We have all played the game of Stone, Paper, Scissors. On a count of three, each player forms the hand into one of three gestures which they throw at each other. The idea is that stone blunts scissors, scissors cut paper and paper covers stone, and so on. You can ask a pianist to throw from their hand an interval of your choice, with no reference to a keyboard and the result will be accurate and immediate. If the guage in the hand is then matched up to the keyboard (no cheating here!), the measurement will invariably be spot-on. Try this out on someone – any realistic interval between any pair of fingers. This shows that our hand is capable of ultra-precise measurements of distance, which we do by feel rather than by eye. Of course it takes a bit of experience, but even intermediate players will be able to do this.
Some errors in piano playing can be traced back to a faulty sense of measurement. The most obvious example of this is skips, where eye-hand coordination is responsible for measuring either a large distance, or a fast one, or both. (I plan to do a whole post on this soon.) Less obvious, perhaps, are errors in passages where the hand is constantly moving from one position to another and where the internal measurements in the hand need to be very reliable.
PRACTISING STACCATO PASSAGES LEGATO
There are two main pitfalls in managing staccato passages. Even though a passage is intended by the composer to be articulated staccato, this does not usually mean that each note is not still part of a longer, implied line. Aurally, we still need to hear the intervals, and physically, it would pay us dividends if we felt the connections too. I usually suggest starting the learning process using a legato, and returning to this regularly (for maintenance). The passage can then be thought of as a broken legato.
A good example from the early grades is Schumann’s familiar “The Wild Horseman”:
And the bracketed snippet from Kabalevsky’s “Joking”, op. 27:
Legatissimo is a touch in its own right, when you want super-connectedness in a melody line or in a melodic passage. A plain vanilla legato is where the holding finger releases as you play the next note, but the deluxe Harrods clotted cream version is where the finger lifts only after the next note has been played, and it is more effective if the release is done slowly and gradually. How much of an overlap you make depends on the musical context, the register of the piano the passage is written in, and the taste of the performer. I always feel that the attack of the next note is masked by the remains of the note before, going some way to reducing the piano’s percussive element that can detract from a cantabile line. Psychologically, this also helps the hand to really feel and appreciate the intervals that make up the line – usually the bigger the interval, the bigger the reach. And by use of subtle timings and shadings, one can achieve a sort of illusory intonation that is usually the domain of string players and singers (and wind and brass too!).
A teacher once berated me after a masterclass for suggesting a legatissimo touch in her pupil’s piece. Apparently this was going to “undo all the years of work getting her to pick up her fingers”. I am not proposing a sloppy legato, rather another touch, like a special brush for certain specific occasions which we keep in our paintbox and bring out when we want a certain effect. To develop this, take a scale, or a contraption such as a five-finger position and time the releases precisely. Both fingers stay down until a predetermined count (the “and” halfway through a beat, such as “one AND two AND three AND four”, etc.). The previous finger comes up on the “AND”. After a while, the releases won’t need to be timed in this way and can be done more freely.
Certain passages that in the end won’t be played legatissimo can be practised using this touch to strengthen the motor processes. It works especially well in passages where the hand opens and closes, where each interval needs to be very accurately measured by the hand. A useful analogy is the rock climber who will need to be very sure his new footstep is secure before he lets go of the other foot and transfers his weight over.
We need to be aware that motions and activities involved in practising can often be rather different to those used in actual playing – this has to do with neurological processes such as proprioception. Fortunately this is outside the scope of this article and is better left to an expert in these matters to explain. A quick google search will suffice for those who are interested to understand more. The trick is to be very conscious of what one is doing in the practice room so that one can be unconscious of it in performance. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but you can’t actually be thinking about such things when performing, they have to be second nature, very much habitual.
Passages such as this from Chopin’s Revolutionary Study respond well to this treatment (from the second bar onwards – clearly not applicable in the jumps). The practice tempo will be extremely slow:
A variation on the theme of legatissimo practice is to tap very lightly the note one is about to play, but while still holding onto the previous note (I stress again that the practice speed will be very slow indeed). This not only encourages thinking and listening ahead, but really strengthens motor control. A good way to imagine this is as an obstacle course where, barefoot, you have to make a path through buckets of water placed strategically. You’ve been told that one bucket contains very hot water, but you don’t know which one this is. So, before you commit to placing your foot fully in the next bucket, you dip your toe in to make sure. Having ascertained it is not the one with the scalding water, you can immerse the whole foot and proceed. You get the idea, I hope. (Not, perhaps, the ideal party game to play with close friends…)
For that Kabalevsky passage above, it looks like this, although I suggest teaching this by example rather than by this over-complicated notation:
You can, of course, play two or more taps. I have changed the notation not only because it makes it easier to write out this way, but also because the tempo will need to be very slow. Perhaps this process will be beyond the grasp of the average person who is playing this sort of repertoire: one thing I can guarantee is their playing of this passage will be considerably more secure if they have practised in this way.