Legato for the Artistic Pianist

TakeLessons has purchased the right to use an edited version of this post in their blog.

Legato … a beautiful and mysterious word that brings images of a pair of swans gracefully gliding on the placid waters of a still lake. In the phrasing of the Italian renaissance, the time and place where the language of music was born, legato meant tied, bound or connected. In the language of music, legato means this and more.

The art of playing legato can be compared to floating serenely across the water of a Venetian canal in a gondola, holding hands with your lover through the tunnel of love. In the romantic language of music, legato is the ultimate in smooth, seductive, sensuous phrasing.

This word is most often found in classical, or “legitimate” music, while sheet music will more often use descriptions like “play smoothly”. Regardless of the wording, the artistry of smooth or legato style is as much imagination and imagery as it is technical ability.

Before practicing “how” to play legato, an aspiring pianist who wishes to bring his or her audience the tantalizing treats of smooth sound imagery may venture in the ideas of desire. Desire to enter into this styling, and then delve into the practical.

So, what is the practical side of legato? What, or how, to practice before schmoozing into that gondola or shape shifting into that swan lake? Despite the ease with which experienced pianists seem to glide over the keys, the reality is that strength and consistency is just as important as a light hand at the performance.

Practicing scales and arpeggios is one way to start. Practice two ways. First, slowly and deliberately lift and lower each finger using maximum force. This builds musculature in the hands, which you will need for the greatest control. Then, after your hands are warmed up, work on smoothing out the sound.

Watch for any weakness; particularly with the fourth finger, which tends to be the most difficult to work independently. Also, look for any clumsiness or thunking sounds; often, this will be where the thumb and fingers are alternating.

If you’re working on speed or keeping a steady pace, you can use a metronome, or if it’s simply a legato touch you’re after, your metronome can take a little vacation for awhile. Scales and arpeggios will help develop strength, evenness and smoothness, as long as the only phrases you play are based on bits and pieces of consecutive or arpeggiated notes.

More likely, though, your legato songs or passages within a longer piece of music will be more complicated. This is where agility exercises come into play. One of the most well known and dependable ways to develop agility on the piano is from a traditional exercise book written by a 19th century French composer and piano teacher named Charles-Louis Hanon. Officially titled “The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises”, this volume is known to initiated pianists simply as “Hanon”.

Like exercises for sports stars, the first few exercises are simple. As the book progresses, the exercises become more difficult. Each builds on the other, and with dedicated practice over time, can create effective improvements  in strength, speed and agility that borderline on miraculous. Like anything worthwhile, dramatic improvements take time, and grand improvements in playing legato will come with steady practice.

However, if you need to learn how to legato on short notice, even a few weeks of dedicated Hanon drills can help form a foundation of technique to underscore the imaginative artistry of a passable piano performance.

Eventually, those beautiful and mysterious sound paintings will become a gift for your audience, and when that time comes you will know. Because you, too, will feel that cool electricity of excitement rise up your arms as you play; those swans will come to life through the smooth sonic waves coming from your light touch on the keys.

When that moment arrives, all at once you will share and experience the magic known as legato.

How to Write Quickly

So you have a last minute assignment with a quick turnaround, you need to dash off a quick blog post, or you waited until the day before a paper is due before getting started. You’ve heard that great advice to start early, write more than you need, edit it, and print or upload it before the due date. Yet, for one reason or another, that just didn’t happen the way it was supposed to.

Don’t panic. If you only need to produce a page or two of material, writing a great paper quickly is easy and, with practice, a decent essay can be completed in a few hours. The hardest part is getting started.

Step one is choosing the topic. If the subject is assigned, think about what you want to say. What are your honest feelings, either positive or negative, and how you would honestly express them. Create a one-sentence description for your essay. This will be the first sentence of your essay and, surprise! It will also be the last sentence.

If nothing comes to mind, try a bit of bibliomancy; this is a technique sometimes used for divination, like psychics use tarot cards. Find a book on the topic you’re writing about; hopefully a book you’ve read. Close your eyes and turn the book around three times clockwise. With your eyes still closed, thumb through the pages until you sense which one might be “speaking” to you.

Now open your eyes and scan the two open pages. Hopefully, something will jump out at you and spark your creative flames. No, this isn’t “magic”; it’s your subconscious memory and intuition at work.

