I was working on legato playing with a student a little while ago. What’s legato? Playing in a legato style means to play a series of notes smoothly with little or no gap in between. One note should last until the very moment a new note is played. It creates a beautiful and fluid sound. The simplest melodies can sound gorgeous when played in a flowing legato style.The problem is that my student found it impossible to do! No matter how much I encouraged him to make each note flow smoothly into the next, he couldn’t seem to do it. He could not get rid of the gaps between notes. We spent some time talking about it and I think we got to the bottom of the problem. Here is a loose description of the process that we went through. Maybe you or someone you know will find it helpful. Here we go!
The student and I were working on the first part of Ode to Joy by Beethoven:
We started out playing the first few notes at the beginning of the piece:
I noticed that he was leaving big gaps between the notes so I encouraged him to play in a legato style. I explained that I wanted to hear each note flowing into the next as much is possible, with very little gap in between. I demonstrated it on my ukulele several times and he understood what I wanted him to do. But he couldn’t seem to do it! There was some frustration and also a few laughs. A common scene in my teaching studio.
How to move forward?
I asked him to describe his process for playing the first few notes of the piece. He said something like this:
“First I pluck the open A string twice. Then I hold down the first fret on the A string. Then I pluck that note once. Then I hold down the third fret and THEN I pluck that note twice.”
It sounds like a totally reasonable description. Doesn’t it? I’ve seen many descriptions just like it on teaching websites and in books. And I’m sure I’ve described the process of playing in exactly the same manner. But, the truth is it’s not really how the right and left-hand work in fretting and plucking notes. Especially, when we’re trying to play in a legato style.
When we’re moving between two notes on the same string the action of the left and right hand is almost simultaneous. Meaning that the fretting of the note and the plucking of the note happen pretty much at the same time. My student really felt that he had to FIRST fret the note THEN pluck it and this made it difficult to play in a truly legato manner. So we worked on a series of exercises that helped to bring his awareness to both hands and how they work together.
First, we worked on two notes on the A string:
I had him pluck the open a note. Then, as we listened to the note ringing, I had him wait and bring his awareness to both hands as he delayed bringing his finger to fret the next note until the very moment he plucked it. It took him a few tries to get the timing of this, because it was so unfamiliar. But soon he was able to play legato style! High-fives all around!
We also worked on descending notes. We worked with these two notes on the A string:
Here I had him hold down the first fret and pluck that note. And once again, I had him bring his awareness to both hands, left and right, as he delayed taking his finger off the first fret until the very moment he plucked the string. And voila! Legato! He said something like this:
“I didn’t know I was allowed to play that way!”
This may seem like a pretty way out idea. And I must admit that seeing it in writing makes me wonder whether it will cause a lot of confusion. Hope not! Maybe you are just getting used to the mechanics of playing and it’s too much to think about. This is totally understandable. Shelf it for later!
I really believe that the intention to play smoothly in a legato style will eventually bring about the correct technique. I feel that technique doesn’t necessarily need to be imposed from the outside. However, it’s important to investigate our firmly held notions because rules that we think are true can sometimes trump our intentions. No amount of coaxing, explanations or examples could overcome the fact that my student believed it was proper to FIRST fret the note THEN pluck it. Once he understood that he was allowed to use the left and right hand almost simultaneously he was more able to grow towards his intention to play legato.
Here’s a little video talking about the concept we’ve discussed in today’s newsletter:
That’s all for now. Please forward this to someone you think will find it useful.
All the best in your playing,
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