Legato means smooth. What does it take for 2 notes played in succession to be smooth?
The first and most obvious criteria is that there must be no gap in between them. The way you do it on the piano is by lifting your finger from the first note only at the instant the second finger depresses the next key. The second note sounds at the instant the first note cuts. Simple and easy right??
The very nature of piano tone production makes some pianists unsatisfied with this legato. Apparently, with some extra effort, you can get those 2 notes to sound even more legato.
So what is it about the nature of piano tone production?
Piano tone decays over time, and we have zero control over this decay in volume.
Which brings me to criteria #2 – The volume intensity must also be the same at the point of transitioning to the next note.
If I choose to hit the first note with strength level 5, and then hit the next note at the same strength level 2 seconds later, I will not be able to fulfil criteria #2 due to the decay in volume. I would get an accent instead, and these accents are exactly what we don’t want in a smooth legato line. It’s jarring to the ears.
I think you can see how this would not be a problem for other instrumentalists, say a flutist.
So pianists can fulfil criteria #1. We can connect 2 notes with no gaps in between. But what about criteria #2?
Pianists can never really fulfil it, but we can get closer to it apparently.
The way pianists do that is by overlapping the 2 notes for a split second. What this does is that it makes the 2 notes sound a little ‘smudged’ at the point of transitioning to the next note, resulting in a seemingly less jarring accent.
There is also another method that’s unique for a line that’s dying away in volume.
Say you hit the first note with strength level 5. When the volume drops to say level 3 2 seconds later, you simply match that volume by hitting the next note with strength level 3 (assuming strength level X gives volume level X).
And that, my friends, is how you achieve that ‘true’ legato on the piano. Or at the very least, the best kind of legato possible for a pianist.
I pretty much don’t care about doing any of this.
Read on to learn why.
In playing Chopin’s Nocturne in Db Op.27 No.2 (and most other music), I’m probably going to have the damper pedal depressed most of the time. I’m guessing it’s the same for you.
Now guess what.
Finger overlapping makes no difference to the sound whatsoever if you have the damper pedal depressed. Look inside your piano for all the proof you need.
Yet many pianists still claim that it does give you a more legato sound!
It is probably true that it helps with legato playing, in the sense that you are less likely to make unnecessary accents in the melody line. It could give you better control. Heck, it could even simply be the result of imagining a buttery smooth melody in your mind. I myself do it intuitively at times.
But claiming that it is an absolute necessity for the ‘true’ legato is just nonsense. Period.
Here’s that Nocturne I was talking about, played by Yulianna Avdeeva, winner of the 2010 Chopin competition in Warsaw:
You probably would notice right away from the first 15 seconds that she is doing finger overlapping in the melody line. You would also notice that she is not necessarily doing it equally for every pair of notes. Some pairs overlap longer than others, and sometimes she even has 3 notes overlapping.
When you have the damper pedal depressed, all that does not matter. It makes no difference to the sound, and as long as there is constant overlapping, it will still help with legato playing.
That being said, I’m willing to bet that if I told Yulianna Avdeeva to stop with all the finger overlapping, she’d still sound amazing (and legato).
In fact, she’ll sound the same.
So what about the small portion of legato music that we play without the damper pedal?
Well, you would have to be VERY consistent with it. You can’t have one pair overlap for 0.3 seconds, the next pair 1.5, and the next 0.7. They all need to overlap for an equal amount of time.
In the same video above, if you take away the LH accompaniment and the damper pedalling, I’m sure the pianist’s melody line is not going to sound good.
You might think I’m lazy, but this extra amount of effort is just not worth it in my honest opinion. Plus, I’m not even in love with the sound of this ‘true’ legato anyway. You might not like the dissonant sound produced for that split second the note is transitioning to the next.
So if I don’t believe much in finger overlapping, and since it makes no difference to the sound with the damper pedal depressed, what do we do about criteria #2?
We don’t do anything with it!!
Criteria #2 applies to singers and wind/string instrumentalists, but not pianists.
For pianists, criteria #2 should instead be this: No unnecessary accents!
Here’s what I actually mean.
This is a volume/time graph of a melody that’s doing a crescendo.
The sound we actually hear is represented by the pink line. As you can see, there’s nothing smooth about it due to the piano’s natural decay in volume.
But we do not bother with this pink line and the ‘accents’ here.
As long as we can sketch a smooth curve/line through all the note entry plots (black line), that’s a good enough perceived legato for us pianists. There should be no bumps here.
If there is a bump, then that would be an unnecessary accent ruining the legato.
Here’s another example without the crescendo in fig.1, but with a bump:
Would have been a good legato if not for that bump.
[Listen to this at 1:50 for an example. And then compare that same note (D#) at 2:20. Hear the difference?]
Do take note that this bump could just as well be a decrease in volume instead. You just wouldn’t call it an accent. But all the same, it still ruins the legato.
Another thing to note is that the louder your note entry is, the steeper the pink curve would be in the beginning.
Key practical takeaways
1. For a piano legato:
Criteria #1 – No gaps in sound
Criteria #2 – No unnecessary accents
2. Finger overlapping makes no difference to the sound when the damper pedal is depressed, but might be useful for preventing accidental bumps (unnecessary accents) that would otherwise ruin the legato.
3. There is no such thing as a ‘true’ legato on the piano. We pianists work mainly with perceived legato.
As always, let me help you level up by answering your legato questions in the comments section below! :)