Pianist contributor Melanie Spanswick gives top advice on legato.
Legato, or playing smoothly, is probably one of the first techniques we master as beginner pianists. We learn how to transfer our finger weight evenly from note to note, joining them all neatly. But what do we do when notes are difficult or impossible to join? Whether a large leap or an awkward, widespread melody line, we simply can’t reach the notes purely with our fingers, and yet there still must be a sense of shape and legato. That’s where the illusion of legato comes in handy.
1. Sit down at the piano and with your right hand play a middle C and then the D next to it; use your thumb followed by your second finger. Practise playing legato, transferring weight from thumb to finger, listening to the smooth sound you create. Now play both notes with a rich tone, using just your thumb, and listen to the sound ‘gap’ between the notes as you play them one after the other.
2. To create the illusion of legato, we must close that sound gap. Play the C with your thumb using a deep touch. Keep your thumb depressed on the key until a millisecond before you move it to play the D, also using your thumb. The D must be played slightly lighter than the C, and by moving the thumb from the C to the D extremely quickly and lightly, the ear shouldn’t be able to detect a gap in the sound between the notes. Aim to match the sound of the second note (D) to that of the dying C.
3. It can help to employ the ‘drop-roll’ technique’; a pair of slurred or joined notes are played with the hand and wrist dropping as the finger or thumb plays the first note, then rising up as the second note is played. Using the wrist and hand to ‘drop’ into the C, as you reach the bottom of the key with your wrist in a lowered position, ‘catch’ the D (played with the thumb) as your hand and wrist rolls upwards.
4. Practise until the legato is smooth and fluent; you will need to listen carefully. You can then experiment with other fingers; try playing two consecutive notes using your fifth finger. The try using your fourth finger. Also practice the same note patterns using the left hand too.
5. Finally, introduce larger intervals. Play from a middle C to an E; the drop-roll technique, slurring the two notes with your thumb, will be most beneficial with larger note skips. Drop the hand and wrist into the C, playing it with your thumb, via a flexible downward movement, and as you turn the wrist to move upwards, manoeuvre the thumb extremely quickly to play the E softly. As always, match the sound of the dying note (C) to that of the new note (E).
Work will be required in order to close the sound gap and create the illusion when playing larger intervals, but with practice it is possible to ‘join’ notes without using consecutive fingering or the sustaining pedal, mastering that important legato illusion.