Monday, September 19, 2011

Maintaining Legato

Handwriting of my piano teacher in Shanghai, China- Ms Lee.  Faculty member of the beloved Shanghai Conservatory of Music.  Her practice notes for me - "Legato"  Or, like she likes to say it, "LEEE-ga-TOH" (1996).
Legato is a piano technique that a pianist must practice frequently. It is a music term that means that the notes in the music, as notated by a slurred line, should be played smoothly, without any breaks between them.  Imagine a calligrapher making a masterful brush stroke, the delicate contours and shapes of his characters taking shape before he lifts up the paintbrush. Some beginner pianists cheat by depressing the pedal, artificially slurring all the notes in a loud, jumbled mess. But, true legato, the kind that has crisp clarity and continuity, can only be achieved through hours of practice until it becomes second nature. 

I like to play pieces by Czerney to practice Legato. But ask any pianist about Czerney and you'll probably hear a chorus of curses.  Many of Czerney's pieces sound simple to the human ear but actually require intense concentration and practice to overcome the many technical challenges and repetitions to play the pieces well.  The pieces he wrote to train for legato have impossibly long phases, running cadences, large vertical spans, and rapid finger crossings- with few punctuations for the hands to rest between the notes and phases of music. 

So, preparation is needed. The greatest challenge is building up finger endurance as you play, your fingers burning with fatigue like a runner's during a marathon.  So why do we need to practice Czerney or Legato? I think it is because the most beautiful melodies I have ever played, the kind that really touch my heart,  are usually the ones with the longest slurs, requiring the most control of legato. Without the endurance to play legato, you lift your fingers up for a rest before the phase is complete, breaking it and ruining melody in the process, never allowing the music to reach it's full potential as the composer had intended.
Me, Age 5-6.  Practicing on a Young Chang Professional Upright my parents saved up to buy for my sister and I.  I had to practice before I could go swimming, that explains the swimsuit, and the pout.  :) 
Over the weekend, as I am coming up to the end of a phase after a long practice session, my fingers fatigued- they couldn't kick anymore. My hands were tired, but I still had a few more notes before reaching the end of the phase.  Do I give up now and break the melody, or do I push it and continue playing?  I compare this feeling to being in its very small way similar to:

A marathon runner running his last 1000 m in a 26.2 mile race, his knees burning from the lactic acid build up.  He is almost at the finish line.

A mountaineer on Mt. Everest vying for the submit upon reaching Mushroom Rock (A rock feature at 28,000 ft in the death zone), feeling like he could almost reach the peak while every single cell in his body is starving for oxygen.  After a few more hours, he will stand on the highest point on Earth.

A soprano singer, holding her contracted diaphragm for five more seconds to sustain the last note in an opera before she gasps for fresh air. She is a few more beats away from a flawless performance.

A pre-med student, 5th hour into taking the MCAT, on the final passage on the Biological Science section, her brain now a fuzzy blur, but knowing that she must concentrate to get the last few questions answered correctly.  Her dreams of becoming a doctor to help people may be within her reach.

And, at that moment, I chose to push myself.  I pushed my fingers to finish the phase.  And, because I did, the music transformed from a phase into a singing melody. 

What melodies await you this week? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Have a great week.

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Carl Czerney-School of the legato and staccato

Young Chang Pianos

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