Two thoughts on playing Legato
July 9, 2018
Both blog entries today have to do with the undefined, yet very definite influence, that sounds, as imagined in the pianist’s ears, have over the extrinsic sound coming into the listener’s ears.
Legato. Connecting a longer duration note to shorter duration note.
The connectivity of a legato melody is most often broken when a note that has been present for some time (in other words a relatively longer note) is followed by a shorter note.
An example would be a half note tied to an eighth note followed by an eighth note. The longer note (the half plus the eighth) has had more time to decrease in loudness, and so it is harder to focus the ear on the fainter part of that note that at the point i time just before it connects to the eighth note. This continuity is also broken because at the moment the eighth note begins there is a sudden change in loudness, as the fainter part of the sound that is left over at the end of the longer note tries to connect smoothly to the suddenly louder beginning, or attack, of the eighth note.
While playing a legato line it is easy to overlook moments such as these and forget that a smooth connection between notes is still required in spite of the change from soft to suddenly loud. The result, if not handled wisely, will sound to the listener like a sudden and jagged accent instead of a fluid legato.
When we are near the end of the longer sound, we must learn to focus our ear on what’s left of that sound. Curiously, just the act of becoming aware, a second time, of the same note, causes a subjective sensation of that note suddenly getting a little louder. The act of awareness acts like a re-kindling the note, like blowing on a fire. It is then easier to connect the later part of the long sound in a legato manner into the beginning of the next note.
Taking a percussion-like instrument such as the piano, and making it sound melodic (lyrical) to the listener, is a magician’s feat that involves “smoke and mirrors”. An example of this is what was just said about rekindling the sound of a note near to its termination in time.
The basic fact we are confronted with is that a note on the piano sounds much louder at the beginning than at the end. The moment of attack arouses a cluster of high overtones which might leave us confused, if all we were to hear of the note was that attack, about the identity of the intended pitch of the note. This is literally and figuratively a poor beginning to a process that is meant to link one pitch to a succeeding one in a smooth manner.
What should we do, or what can we do, when a sound begins in a chaotic cluster of higher pitches, and then, once the attack is over, what continues is a remnant of the sound that gets softer and softer until crossing over to silence?
If the effect of legato had to do with how we connect the end of one note to the beginning of the next, we would create a ziz-zag curve oscillating rapidly between very soft and very loud. We would never sing a note this way, and a violinist would never bow this way.
It would almost seem that what is needed is some magical way to connect the middle of one piano sound to the middle of the next. The middles of piano sounds are special. They are still loud enough to posses a warm resonance (which emerges out of the louder attack which has now subsided), and not yet soft enough that we would get the feeling that there was nothing left to tangibly connect into the next note. The piano will sing when we connect the middle of one note to the middle of next: one rich resonance to another rich resonance. But how would we do such a thing.
This is where the magician’s technique of sleight of hand comes into play (or is it sleight of ear). This is a reliable principle: what we hear in the sound the audience will hear. If we hear resonance connect to resonance so will they. While legato would seem to require a magical transformation of the sound of a piano note, instead it only requires a combination of memory of the recent past and seeing into the immediate future.
As the career of a note ends, we remember what it sounded like just a moment earlier when the sound was most resonant and had the clear sense of singing on a single pitch that was so hard to find in the attack.
We are jugglers of the tenses of time. Like a juggler we seem to confound the senses of the audience. We fuse into the current moment a memory of the sound’s resonance a moment or even an instant earlier, and, the anticipated resonance of the note whose attack we are about to execute. We revive the past and tell the future: at least in the small, privileged unit of time we call the present…the advancing present.*
Maybe this helps explain why the great piano composers chose to write their most lyrical pieces for the piano. By overcoming the acoustic odds, our magic leaves in its wake an impression of smoothness and consistency to the flow sound.**
In summary, we rely on the fact that the middle of the note’s duration is usually the sweetest and most melodic. By ignoring the attacks, as well as the last instants of a sound, we begin to be able to link middle to middle, richest moment of sound to richest moment of sound.**
* Most pianists start out earlier in life by being most aware of the onset of each new note: because this is the moment within the course of the sound when the most sudden and acute muscular action occurs. What we do physically during the remainder of the sound is usually passive in comparison to the beginning. But, as we have shown, this moment is also when sound is at its least pleasurable, when it is raucous and disagreeable. The result is that the pianist, usually unconsciously, switches their awareness, at just this moment, from the realm of hearing to the realm of feeling. In doing so the pianist tends to conflate one sense with the other: I think I heard it when I actually felt it.
**The audience might not be aware of this process as the piece begins, but the more the pianist continues in the piece to try to connect middle to middle in her or his imagination, the more the sound ingredients are there for the listener to believe that it is happening too.