“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Monday, May 30, 2011

Legato Playing

Legato at the Piano, A Snippet                                                                          

In a discussion on legato, a contributor to Piano Forum opined that she didn’t accept the notion that the piano is a percussive instrument. This is like not accepting the notion that the earth is round. I have my faults, certainly, but I’ve learned to accept and deal with the laws of physics. When my head stopped spinning I thought to myself, well, she is probably lost in that world where we artistic types often go, the world of wishful thinking. I responded: “My piano has hammers that strike strings. What does your piano have?” I heard back: "Good point. My piano has a choir inside, with an organ to accompany it. Sounds like yours has a wrecking crew. What the heck, to each his own." This was a good response, I thought, and quite funny. And food for thought.

That writer has identified the place where opinion and fact collide. Or to put it in more useful terms, where imagery and practice collide. On the one hand, imagery is great. It can help us to conceptualize a desired result and for some pianists, some of the time, that may be enough. But if it isn't enough, what then? For me, knowledge wins out over fancy; I want to know how.

Legato on the piano is an illusion at best because the piano is a percussive instrument. Some of the advice offered in the forum discussion was right on the money, i.e., a finger legato is about over-holding until the next note is depressed. There is another important factor, though, and that is how the finger connects with the key. For a finger legato, always play from the key, not from above the key. This cushions the attack and makes the connections seem more legato. Since "quality is determined by the number and prominence of overtones," the faster you strike the key, the more the upper, more dissonant partials are set in motion, making an even more percussive sound. Isn’t physics a great science?

Consider  playing succeeding notes in or under the decay of the preceding note. This will give a very nice
simulation of legato; it also implies a dimenuendo, which may not be called for. In any case, take care to consider where in the phrase hierarchy each succeeding note belongs. After a long melodic note, for example, listen well to how the phrase continues. Does the phrase require a new impetus? Or should it sound like a continuation of the long note? Is the phrase rising dynamically or falling? Music is not a democracy; not every note gets an equal vote.

Finally, perhaps more importantly, it's the legato pedal, sometimes referred to as syncopated pedal, that needs particular attention. The pedal gives us the ability to over-hold a particular note while moving away from it, thus creating a sense of legato. The way in which the key is depressed is still important. With the pedal down, strike the next note with just enough weight to override the reverberating sound, to give the illusion of connectedness, the new note floating above the din.

Another contributor to the forum remarked, somewhat haphazardly, that everyone plays legato all the time and it isn’t necessary to practice it particularly. He maintained, “if it isn’t legato, it’s staccato.” At first I opted to let this go as, well, sloppy thinking, but it began to eat away at me.

Does everyone play legato all the time, even in Czerny studies (shudder), as he says? We know that up to Mozart’s time the default articulation was detached, changing with Beethoven, who reportedly quipped that “Mozart’s playing sounded like so many chickens dancing on the keys.” Since Beethoven’s time pianists have worked to develop a singing style, a legato touch. I think here the operative word is worked. I decided that arbitrarily putting one finger down after another thoughtlessly won’t necessarily produce the illusion of legato. It’s important to consider 1) over-holding slightly; 2) the manner of attack, i.e., from the key, not from above; 3) where the note comes in the musical hierarchy of the phrase; 4) how to use the pedal.                                        
Armed with this information, when imagery isn't sufficient, we can perhaps use the laws of physics to our advantage and bring that world of wishful thinking closer to a musical reality.

Saturday, May 14, 2011



By Christopher Fisher
Oxford University Press

Back in the days when piano instruction at the University of Southern California took place in the faded parlors of Clark House, a West Adams Victorian mansion, and practice facilities were located in old army barracks just off Exposition Blvd., I had my first piano instruction. It was summer. I was only ten and perhaps a touch more anxious than my age might suggest, but I was nonetheless a reliable ten and was allowed to take the red car by myself all the way to Exposition Park. I felt ever so grown up.

The trauma of that first day, though, found a place in my memory that no amount of therapy could possibly treat.  My mother read the announcement aloud: “Group piano instruction offered free of charge to children age 12 with no previous music training. The purpose of the class is to demonstrate group teaching techniques to university pedagogy students.” Well, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Piano! Finally! I’d been begging for years. Once when I was eight I underscored my frustration by announcing to my parents that “here I am eight years old and can’t do anything.”

One Saturday morning mother loaded us into the Plymouth, my older brother and me, and drove us to the edge of campus where a squadron of institutional green, wood-frame buildings stood. Miss Bishop greeted us on a landing at the top of stairs worn thin from the repeated scuffing of combat boots and led us inside. We were the last to arrive. She wore a gray skirt cut at the calf and a white shiny blouse, just like the pictures I’d been drawing from magazines, and there was a brooch pinned above her heart. I had plenty of time to study her, from her bobbed salt and pepper hair down to her sensible shoes, because she began with the first to arrive, the ones lined up at the other end of the room. There must have been eight or ten children and their mothers all waiting to be interviewed.

“What is your name?”

This part hadn’t occurred to me, the questioning. And as I was already an anxious child, I began to feel apprehensive.

“And how old are you?”

There it was. The question I hadn’t anticipated.

“Twelve,” came the reply. They were all twelve. My brother was twelve. You had to be twelve!

Miss Bishop came, one child at a time, closer to where I crouched behind my mother as I tried to disappear. But I wanted to be there even though I didn't belong. Well, the conflicting emotions became too much for me and just as Miss Bishop stepped up to me, to my mother really, looking around behind her, before Miss Bishop said a word, I started to cry. These were desperate, bitter tears, you understand, tears of complete and utter desolation because all hope of ever playing the piano was now surely gone. I was only ten. I was too young for piano.

Later when I entered the university as a piano major, Miss Bishop and I had a good laugh over that episode. And yes, she let me stay in the class. It was a wonderful experience. We made thunderous sounds that first day up and down the keyboard, two kids at each gnarly old upright. The class was taught by Bernice Frost from New York, if my memory is correct, and whatever her approach was, it worked for me. We began reading immediately from her book called “The Adult at the Piano.”  

I belabor all this here, excessively maybe, because some people feel that learning piano in groups lacks seriousness or effectiveness. I think Fisher’s book serves to dispel those notions. He introduces the topic with a history (but I searched in vain for a recounting of my own experience), including references to classes taught by Liszt, Chopin and Schumann. From there he continues with practical matters such as class sizes and logistics and a discussion of learning theories. All age clusters and levels of maturity are considered, including college-level major and non-major applications.

The writing style is academic; it smacks of the doctoral dissertation and is therefore on the dry side. But the information is valuable and considerable, well referenced and, though academic, clearly expressed. There is a passable index. The meat of the book, I think, is the section called “Instructional Strategies.” Here Fisher deals with the nitty-gritty and the esoteric. You’ll find strategies for teaching rhythm, ear training, reading, all aspects of keyboard harmony including improvisation and composition, repertoire and technology, including “Integrating Technology in the Group Piano Classroom” and “Videoconferencing Technology.” Many of these teaching strategies are appropriate in the private lesson, as well. I think this book is worth a look.