In terms of correct piano practice, which form of articulation is the most useful for beginners – legato, non legato or staccato? Do these main articulation techniques have the same influence on the formation of your playing reflexes? The answer is simple – no. Legato, non legato and staccato are performed by using various touches and, even more important – different directions of movement:
- non legato is achieved by moving the entire weight of your arm towards the keyboard – a downward vertical movement;
- for playing legato, we need to move our hands, arms and wrists horizontally – parallel with the keyboard;
- and lastly, for a quality staccato, our hand needs to jump from the keyboard – a specific upward vertical movement that will help us play a short detached sound.
Before analyzing staccato and its influence on our playing reflexes, let’s talk a little about articulation and its meaning.
Music is a part of the universal balance. It has the amazing power of reflecting all the kaleidoscopic aspects of life. But how exactly can we achieve meaning and expression in music? Part of this process is a great mystery – being explained as talent, genius or inspiration. The rest is hard work and the knowledge of translating feelings and thoughts into different means of expression: character and quality of the sound, dynamics, touché, articulation, rhythm, tempo and phrasing.
By mastering the art of skillfully using and combining these means of expression, we can create an infinite number of musical images – from the transcendental severity of Bach’s polyphonies to the delicate subjectivity of Chopin’s Nocturnes, from the luminous grace of Haydn or Mozart’s Sonatas to the deep, epic wideness of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos.
Articulation, or the touch that we use to bring up certain characters in different notes, is one of the most important means of expression. Just imagine how many states, images and feelings we can evoke by using different forms of articulation! Non legato (also called portamento or portato) and legato can make a musical phrase romantic or severe, tragic or dramatic, monumental or fragile.
Staccato, on the other hand, is usually the realm of humor, irony, playfulness and sometimes sarcasm (for example, in Prokofiev’s music). This articulation technique is extremely necessary whenever we come across these specific images. However, in the traditions of the Russian piano school, staccato should be avoided at least during the first year of piano practice (in some cases – the first two years of learning piano).
So why is staccato dangerous for beginners and why should we avoid it? Let me explain:
For a piano beginner, every move is important. The first year of piano practice is the period when the correct posture is achieved and we build the foundation of our playing habit by refining all our pianistic moves and reflexes.
A correct piano playing is based on the usage of the entire weight of the arms. A student should learn from the very first lesson how important is to relax his arms and wrists while playing a note and that the movement of the hands should be oriented towards the keyboard and into the keys. This method – playing with a heavy, relaxed hand – will allow even a beginner to achieve a deep, expressive sound. Finger mobility should come next – avoid falling into the technical trap and forgetting about the primordial importance of the sound!
That’s why non legato is the first articulation technique that we usually learn – not staccato, during which we have to lift our hand from the keyboard in a fast, short manner. Because it involves this sharp, sudden upward movement, staccato can be very dangerous for beginners, affecting their ability to ‘sing’ at the piano by exploring the depth of the keyboard.
Non-legato consists of 2 important steps:
1. ‘Diving’ with the full weight of your arm and the relaxed, mobile wrist into the depth of the keyboard for achieving a beautiful, quality sound.
2. Lifting the hand from the keyboard after each note – first we lift the wrist and then the fingers. This step helps us get rid of any tension that could have appeared while pressing the key, being also a good practice for wrist relaxation.
This way, non legato is a quintessence of correct playing movements, being extremely useful for beginners (and not only! :)). It is a proven solution against tension and muscle spasms – dark dangerous pits for all the ‘fresh’ piano students who attempt to play complicated pieces before their technique is ready for it.
After learning how to play non legato and control the quality of the sound, we can gradually learn legato. Beware, tough, the main trap – the same old tension. It’s very ‘easy’ to play with tensed, unmoving wrists while practicing legato. In order to avoid this trap, focus on the flexibility of the wrist – imagine that it ‘anticipates’ the ‘design’ of the melody by guiding the hand and moving it in the needed direction horizontally.
Only after mastering a good level of free, flowing, tensionless legato we can move to learning staccato. Don’t spend too much time practicing it, though – staccato is not that difficult to play. There are different types of staccato – involving the fingers, the movement of the wrist or the entire arm. The exact form depends on the character of the performed piece or passage. I usually tell my students to imagine how a cat is playing with a toy on a string – her paws and soft and flexible, but the claws are always sharp and ready for action! Staccato is the same – the short, playful sound is achieved by ‘clawing’ at the keyboard as if the surface is at the same time attracting the fingers and burning them.
If learned too soon (before the correct non-legato technique becomes a natural reflex), staccato can seriously jeopardize the quality of the sound, making it superficial and affecting the ‘breathing’ of the wrist.
Actually, this is the most important thing, the ‘red line’ that unifies all forms of articulation and one of the main pillars of professional piano playing: your wrist should ALWAYS be flexible, no matter if you play non legato, legato, staccato, marcato or sforzando. A ‘petrified’, ‘crystallized’, immobile wrist is the core of all piano related problems: brutal (or superficial) mechanical sound, hand tension (and its consequences – muscle pain and hand injuries), and, of course, the impossibility to progress and play complicated pieces and passages.
So, never forget to breathe – literally, by taking a deep breath and allowing it to relax and fortify your body and oxygenate your brain… and metaphorically, by relaxing your wrist each time your play non legato or staccato… and by keeping a flowing, tensionless movement of the wrist while playing legato. This technique, combined with constant mindful practice, is the key to continual progress and fulfilling results.