Category: Legato

Some examples of teaching legato

More examples of teaching legato

J.M. playing Debussy’s Reverie

I waited for a long note in her right hand. I waited for the second half of that note while as it was beginning to lay dormant. Even though we were not sitting close, I “picked” up, took over, her note with my arm and made a strong gesture of crescendo and expectancy to the right, until it burst  through the onset of her next note.


The middle part of the piece, that begins with a four voice chorale of D Minor chords interleafing with E Major chords.

We deconstructed it tonally. I had her start by playing just one of the four voices making up the chorale: | d4 e4 e4 d4 | d4 e4 e4…  Her main goal was to work on making each note independently resonant, and in no need of any of the other three voices. It was to be fully expressive on its own. As if we entered the “Way Back Machine” (, and Polyphony had not been invented yet.

We did the same procedure for the upper of the two voices in the left hand (the tenor voice). Same goal. To free it in its resonance from the presence of any of the other three voices.

Next the alto voice and then the soprano voice (the two right hand voices). And then immediately put the four voices together. It was my hope, which she successfully realized, that for at least a few fleeting moments, or  hopefully several moments, the self-sufficiency of each voice would still stand out clearly against the smothering influence of the other three voices and the grasping chords they formed.


A couple of measures later, as one of the four voices starts to move faster than the other three (playing a triplet).

The key to phrasing the triplet and choosing an appropriate loudness for each of its notes, lies in the lower three sustaining voices. Our ear must go to the latter and track the decay, or more positively speaking, the present remains of their resonance. It is easy to loose track of what those voices are doing if our ear is captivated by the triplet on top. And if it is captivated by the top voice, it is only due to ‘time’: in the form of the relative quickness of the notes.

If, though, you follow the evolution of the quarter notes, as you play the second and third triplet notes, you will find that the question of how loud to play each of these two latter notes, is fully decided, and determined automatically, by the mid courses of the sounds of the held notes. The result is that, if not exactly balanced in decibels, the attention given to the static notes causes the four voices, including the more rapidly moving voice, to stay well blended throughout the quarter note.


These are some of the final touches of sound artistry at the piano that can be subsumed under the idea of ‘legato’. While the “Platonic Idea” of legato may be conceptually simple, and while the listener hears the constancy of the effect of this Idea, to achieve it as an ongoing phenomenon in time, the pianist must constantly be varying what they are doing with their bodies and their ears to suit the to allow the legato effect to arise within the current details of the matrices of the notes.

Different situations require a different working plan to achieve the effect of legato. Rather than assume that a simple, or constant, effect is the result of the application of a constant physical cause, each connection between sounds often requires an entirely different physical solution. Here are some more examples, not spoken about above. sometimes you want to ‘push’ the arm ahead of the hand.  sometimes the elbow needs to flow more in abstract space while remaining attached to the body at the shoulders. sometimes the hand has to go through some unexpected, in between, shapes and stances on the way between one note and the next. “Legato” is the common result
of these many different physical techniques, each one suited to the particular notes and fingers you are playing.

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