Now that you know what you’re going to write about, take a look at the assignment instructions. How long should it be? In pages or words? (hint: most word processing programs have a word counter) What about font style and size?  Will the paragraphs be single or double-spaced? Get your page settings ready before starting to write. Now write a sentence that sums up what your paper will be about.

Step two is reading the essay content requirements slowly and carefully. Do you know enough to write about the topic, or will you need to do some research first? If you need to drop by the library, crack open a textbook or do some “gray research” on the web, it’s a good idea to jot down the publication or website name and the page numbers as you go along. For online research, note the date of access. Include this information in your bibliography or reference credits.

Put your personality into the paper and make it yours. Recording and listening to a short podcast of your feelings about a topic is a great way to build confidence in your knowledge and abilities. Now write your paper the same way you said it out loud. Remember your audience; someone will be reading it later and, if you have fun with your writing, hopefully your reader will find your efforts enjoyable and entertaining.

Keep track of the words or pages along the way, and don’t stop writing until you’ve reached that minimum word or page count. When you have enough material, go ahead and write a couple more paragraphs to summarize and prepare your future reader for the end of the paper. Be sure to save your work!

Step three, take a rest, have a drink of water, run around the block or do anything else except writing for 10 to 30 minutes.

Last step: check the grammar and spelling, and reword anything that seems clunky or out of place. Now, copy that first sentence you wrote, and paste it onto the end. Read the whole thing through. Be sure it makes sense from beginning to end, and edit as required. Check the word/page count again. You’re almost finished!

Look at your identical beginning and ending sentence. Does it sound best as an intro or a summary? Now modify one of those sentences slightly, print, publish or upload your writing, and give yourself some applause! Your last minute assignment, blog post or paper is under control and ready to deliver.

Setting Effective Goals for Piano Lessons

TakeLessons has purchased the right to use an edited version of this post in their blog.
You’ve been thinking about taking piano lessons for awhile or you’ve been away from the piano for awhile and want a refresher. Maybe your family relocated or your piano teacher retired, got married, or changed to a different career. Whatever happened, you’re ready for that first lesson, and you’re ready to set some goals.

So what is a goal?

One person might want to learn to play a favorite song on the piano by the end of summer by practicing for ½ hour a day on a family keyboard because he likes the song and wants to play it for his friends when school starts.

Another person intensely desires mastering both classical and popular music on the piano by practicing from one to four hours a day, five days a week on a grand piano in her living room or on a studio piano, over a period of fifteen years because she is from a musical family and wants to make playing piano her career for life.

Finally, we have the average piano student who just wants to learn how to play.

With such a vast range of options, setting a goal for piano lessons can seem challenging. Fortunately, even if you haven’t had much success with goal-setting in the past, piano lessons are a great way to learn how! The right goals are S-M-A-R-T:

S is for Specific: What kind of piano music would you like to learn? Do you prefer popular songs from the internet or the radio? Do you like instrumental piano music, like classical, relaxation or new age? Are you curious about all the details, with a burning desire to learn all about music theory? If you’re a parent, what are your expectations? Do you and your child share the same tastes in music?

M is for Measurable: When you expect to achieve your goal? Are music lessons a long-term investment, or are you just trying things out? Do you value an impressive goal enough to put months, or even years, to achieve it? Would you prefer simpler, shorter, mini-goals that can be achieved each week?

A is for Attainable:  Is there a piano or keyboard available for practice in your home? Is there time in your schedule to practice regularly? Are you new to piano, have you been playing for a few years, or is your musical experience on a different instrument? Sharing your ideas for goals with your piano teacher is a great way to open the conversation, and work together on creating goals that you can achieve.

R is for Rewarding: Why do you want to play piano? Is it that you’ve always loved the sound of the instrument, that your living room piano is collecting dust? What’s in it for you?

T is for Trackable: How will you know when you’ve achieved your goal? Back in the day, the only way to track a budding pianist’s performance was at an annual recital. Fortunately, those days are fading into a dim memory, and practically anyone can record and upload a video with the chance to become a global phenomenon.

Okay, we’ve covered all the letters for S-M-A-R-T. Once you get used to using this acronym, you can use it to help you set goals for practically anything you want to achieve in life, including setting the right kind of goals for piano lessons!