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Legato - An Illusion On The Piano


Haven’t we all heard the familiar statement from our piano teachers “Boy/Girl ah, you need to play more legato. Connect your notes…” But what does it exactly mean to play legato? Before that though, first let us have a look at the significance of legato.

Legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said “the most important thing is to transform the piano from a percussive instrument into a singing instrument”. This is because music is primarily all about song and dance, and minus the dance, we are left with song. Some of the most expressive moments in the history of art music are only realized through the uninterrupted line. To illustrate this, let’s have a listen at Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Pay special attention to the build up from 5:04 to 5:53. Had the line been broken (non-legato), the intensity and sense of direction would have been lost to a certain degree.

Coming closer to home, one of the most prolific composers for the piano placed an enormous emphasis on playing legato - and well, it is none other than Chopin. Chopin was said to have been inspired by the Italian bel canto singing style, which ultimately reflected in the need for the most delicate legato touch in many of his works.

Back to the original question: So how exactly does one achieve legato on the piano? The answer is truthfully: One does not. It’s impossible to achieve a perfect legato. To see why, have a look at the screenshot from the iPhone’s voice memo app below. These are five notes played as legato as possible in four seconds. The spike in intensity corresponds to when the note is struck. Additionally, remember that if the key is released, the dampers mute the string from vibrating.

Note Decay Illustration

In a true legato, one would expect the sound profile to move smoothly from one note to another. As we can see from the picture, each note decays after being struck, leaving a rather abruptly changing profile with each successive note hit. However, all hope is not lost. The piano can create an illusion of legato. Samuil Feinberg once wrote “(The illusion of legato is) joining the beginnings of each sound, or at least the memory of it”.

So here are the key points.

(1) One would have to be very sensitive to the attack of each successive note, ensuring that they form a musical line. A counterexample would be to have odd and unwanted accents in the middle of the line.

(2) One could reduce the abrupt sound profile by holding the previous note a little longer than it has to be held as the next note is played (an example in the video below from 0:21 to 0:23). This is a manner in which Harpsichordists are more aware of. Of course, this is easier to pull off in passages that are not too quick.

Have a listen (and a look!) at the following video. A Chopin nocturne played by Kate Liu. It illustrates the idea really well.

Remember, due to the natural decay of the sound, we are in fact working against the piano when we strive for a legato. This is precisely why it is so important for all pianists to understand the nature of the instrument, and ceaselessly strive to conjure the illusion of playing legato. Only then, will the magic begin. Happy connecting.

Edwin Png graduated with First Class Honours in Physics from Nanyang Technological University. Currently a piano teacher, Edwin is a versatile pianist, regularly performing challenging two-piano works in sold-out concerts and accompanying instrumentalists and vocalists.

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