To the new piano player, there seems to be an endless list of different piano techniques, articulations, and styles. Your foundation, however, will be based on your mastering two essential techniques: playing in a legato style, and playing staccato.
Legato means smooth and connected. It is our default playing style, the first in our list of piano techniques to master. In this style, we are mimicking how singers sing. Singers try to take a single breath for each phrase of music and corresponding text. They then shape the phrase with dynamics and other means appropriate to the music’s style and emotive quality. Singing is, in someways, intoned speech. We actually speak much in the same way as singers sing. For example, read out loud the following sentence:
One of the fundamental piano techniques is a legato style.
How many breaths did you take? I bet you took one before starting the sentence and and one after the final period. This natural way of reading and speaking makes each word sound smooth and connected to each other. You may also note that the volume of each word is fairly consistent, perhaps dropping off a bit towards the end of the sentence. That is essentially what singers do, and how we as piano players should strive to do when we play musical phrases.
Just for fun, re-read the above sentence taking a breath after each word. That is not a legato style – it is choppy and ugly and hard to understand.
To understand legato at the piano, start with a simple right-hand five-note scale with the thumb on middle C. Play each white key slowly and steadily in turn up to G and back down again listening to the sound that you are making. There should not be any dead spaces between the notes (like when breathing after every word), nor should the notes blur into each other. Your notes should sound smooth, connected, with a full even volume, just like a singer would do.
When you understand legato technique, the keys take on an almost sponge-like quality as you play one note and release it at the precise moment when the next one sounds. How do yo do this? You could drive yourself crazy if you try to intellectualize at what point you exactly press and release each key. Instead, try to listen to your playing for that legato sound. Learn to recognize it and make it the one you want to hear when you are playing. In this way your ears and brain will direct the timing of the fingers for you.
In contrast to legato is playing in a staccato style, the second of our fundamental piano techniques. Staccato means detached. A staccato playing style asks us to separate the notes slightly so that each one is clear and distinct. It is not, however, like breathing after each word in a sentence. We can use an easy vocal technique however to help us understand a staccato style.
First sing a single pitch repeating the syllable ‘do’ in steady quarters at about 60 beats per minute. Keep a steady stream of air going as a single breath to create a legato style for maybe two measures. Now repeat the exercise, again with a single breath, but now gently interrupt the air flow with your tongue so that the pitch durations are an eighth-note followed by an eighth-note rest. A single breath still represents a phrase, but now you are singing in a staccato style.
Lets transfer the above sound to the piano. Replay the one-handed legato exercise we did earlier, sounding each note firmly and clearly, but now separate each note by allowing the finger to bounce up slightly before the next note sounds. This technique engages the dampeners to stop the strings from vibrating before the next notes starts.
A light ‘bouncing’ feel is a pretty good description of what a basic staccato touch is like. As before, listen to the sound you are making. The notes should still be clear, full and even, but with some separation between them giving the phrase a light quality. As with legato technique, learn what the staccato sounds like, so that you can recreate that sound when you want to.
This approach to playing different piano techniques is one that develops your ear. As your understanding of the sound of the various articulations improves, it will be your ear that directs the precise timing of your fingers that you will need in order to perform them.
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