Ten Cardinal Points in Legato Piano Playing

By Susan B. Dungan

Every vital principle of legato playing can be explained to the beginner, whether child or adult. Still, though the subject has been exploited to the breaking point, we cannot hear that we fail to produce the effect demanded by the little Italian word, legato, which really means “smooth, flowing, connected.”

  1. Single Tone Quality

The first cardinal point in legato piano playing deals with single tone quality. Each tone in a passage, like a link in a chain, determines the quality of the passage. This very important quality can best be produced by the combination of these ten cardinal points.

  1. Tones Should Flow Connectedly

The tones should flow connectedly, so aptly expressed by the rather time-worn, but very suggestive simile, “like a string of pearls.”

  1. Don’t Chop off the Tones

The third cardinal point consists in being careful not to chop off the tones or allow them to die away so as to destroy the point of contact which creates legato. Holding one tone after the next has been sounded destroys this connection quite a badly as the above. One authority solved this problem by timing the rising of one finger and the falling of the next to the same instant. However, more than mere finger and key action is required: the tones must be really felt to sing together.

  1. Relaxation

To draw beautiful tones from the piano, the nerves of the ball of the finger must be cultivated. Any strain or contraction of the wrist, forearm or shoulder is sure to interfere. Beware of an anxious, overburdened or uncompromising frame of mind. This invariable causes rigidity of muscles, saps the vitality of the player, and destroys the realization of ideals. Test this by sitting quietly at the piano, with arms, body and mind relaxed. Drop each finger on a chosen key, first from the metacarpal joint, then from the wrist, them from the arm. Listen for beauty of tone, until it develops. Many of the world’s greatest artists have thus cultivation their singing tone.

  1. Control at the Center

Let control go hand in hand with relaxation, concentration of the mind, control of the muscles. Let us have “control at the center, action at the extremities.”

  1. Approaching the Key

Preparation of the hand and fingers, before touching the keys, makes for beauty of tone. Screwing around the fingers, hand, arm or body, can have no effect after the tone is once sounded.

  1. Holding the Key

The length of time your finger remains on the key of the utmost importance. A good tone will never be produced unless the key is pressed all the way down and consciously held, allowing the tone to “sing,” as the children say, till the next one begins to “sing.”

  1. Releasing the Key

Beware of sluggishness in the finger. It should leave the key with elasticity the instant the connection is made with the next tone.

  1. Legato Melody Regardless of Intervening Passage

All intervening passages, embellishments and accompaniment must be so subdued as that the melody tones will stand out as connected tones singing one into the other.

10. Pedal Legato

The principles of the use of the damper pedal are just the same as those of the finger legato. To make the connection between tones or chords, the pedal catches the retiring chord, so to speak, holds it till the next chord comes, and thus leaves the hands free to travel to a distant position on the keys. Carefully done, this leads to the producing of brilliant orchestral effects, otherwise impossible.