Sep. 6, 2015

Touch, Part IV

(continued from Part III)

The legato remained a hermetic principle among the younger French school founded by Lemmens, Guilmant, and Widor, and continued by Vierne, Dupre, and their pupils.  Legato, substitution, thumb glissando, liberal use of the heels, and an elaborate system of rules for repeated notes were universally promoted in this school.  But the touch used for the faster, moving notes in polyphonic music was given special treatment by certain performers, notably Vierne (photo).  For the sake of clarity he would perform these notes with only a shade of detachment.  Some who had not studied with him found this clean legato to be horribly difficult to develop on their own, particularly on modern organs with their manuals rendered inert by electricity and/or pneumatically assisted actions.  Unfortunately this matter of touch is not found in the incomplete Methode of Vierne's which he was in the process of writing at the time of his death.  It was something he taught his students only at the keys, and it demanded flexibility in the bridge of the hand (the line connecting the row of knuckles).

With this clean legato (imperceiveably broken) the hands are not trying to get off the keys.  This separates it completely from non-legato (articulate touch, ordinary touch), marcato, and staccato where the idea is to get off the keys by inserting definite, clearly audible breaks between each moving note.  With non legato, marcato, and staccato the moving notes sound increasingly broken, respectively.  With clean legato, on the other hand, the moving notes sound legato, but just more clear.

It's quite impossible to learn clean legato by trying to consciously measure the separations between each and every moving note.  Here's an analogy:  It would be like trying to spell the words you're saying while you're saying them.  No one can do that.  No one can spell the words they're saying at the same time they're saying them.  But both spelling and speaking are part of learning what words are all about.  So we realize that no one can specify with mathematical precision how much separation is exactly right between each and every moving note.  What we can say, is that the miniscule separations between the notes in clean legato and in non-legato can be heard, but not counted.  When extra flexibility is developed in the bridge of the hand using appropriate exercises, more finger motion is possible from the knuckles down, the fingers will be able to raise higher from the bridge and bounce, and the moving notes performed on instruments with electrical and/or pneumatically assisted key actions (or their electronic substitutes) will come out as clean legato.  It comes by doing it over and over, our ear helps lead us to it, and it falls in place by itself.

The exercises in the Leon Conus book [Fundamentals of Piano Technique, by Olga Conus/Leon Conus, edited by James McKeever] have been endorsed by many famous pianists, and any adaptations our teacher may make, based upon them, can be expected to be equally helpful.  There's also a useful exercise employing a table top that can help develop stretch and flexibility [See blog, Small Hands, Part II].  It's important however not to overdo these exercises and never ever, repeat never, press beyond where the hand is starting to feel tension or pain.  Easy does it, a little at a time, day to day, and the hand will do what's expected.  You don't want to reach for it, but you still have to work at it some.  We shouldn't get discouraged here.  It'll come with some experimentation and a little practice.

Stiffness in the bridge of the hand is, initially, a challenge faced by everyone -- every single performer needs to acknowledge it and give it some attention.  We're all born this way.  But the best piece of advice is this:  Trust your ear.  Your ear is your best friend.  It's more of a friend even than your brain, because it will lead your brain.  The brain often works too much, finally.

(continued in Part V)