Cello: I do hope our audience will forgive the interruption, but now that we have him hear, let us introduce you to Mammoth V. We’re ready to proceed with your introduction, Miss 1.

Violin 1: Thank you, Big C. We certainly operate the best when we are all accounted for and playing together. Let’s see, I was just opening up the second phrase of my solo… As I was saying, many weddings today are gracefully off-set by the lovely sounds of our quartet, and if you didn’t have them at your wedding, well, you probably have a family member

Violin 2: or friend,

Violin 1: who did.

Cello: But how much is commonly known today about the history of this versatile and altogether charming chamber group? Take a look at our trivia questions below.

Viola: They are sure to test your knowledge

Violin 2: of this amazing combination we call

Unison: The String Quartet

Coda: Answers are at the end of this post, but DON’T peak.

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Violin 1: Lovely ending, everyone. And now to you, our valued audience, we offer a souvenir program of inquiries with which to test your knowledge of our history, and also by which you can remember tonight’s performance. Thank you for lending us your attention.

 

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Trivia:

  • During which musical period did the string quartet become well-known?
  • Who is considered to be the “Father of the String Quartet?”
  • Who commissioned the work that became one of the earliest string quartet compositions?
  • How many movements are there in traditional string quartet form?

 

We hope your visit with our special guests was both educational and enjoyable. In their honor, and for the first time, we are pleased to make available a string quartet arrangement of “Blow, Ye Golden Trumpets, Blow,” a little-known Christmas carol, but one that can certainly claim our attention. Please click here for details.

 

Trivia Answer Key: Classical, Franz Joseph Haydn, the Baron Carl von Joseph Edler von Fürnberg, four

NEW Christmas Arrangement – FREE for 1 Day

O Come, All Ye Faithful

This week we are featuring an advanced violin arrangement, and are giving it away for 1 day. Here are a few simple details:

  • Follow this link so you can add the product to your cart.
  • Proceed to the check-out and receive the arrangement for FREE.
  • Hurry! The give-away ends tomorrow!

Don’t forget to pass this offer on to your fell musicians, teachers, and students!

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NEW Christmas Sheet Music, and more to follow!

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School may only be in its first official week for your family, but for musicians, it’s time to start considering the holiday season. As our family plans the calendar of events for the Christmas season, we look forward to a myriad of opportunities to minister through music. It’s always a joy (and challenge!) to find, prepare, and perform arrangements that will meet the needs of our audiences. Because we understand the struggles of searching for God-honoring music that’s “just right” for the occasion, especially at Christmas, we are excited to bring you several options for fresh arrangements suitable for a variety of instruments, ensembles, and skill levels. Stay tuned so you can be sure to take advantage of the arrangements and sales that are to come! But for now, come over to the Marketplace and take a look at the 3 arrangements of the heart-warming German carol, Silent Night, set for solo violin, viola, or cello, each on an upper-elementary level.

Free Gift for 1 Day!

We are pleased to release our Christmas recording, Let the Joy Begin, as an audio download in our online store. As a special gift to you this season, we are offering the download to you completely free of charge, no purchase necessary, for one day only! Hurry and download now – the offer expires at midnight! Feel free to pass the word along to your friends, family, and neighbors.
We hope you enjoy the true meaning of the holiday, and have a wonderful Christmas at your house!

 

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New Release | Promise Fulfilled

It’s here! Just in time for Christmas, Promise Fulfilled is now in stock! With seven arrangements for solo lever and pedal harp, this new release by Aubrey Elliott and Victoria Neely features songs that reflect the coming of the Messiah.

Also, the offer for free shipping on all books and music has been extended until November 30, so don’t forget to apply the coupon code PromisesShipped2016 at checkout!

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Promise Fulfilled | Pre-order now!

Just in time for Christmas! Aubrey Elliott and Victoria Neely have finished a second book for solo harp, this time focusing on the birth of the Savior. Pre-order Promise Fulfilled today, and use coupon code PromisesShipped2016 to receive free shipping checkout on all orders of books and music!

Titles include: O Come, Little Children, Once in Royal David’s City, See in Yonder Manger Low, Joy to the World, and more!

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Reflections of Praise

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This recently released recording by the Mieczkowski Family is everything it looks to be, and much more! The Mieczkowskis seek to honor their God in all they do, and that desire is made manifest in the beautiful excellence of their musicianship. Our family has been blessed and inspired by this CD, and the wonderful example of the family behind it. We hope it encourages you as much as it has us.

You can visit their website here to listen to samples and purchase the CD- you won’t be disappointed! It is also available on iTunes, Amazon Music, Google Play, and CDBaby.