Piano Playing Tip on How to play legato and staccato

02 September 2011
imports_PIA_0-pdm7nop3-100000_77248.jpg Piano Playing Tip on How to play legato and staccato
Expert piano teacher and Pianist contributor Tim Stein, pictured, answers a reader question.

'I’m having difficulty playing staccato in one hand and legato in the other, especially when playing contrary motion. Have you any ideas for making this easier to do?'

Numerous examples exist of the need to apply both staccato and legato at the same time, and it’s an invaluable technique to learn. While some people have little trouble with this (having had to do it at Grade 1 level), other students can find the coordination a little difficult. The easiest way to begin to develop the skill is by starting with a simple five-finger exercise. Place the right hand over five notes from C–G (middle C position for comfort initially) and the left, an octave below, from F–C (finger five on F and the thumb on C).

When I teach my students, I find it easier if the fingers play in contrary motion away from the body, with the right going up and the left going down. Afterwards, you can reverse the direction. Begin with the right-hand playing in crotchets and the left hand playing in minims. Count aloud a very slow 1–2, 1–2. The right hand will come off the notes as you count 2, while the left-hand remains holding on. Alternatively, if you find this difficult, you can just say ‘together, lift, together, lift’. Do this very slowly at first until it feels easy to do. If you’re still having difficulty, you can exaggerate the speed and the movement, playing both very very slowly and increasing the height of the lift. It’s the same basic idea as patting your head and rubbing your tummy.

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Once you’ve got the feel for it, it won’t take long to do. When you can manage with the one hand, do a switchover so that the hand that was playing staccato is now playing legato. Sometimes it’s easier to do this without looking, trying to focus on the feelings in each hand, but whatever you do, always practise at a snail’s pace until you are comfortable with the coordination between the hands.
There are several other tricks you can try. First, have one hand play on the keys while the other taps out the notes on your lap or on the fallboard of the piano, or let one hand play a note while the other depresses the key without making any sound. This can seem very difficult at first, so again practise very slowly and separately until you have the desired control in each hand. When you can manage five notes an octave apart, vary the distances (two octaves apart, three, and so on), the number of notes and the tempos, and then try with hands crossed over too.

Once you’ve mastered the basics, explore the same idea but with different degrees of tonal control and dynamics. The right hand could play piano and the left forte, or the right-hand pianissimo with the left-hand fortissimo, for example. These techniques are especially valuable in contrapuntal writing, or in Baroque music in general, such as the music of Bach (the Inventions, the Preludes and Fugues and the Partitas for instance), where you want to vary the sound and phrasing of the two hands in order to make the music more interesting or bring out a fugal voice or two. It’s also very useful in Romantic music like the Chopin Nocturnes, where the pianist is often playing a legato left hand while deploying a different kind of articulation in the right.

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