And yet, great pianists can make the piano SING and their legato seems so smooth and expressive!
Is it skill? Is it inspiration? Is it magic?
Yes and no.
There is a special technique that allows us to create the illusion of an incredible, singing legato, this way making the piano sound like the human voice or the violin.
How is this possible? Watch the video below and find out!
This step-by-step guide will help you to master one of the most fascinating secrets of the Russian piano school – The Piano Intoning Technique:
1. The piano and its ‘magic’ properties. 1.13
2. What makes string or wind instruments so expressive? 2.04
3. What is legato? 2.37
4. The hammer-and-string construction of the piano and its ‘fading sound’ particularity. 3.06
5. What really happens when we try to play legato on the piano? 3.40
6. Tip No. 1: Play with your arms, not only with your fingers! 4.27
7. Tip No. 2: Make sure that your key attack is gradual and relaxed. 6.01
8. Tip No. 3: Keep your wrist flexible. 6.40
9. Tip No. 4: The ‘walking arm’ technique. 8.17
10. Tip No. 5: Horizontal wrist navigation – the core of the intoning technique. 10.32
11. Tip No. 6: Learn how to manipulate the sound intensity. 12.45
12. Tip No. 7: Hear, imagine, anticipate! 13.58
13. Practice! 15.03
14. Conclusion. 15.56
15. Piano intonation is NOT a technique for advanced students! 16.57
16. … and a little advice! 17.17
And now I’ll post the entire tutorial in written form!
The Piano Intoning Technique and the Illusion of Legato
The piano is a magical instrument. It will respond to you exactly the way you treat it! Its sound will be harsh and percussive if you hit the keys brutally – but it can also be soft, vibrant and singing if you learn a few efficient secrets!
Yes, the hammer-and-string construction of the piano does not allow us to make an objective, real legato. That’s why the Intoning Technique was invented: it helps us to create the audible and visual illusion of legato and a flowing phrasing!
I’m going to share with you 7 easy yet very powerful tips that will change the quality of your piano playing for good, making it smooth, expressive and singing.
Tip No. 1. Play with your arms, not only with your fingers!
As I mention in almost all my tutorials, the foundation of a correct piano playing habit is the whole arm action principle – playing from the entire relaxed weight of our arms – and not by taking the needed force only from our fingers. Besides protecting us from tension and pain, this technique enables us to create a deep, beautiful piano tone - as compared to the shallow, percussive sound that comes out of the instrument when we strike the keys only from the fingers.
Plus, let’s not forget that the piano keys are rather heavy – and this is the main reason why we have to be smart and use the relaxed weight of the entire arm for depressing a key, without making effort – instead of overworking our poor fingers alone, this way causing hand injuries.
Tip No. 2: Make sure that your key attack is gradual and relaxed.
When we press a piano key in a gradual manner, we are actually softening the hammer action, making the contact between the hammer and the string lose its harshness. This technique, along with playing from our entire arms, takes us one step closer to a beautiful legato, being another pillar of the intoning technique.
Tip No. 3: Keep your wrist flexible.
Keep your wrist loose and relaxed. A flexible wrist has double benefits: it protects us from wrist injuries, which happen when we play in a tensed manner, with immobile joins – and it also softens the key attack some more, making the sound more vibrant and noble.
And don’t forget about your shoulders and elbows! Keep your shoulders down and avoid ‘gluing’ your elbows to your sides. Make sure they have a wider position – this will allow you to ‘fly’ and feel absolutely free when playing.
Tip No. 4. The ‘walking arm’ technique: transfer the arm weight from one finger into another.
The technique which is usually called the walking arm is another efficient secret of the Russian piano school, being yet another brick in building the illusion of legato.
It helps us to connect several notes on a single movement, transferring the weight of our arm smoothly from one finger to the next one. This sensation is similar to walking and transferring the weight of your body from one leg to another – that’s why it’s called ‘the walking arm’. It instantly smoothes out the transitions between notes and minimizes the gaps – reinforcing the illusion of legato.
