My students are often amused by my prompts that frequently include “oohs,” “ahhs,” and “wah’s,” among other spaced out sounds, to prevent consonant sounding notes or hard-liners from interrupting a smooth, “sighing” stepwise descent to the tonic. And from this universe of impromptu effusions, I’ve created a self-styled language, that, at times, has incorporated barnyard vocabulary to the smiles of impressionable pupils (The “cluck, clucks” of Black note passage in staccato arpeggios, for instance, will assist students who tend to give the thumb more assertion than it deserves: i.e F# minor, Eb Major, etc.)
But for a seamless legato, (smooth and connected playing), the clucks are replaced by a soft and responsive cushion of keyboard support that precludes finger-poking or incongruous accents.
To think “slower” into notes by “dragging” them are a few of my favorites. Naturally these suggestions are meant to acquire “density” in the playing and to discourage a hard turf beneath the hands. They’re also employed to inhibit anticipation and note crowding. In this vein, a note coming a “hairbreadth too soon” can imbalance a phrase. (Mildred Portney Chase, author of Just Being at the Piano, poetically frames a singing tone legato through pages of inviting prose.)
Listening for the “decay” from the previous note to the next is another effective prompt. It invites a particularly riveted attention to sound as it “floats seamlessly” from one note to the next. (Singing, of course, is of great assistance in producing the imagined sequence of notes with shape and beauty) Often when a student sings, he can better imagine the sound image before playing the very first note.
All the aforementioned suggestions are, naturally, not enough. If a student is tense in the wrists, arms, fingers, he/she has to be made aware of barriers to a free-flowing, stream of scales and arpeggios that should transfer fluidly to compositions. If tension is tied to faulty breathing, then the BREATH must be explored as a partner to musical expression. Breathing deep, but natural breaths should infuse all music-making while weight transfer, or energy coming down relaxed, “buoyant” arms into supple wrists must be synthesized into fluid playing.
During recent piano lessons, two of my adult students separately explored the challenge of playing arpeggios and scales in a smooth, legato stream. (One of them “snipped” her improved legato arpeggio into a “horizontally” pleasing staccato.) Some of these prompts and suggestions seemed to be a springboard to a deeper imparted vocabulary that nourished limpidly played phrases. And the “memory” of these prompts partnered with a physical sense of the legato has continued to advance musical growth and development.