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Play Legato Guitar! Synchronize the Hands for More Fluidity

Connected Notes, At the Root Level

We all want to play beautifully. But what does that mean, in “real-world” terms?

Beautiful playing is made up of three basic ingredients: Legato, balance, and rhythm.

Each of these is a lifetime study, and the subject of this article is the first of these: Legato.

Legato Guitar

Legato means “smooth and connected”. It’s the opposite of staccato (short and separated).

When we play guitar legato there is no space between the notes.

At more advanced levels, it can come to mean other things as well, such as smooth and connected musical ideas or phrasing that “makes sense” to the ear.

When we talk about synchronizing the hands, we are talking about creating legato: one note connecting smoothly to another.

Singing Melody

So why would you possibly want to do all the work to synchronize your hands and connect your notes?

Classical guitar music is generally made up of a melody, a bass line, and interior voices (accompaniment).

For music to be truly beautiful, we need to be able to create a singing melody.

(Of course, not EVERY song needs or has a singing melody, but enough do that it’s worth working on.)

Overall Smoothness

Also, when you can synchronize your hands and connect your notes, everything you play simply sounds more cohesive and elegant.

You have more control, and are able to listen at a much higher level.

Well-connected notes also help to create a long line, which is one of our primary goals.

How to Play Legato

If it were easy, you’d already have synchronized hands and your legato guitar playing would gloriously fill the air.

But in fact, seamlessly connecting two notes on the same string is one of the hardest things we do on the classical guitar.

It takes a very intentional control and 100% attention.

Seamlessly connecting two notes on the same string is one of the hardest things we do.

Don’t Prep

What kills legato for most people is one or both of the hands preparing the next note ahead of time.

Of course, when learning our movement, we want to prepare each note (at least with the right hand) so that we can build the habit of consistent placement on the string.

But when it comes to playing legato, we have to let the first note keep ringing (don’t kill it!) and then…..BAM, out of nowhere we switch left hand fingers and play through the string with the right hand. And all in about a zillionth of a second.

So the left hand can prepare by hovering over the next note to play.
The right hand finger can also hover, just above where it would typically prep on the string.

How will you know when you’ve got it? You listen.

How will you know when you’ve got it? You listen.

 

EXTRA TIP:  Another way to think of this is to play each note in the left hand as a hammer-on (ascending slur).  That way you are intentionally controlling the timing of the finger pressing the string.

Listen Like Crazy

Most of all, synchronizing the hands and playing legato takes listening. And not just listening, but super-listening.

It’s the kind of listening you’d do if someone you love was struggling to get out some important last words. Listening with 100% of your attention and your entire being.

Practice Listening

In everyday life, we don’t listen this way. It’s likely not something you already do.

So if you’re serious about playing beautifully, you’ll need to start practicing your listening skills.

Luckily, the practice of synchronizing the hands and playing legato is wonderful way to practice.

How do you practice? Listen to how each note ends.

The Ends of Notes

Most of our focus is on the beginning of the notes. This is when we actually play the note. But there’s more to it than that.

Notes have a beginning, middle, and end.

  • The beginning is when we play them.
  • The middle is the duration of the note (how long you hold it).
  • And the end of the note is when it stops, or how it connects to the beginning of the next note.

Legato is created by controlling the ends of the notes. If we synchronize the hands so that the end of one note smoothly connects to the beginning of another, we’ve got legato.

Legato is created by controlling the ends of the notes.

The Grand Illusion

In truth, we can’t articulate two notes on the same string without stopping the string between them (slurs aside).

To play the string with the right hand, a finger must stop the string and replay it.

So to connect two notes we have to make this gap (where the RH finger touches and re-plays the string) as small as humanly possible.

Mind the gap.

 

This creates the illusion of a seamless connection.

Tricky Tricky Tricky.

How To Practice Classical Guitar Legato

So how do you actually practice all this?

First, Do No Harm

Primum non nocere. First, do no harm.

Speed creates the illusion of perfection, at least to the player. To work on synchronizing the hands and playing legato, first, you must slow down.

You have to only play as slowly as you can actively hear and register the end of each note.

Caution: Speed creates the illusion of perfection.

