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From Legato to Staccato: staying connected at the piano (Video)

The universal chant among my adult students is, “I can’t play those darn staccato scales and arpeggios. They’re impossible!”

And the reason for all the moans and groans is, they feel DISCONNECTED, and not safely secure in the keys. It’s in part PSYCHOLOGICAL.

If students can pull off a nice, swinging, well-shaped LEGATO, all they have to do is SNIP the LEGATO into a clean and healthy staccato. (This presumes that the arms are relaxed, and the wrists are supple. That doesn’t change in “crisp” staccato mode)

Instead of presenting a long-winded sermon on how to play detached notes with a desired ease and bounce, I prepared a video.

(Be reminded, above all, that a playful romp over the keyboard should be more of a pleasure than a pain.)

Lesson in Progress: Albertina, 13, practices Kabalevsky’s sprightly “Clowns” piece with attention to a bouncy left hand staccato pattern and a combined legato to staccato melodic outline.

Related: Scales, staccato and the “trampoline effect”

Scales have always gotten a bum rap. Most piano students, especially beginners, loathe them. They consider the exercises to be meaningless and time wasting. They’d rather cut to the chase and play their assigned pieces.

If for a moment, pupils decided to consider scales in the same way a runner regards muscle stretches before a race, they might view their sequence of musical steps as a vital preliminary.

Scales aren’t just isolated, irrelevant exercises. They permeate the piano literature in all styles and forms: classical, jazz, popular, musical theater, etc. To be a versatile player in any musical genre, knowledge of scales in all keys is very important.

I think of my daily dose of scale practice as a romp on the playground.

On a kinesthetic level, scales are a cathartic release of physical energy, framed by a steady beat.

In the cognitive realm, the player must know the key signature, or how many sharps or flats, (or none) are contained in the sequence.

In the affective universe, a student should be able to communicate a lighthearted mood in the Major tonality, and more depth of emotion in the Minor. These, of course, are musical cliches framed by our Western culture, so while they may be taken with a grain of salt, most of us have been so often exposed to jingles from childhood with Major/minor emotionally tagged associations that we can’t easily rid ourselves of them.

Playing scales more brilliantly in a bigger dynamic, Forte, F, also communicates a different affect, than combing the keyboard in the pianissimo range, pp.

When I teach scales, not only do I ask a student to block out groups of notes (“Chunking”) between the thumbs (separate hands at first) for a kinesthetic and cognitive understanding, but I insist that they play musically and expressively from the outset.

In the last three Major Sharp Keys of B, F# and C# there’s a symmetry between the hands that gives students a particular head start in the learning process. A sequence of double and triple black notes occur with thumbs played in between as the fingering is mirrored between the hands.

Chopin started his students on these three scales before all others because of their regular patterns, and now well into this day and age, piano teachers are reconsidering their over focus on the C Major scale as the beginning and end of the keyboard universe. This is a good turn of events considering that too many piano students have been left behind in the key of C for too long which has led to a crippling fixation. I, for one, fibbed to my teacher, Mrs. Schwed when she asked me what scale I was supposed to have prepared for the week’s assignment. As a result, I remained in the key of C for three years!

Playing scales legato, in a smooth and connected way, is always the first, basic goal to be met. The “singing tone” legato, especially, is fundamental to beautiful musical expression.

In my approach to learning scales, I emphasize weight transfer from note to note, using gravity to its best advantage. That means the wrists should be supple, elbows, arms and shoulders relaxed, and the breath should be deep and free flowing. Pushing into the keys, squeezing or any attempt to apply forced pressure to the notes is discouraged. Weight balance and the feel of a centered axis are invaluable.

I recommend deeply drawn out quarter notes played for two octaves, separate hands at first, then hands together. These should be played at a Forte level, (Big tone) but not in an ear piercing way. Eventually, through a rhythmic doubling or augmentation, these scales will dance their way through to lighter sixteenths but the build up must be gradual from a bigger dynamic to a pitter-patter at the end.

Here’s the routine with a reminder to play the scales continuously in each rhythm:

Two octaves of quarter notes (Molto cantabile, with a singing tone in the Forte range) Count 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and….

Two octaves of eighths ( Mezzo Forte, medium loud) Think of lilting pairs of notes. The first of the two, leaned on.

Three octaves of triplet eighths: The fundamental quarter note beat is divided into three, with a ripple and rolling effect, to fill a broader space. (Mezzo Forte)

Four octaves of sixteenth notes, played lightly in a medium soft dynamic (Mezzo forte)

Four octaves of sixteenth notes, played staccato in mezzo forte.

Four octaves of sixteenths, detached, light and crisp, in the piano range (p=soft) Think ping pong balls and rebound effect. Remember that staccato is a snip away from legato. The center of gravity remains the same. Stay emotionally and physically connected.

For the more advanced student, thirty-second notes can be added in legato followed by a pair of staccatos, first Mezzo Forte then piano.

In summary, if the legato scale sequences are well executed, then the staccato notes should lightly stream out with little effort. I think half weight at least and trampoline or rebound. Ping pong balls, again, are probably the best mental image.

Footnote: A forearm staccato might be used to play more brilliant crisp passages, while a finger staccato would be enlisted for lighter musical phrases in very fast tempo.

If the body and mind are relaxed, attuned to the here and now, then just being at the piano becomes the only reality.

Playing scales in this frame of mind should be pure ecstasy.

3 thoughts on “From Legato to Staccato: staying connected at the piano (Video)”

  1. Dear Shirley — You could always introduce one of your teaching techniques here — the use of the stairs so that students could experience staccato and legato in a whole-body sense. (They might quickly decide that the scales and arpeggios are much more manageable!) Hee hee


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