When you play in this manner, you must have the feeling that you push yourself from the keys with each finger, instead of simply lowering each finger towards the keyboard. There is lots of relaxed pressure involved in this technique and it creates a deep, professional piano sound.
And now – the cherry on the cake: the last technical element of the intoning technique – the one behind its name.
Tip No. 5: Horizontal wrist navigation – the core of the intoning technique.
This technique works like magic – especially in melodies that have large intervals. We call it ‘intoning’ because it is similar to the technique used by singers to make the transfers between two notes as smooth as possible, as if the second note is the natural continuation of the first one.
This technique is also called wrist anticipation, because we anticipate the ‘layout’ of the melody with our flexible wrist. If the melody goes up, the wrist goes up first, taking the fingers to the needed position in a flowing, relaxed gesture, which instantly makes the second hammer lose the harshness of its attack.
Tip No. 6: Learn how to manipulate the sound intensity.
What happens if we play two notes on the same intensity level? Because the first one has already faded, we get the illusion that the second one sounds louder, because its intensity level creates a contrast with the previous fading note.
I agree – this is very annoying – but we can make good use of this particularity of the piano mechanism if we’re smart ;). Listen for the decay of the first note and match the next note to the same volume level. This way both notes will sound equal – and your hearing will perceive a smooth, perfect legato!
Tip No. 7: Hear, imagine, anticipate!
Even if you follow all the tips I just shared, to the letter, you still won’t be able to master the intoning technique unless you activate your inner hearing and your imagination. Instead of pressing the keys one at a time and waiting for what will come out of the instrument – you have to imagine the phrase first (just like I describe in my report A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing). Your mind should always be ahead of your fingers, anticipating their movement.
Mental anticipation, imagining the entire phrase before actually playing it – this is the most important element of the intoning technique, the one that guides all the other elements, making them work together for creating the illusion of legato.
Bonus tip. Practice!
Just like any other type of piano technique, intonation cannot be mastered overnight. It requires some practice and patience – but its fascinating effects are totally worth the time and effort! When you practice a piece, focus on the beauty of the sound as well – not only on technical difficulties. Listen carefully to the quality of your legato, to the continuity of your phrasing – and also monitor your gestures. Polish both, one little fragment at a time, sometimes even one transition at a time – until your mind and your muscle memory learn how to create this new effect.
As days go by and you become more experienced, the intoning technique will become an inseparable part of your pianistic skills, being as natural as breathing and requiring less and less practice.
And now – go to the instrument and put everything you have learned into action! I’ll remind you that the learning happens when the fingers start moving, when we put into practice all the new information we have just discovered.
One more thing: Piano Intonation is NOT a technique for advanced students. Beginners can and should learn how to play with a singing tone as well, even in practicing easy short pieces – from the very moment they learn what legato is and how it should be played. The sooner you learn how to play flowingly, with a beautiful sound – the better!
Now that you learned the basics of Piano Intonation – are you ready to move to the next step?
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And now – a little advice: Never forget WHY you practice! Is it because you want to increase your finger agility? No, it’s not! Is it because you need to improve your key attack and the quality of your tone? Wrong again! Is it because your teacher told you so? I certainly hope not! Is it because you want to be able to play expressively and convincingly beautiful piano pieces? Now we’re getting closer!
Music is the language of our soul, of our feelings! Playing an instrument is a way of finding ourselves, being in tune with who we really are, following our passion – and of course, bringing light, joy and motivation to others! Don’t forget about this when a certain failure or simple tiredness get in your way. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture, don’t forget WHY you put so much time and effort into your practice and, the most important thing – don’t forget to enjoy every minute of it!
Many new articles and video tutorials are coming soon on PianoCareer.com (including a series of practice guides for beginners). Follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Google + (and now also on Pinterest!) to get instant updates, support and motivation!