Scales

Scales are ideal for practicing I and M alternation and synchronizing the hands.

If you have your scale shapes memorized, all your attention can go into listening and working on synchronizing the hands.

The Scale Shapes

If you need a primer on scale shapes, here are some places to start:
Getting started with scales
The 5 Shapes Explained
I and M alternation

1234s

If you do not already have your scale shapes memorized (or at least one), you can simplify things by playing each finger once per string.

Because your attention needs to be as much as possible on listening to the connections of the notes, the notes themselves don’t really matter.

Just play fingers 1,2,3,4 on the first four frets of each string, or even on just one string.

Even Simpler

To REALLY get down to the core of the issue, we can simplify even more.

First, play slowly repeating notes on on open string.  Listen for the connection, and any space between the notes.

Then go between an open string, and one fretted note, with any finger.  Don’t prepare the finger early, or lift early.  Coordinate the press and the lift so that you keep it just as connected as the two open string notes.

Listen like crazy.  Slow down.

 

Then, just choose two notes on one string and go back and forth between them. Use your most comfortable fingers.  Listen like crazy.  Slow down.

In Your Music Pieces

If you have a piece you’re working on, you can take a small melodic section and use it as a study.

Small Sections

When focusing on synchronizing your hands (or generally working on details of any kind), work on small sections, not the entire piece.

This enables you to invest your full attention into the fine details of the few notes in front of you.

When you play through the whole piece you’re more likely to let your attention go to some other aspect of your playing (like what the next notes are, or a shift, or some other such issue).

Create Etudes

If you want to keep things lively, create your own little etudes.

An etude is a study.

If you notice that you have a particularly hard time with a specific finger combination or passage, you can create a little exercise that focuses on that combination.

As an example, if you have a hard time connecting your left hand 1 finger to the 3 finger smoothly and connected, you could play through all the strings using only the 1 and 3 finger on each string. Voila! Etude created!

Goal: No Gaps

While you’re practicing this, your overarching goal is to listen acutely and hear no gaps between the notes.

Each note is simply “plucked out of thin air”.

 

Each note is simply “plucked out of thin air”.

Remember: play slowly enough that if there’s a gap, you’ll hear it. Don’t trust yourself to play fast.

Good Luck!

Synchronizing the hands and playing legato is a wonderful study.

It keeps us “in the room” and mindful of every sound that comes out of our guitar. And it contributes to lovely music and fulfilling musical expression.

Commit to just a few minutes a day at first (it can be surprisingly mentally draining at first). And keep the long game in mind. It’s a process!


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4 Responses to Play Legato Guitar! Synchronize the Hands for More Fluidity

  1. Peter Heldorf January 3, 2016 at 3:55 pm #

    Allen, my interest is flamenco and I very much enjoy your many short videos dealing with particular technical details – like the one above. In a previous video you explained a detail I had never thought of. Namely, when shifting the left hand a long distance on the fretboard between notes, you first look towards the fret of the next note before shifting the finger to that fret. Knowing such details does wonders.
    I recently on the radio listened to an interview with a wonderful American piano teacher and former concert pianist, Seymour Bernstein. I looked him up on YouTube and found, among other things, five wonderful 10 min. videos of his on practicing the piano. If you don’t know this wonderful musician already, I think you, as a teacher – although of a different instrument, will enjoy him.

    Greetings from Sydney, Australia
    Peter

    • Allen January 3, 2016 at 5:05 pm #

      Hi Peter,
      Thanks for the tip, I’ll definitely check him out. Thanks! My musical coach, who I’ve see every week since 2010, is (was) a concert pianist. Much of my musical philosophy and phrasing techniques are from the piano world. In fact, here’s a video of my coach playing the Ravel Concerto at the Sydney Opera House.
      Thanks again!
      Cheers,
      Allen

  2. Tony elwell January 2, 2016 at 5:54 am #

    Hi Allan thanks for the email, am hopping to learn ,Spanish dance no 2 Enrique granados,, have probably learnt half of it so far, have you heard it, if not give it a listen , hope you have a good 2016 regards Tony.

    • Allen January 2, 2016 at 8:27 am #

      Hi Tony, Great piece! I do enjoy Granados. Happy 2016 to you too!

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