Piano Technique Bootcamp – You Call That Legato, Lieutenant?!

It’s time for our next blog post in our Piano Technique Bootcamp series!  I hope you’ve all been having fun with the exercises to loosen the wrists of your piano students from the post last week.  Today we’re talking about teaching piano students to play legato.

Piano Technique Bootcamp You Call That Legato Lieutenant

How to Teach Piano Students to Play Legato

The ability to play legato is what separates the young beginning piano students into students who sound like beginning students and students who do not. It is something that a piano teacher can hear from across a crowded room with their eyes closed. And it is something that many students find extremely difficult to master. Without the ability to play legato, your students’ pieces will continue to sound like “beginner” pieces no matter what the difficulty of the music. And, without legato playing, it is next to impossible to then develop any sense of expression or phrasing.

So we know it’s important… but how do you encourage your students to master the art of legato playing?

First Things First… What is Legato Anyway?

Aside from “piano”, “forte” and “staccato”, the word “legato” is one of the first Italian terms you introduce to your piano student.  And for a young beginner, you may as well be speaking an alien language. Sure you can explain it as “smooth” playing, but the word smooth is objective too. It means something different to everyone. Using the word “joined” is also confusing… and tends to affect their rhythm. The only true way for your piano students to understand is to feel and hear legato playing.

Bring On The Playdough!

I prefer to keep things simple when introducing important concepts. If you are struggling with a student to master something as important as legato playing it’s a great idea to take away anything else that could be causing conflict in their brain. And for me, this means taking away not only the sheet music but even the piano. So, pull out your playdough and step away from the piano for some tactile leaning.  Here’s how to build an understanding of legato (and maybe make a fun playdough snake or two along the way!)

1.  Have your student roll the play-dough into a long, thick “snake”.

2.  First, practice playing staccato on the snake.  The objective is to NOT make a finger “dent” in the play dough.  Re-roll the snake if a finger dent appears.  Can your student play staccato on their snake in a 5 finger pattern without making a dent? Hint – they’ll need to be using lots of *good* wrist motion to accomplish this.

3.  Now, have them play legato on the snake. The objective here is to make one finger dent one at a time in a 5 finger pattern… and the rule is only one finger on the snake at a time. Therefore, after one finger makes its dent, the next is getting ready to do the same.

4.  Re-roll the snake and repeat this until you can see your student understands the careful coordination needed to release one key while pushing down the next. The pushing motion into the dough will help to give them the correct feeling of playing deep into the keys once you transfer to the piano.

5.  Repeat the same motion (but on the piano keys now) in a 5 finger pattern. Can they transfer the same “push while lifting” motion to the keys?  Remind them of how the dough felt under their fingertips… and watch the “aha!” moment happen 🙂

I keep a few jars of play dough in my studio and my students have been known to practice certain phrases they are having trouble with on playdough before transferring it back to the piano. It’s a great way to engage your students who learn kinaesthetically. If they become adept at the “playdough playing”, you can actually teach phrasing this way too… the deeper the finger dent, the more emphasis on the key. It’s a fantastic way to visualize these difficult concepts.

If you are a totally cool teacher…scent your play dough to match the season with the recipes found on my Pinterest page here!

…And speaking of legato… are you in search of *fun* technical exercises that give your students the opportunity to practice switching between staccato and legato? This is a technique that is covered in TEDDtales Level 1.  Check it out and reinforce everything your students learn with playdough once they’re back at the piano!

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