How to Develop Legato Without Using the Pedal
By Laura Remick Copp
Why do you use the pedal while playing every note, or practically so, as the vast majority of students and many very good pianists do? By practicing without it so much can be gained in hand development, phrasing, indirectly, quality of tone, and most of all that wonderful asset legato. When the greatest artists play, who among us does not love to hear the beautiful cantabile, the luscious singing tone and a legato so perfect that it lulls us into that dolce far nienti, where we forget our earthly struggles and pass far beyond and above them, our very souls afloat upon a sea of tone and rhythm? A lovely dream! And one that can be assisted to realization in our own work by striving to obtain without the pedal the effect it produces, for one is more dependent upon this than he thinks.
Some cannot even play when the prop is removed, but the fingers must rely on other sources and they will. Let them sing the melody alone and see how quickly they will try their best to approximate the smoothness that was present heretofore. If they do not see that they do with the ear acting as guide, for the gap left by omitting the pedal must be filled by tone, resonant and vibrant.
After experimenting this new way try the old again, then return to the new, endeavoring to arrive at the same result both times as near as possible. Playing and stopping to think it over is a very beneficial way to practice and leads to concentration and more attentive attitude. Carefully listen and hear mentally what is wished for, then make another attempt, pausing frequently to compare and criticize. It is helpful to take the passage partway through with pedal, then remove and continue without it, for the fingers and the listening power to assist them will sooner or later acquire nearly as smooth a finish as when the damper was used. This necessary and beautiful adjunct to piano playing has been abused lately with the income of so much modern music, the talk of overtones, harmonics, holding of unlike chord formations together, and so forth, so that a little caution as to its omission may not be untimely. However, this sketch refers to the use in practice and especially to improve legato. Early classics, such as Rameau, Couperin, Scarlatti and Bach will do much to cultivate clearness and to prevent overuse.
The Keynote of Modern Piano Technic
Necessarily, when one tries by the mere fingers, unassisted, to produce a flowing tone the mechanical means whereby it is done are brought up for consideration and discussion. The source means much toward success and since the day of the pressure touch is practically past one does not bear down but lets the weight of a relaxed arm on the keys cause the sound, which starting from the shoulder comes down the entire arm, expressing itself through the fingertips and using them as a point of egress.
Imagine a lifting up from the keys at the same time the downward movement is felt and a fine touch control is acquired. The keynote of modern piano playing is relaxation, not only of the wrist as used to be so insisted upon in the yesterdays, but of the arm, and one might almost add the body as well, and when gained such freedom from tension results that it liberates the tone, which can then be colored and made musically to correspond to the mental concept one has for it.
There are, too, the usual devices for mastering legato, important among which is the almost overlapping tone. This idea can perhaps best be put into execution in some composition having a single note melody, such as a Chopin Nocturne, e.g., Op. 27 No. 2.
With free, relaxed arm make beautiful tones carrying one over and almost on to the next entirely unaided and with exquisite mental attention to each. The result should be a singing quality, clear, round, luminous and not dependent upon any outside sustaining and blending power. To demand more skill use the same kind of melody with an underlying accompaniment, as in Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words No. 14.
The notes G and B flat in measure 1 are to be played with more force and made to sound above the two E flats in alto and a like effect obtains in measures 2, 3 & 4, where double notes occur. Upon trial it will be found the tune can easily be carried without assistance from the pedal. Also in the Venetian Gondolier’s Song No. 6
the D, F natural, E flat, D, in measures 3, 4, and 5 can be sustained entirely by fingers, while the two-note phrases are played and with the same hand. The compass is not over an octave and being free from tension a good tone can be kept. The first number in Songs Without Words, measures 3, 4, etc.,
shows a melody of quarter notes over a broken chord accompaniment lying between both hands and equally divided, two notes for each. The very useful art of finger slipping enables one while holding the tune notes to reach the others, which must be played continuously showing no break where the hands join. In the introduction of No. 3
short runs intersperse the longer lengthened notes and must be smoothly played. Mendelssohn’s Duetto No. 18 shows a still
more extended accompaniment under sustained melody notes. Pieces of a more technical character that run around a good deal can be most advantageously practiced without any pedal and a real purlilng touch gained when the tone is properly placed and balance is in fingertips with not too much arm weight released. The Chopin Impromptus
and Schubert E flat are examples of this. MacDowell’s Perpetual Motion, Chopin Waltzes, etc., have like melodies but of a different nature and having shorter and more equal note values.
Legato in double notes, thirds and various other intervals must be considered. It is well to play all of one kind, thirds, sixths, etc., before trying combinations of various sizes as occur in the F Minor Fantasie of Chopin
near the beginning, where such a fascinating melody is found. Necessarily one must be expert in fingering, dexterous in slipping, exchanging, sliding one over the other, backwards and forwards, as so often is necessary in Bach before this interval playing minus the pedal will sound artistic. Such a study also brings out the idea of the oberstimme or upper voice, which usually carries the melody above the other parts and takes a well-balanced touch to make it more prominent than the rest.
Nothing could be more beautiful to develop this principal than Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words, No. 22 (ex. 9). At first glance it looks like a single note melody, as the Chopin Nocturne was, but the upper notes in the mass clef are taken by the right hand, which reveals the need of bringing out the highest voice above these supplementary ones. Small and full chords must have attention, too, and here the binding tone will make such playing without the pedal possible, that is one tone is held over after all of the others have been released and while the next position is being prepared this one still sounding will keep the chords from seeming disconnected and form the closest kind of legato.
This idea is also applicable to interval playing, so it should be employed in the practice, previously mentioned, of thirds, sixths, and other combinations. When phrases have large reaches in them a lateral movement of the wrist is of wonderful benefit to cover distances without sacrificing smoothness. With a free arm and relaxes elbow move the wrist back and forth to aid the fingers in getting more directly over the keys. Employ all of the means possible to obtain legato; practice much without the pedal, for when one does not depend on it he will resort to other ways and take pains to make the most of them.
In painting there is a brush called “ski-blender,” that is used to put on the finishing touch – all pigments have been applied, all coloring done, in fact, everything necessary is completed, but a few light strokes with this special brush will add a softer, more mingled look, a sort of glow that was not to be seen before. It beautifies by blending, and so let us use the pedal, doing much of the ground work without it, not depending upon it to aid deficient technic, nor do what the fingers should be able to accomplish almost entirely of themselves, but learn to play independently, save its use for more of a finishing touch and apply as an artist does the sky-blender.