Cause and Effect

In music, we call playing smoothly and connectedly “legato,” which is Italian for “bound together” (as in our word “ligature”). Brass players are always looking for a beautiful legato sound. It’s hard to do, and hard to teach. If you can start a note cleanly (which we call articulation) and play the next note either cleanly or smoothly, you can basically play anything that a piece of music has to deliver. These are the quarks and neutrinos of brass playing, out of which all musical lines grow. Think of the Beatles’ song Yesterday, which everyone in the world except my family knows. The first note has to start cleanly “Yesterday”). The next line, “Love was such an easy game to play” has to be legato – smooth.

Much of my professional life these days focuses on trying to figure out how to explain stuff to students. As a result, I’m doing a lot of practicing, trying to figure out how to explain stuff to myself. And suddenly, one day, it occurred to me that there is no such “thing” as legato. You don’t play two notes and connect them by imposing something called “legato” on them. Which is why the search for “legato” can be so frustrating.

What actually happens is this: you play the first note. You keep playing it until the very last instant before the next note. Then, you play the next note, without hitting it any harder than you left the previous note. The result? Legato.

The point, I guess, is that “legato” is a result. For me, what made legato playing so hard was an incorrect translation of a concept. If you tell me to play smoothly, I am going to try to play the first note, and then I’m going to try to hit the second note in a smooth fashion (whatever that is). The harder I try to make the second note smooth, the more I fail – all that effort is doing nothing but make me clunk from note to note. Shift my focus to the first note, and I’m in business. All I have to do is fill that note out to the very end of the end of the end of its duration, and my legato will appear.

When I first had this realization, I thought (who wouldn’t?) of calculus. To find the area under a curve (bear with me, mathphobes), you divide the space under there into rectangles, whose area is easy to calculate. One rectangle gives you a lousy approximation of the area under the curve; two gives you a closer idea. Thirteen rectangles is much better, but thirteen thousand is way closer. If you could make an infinite number of rectangles, you’d get the exact area. And this is just like my legato.

Huh? Let me explain. You are playing the first note, looking to play smoothly into the second note. As you get to the end of the first note, you are looking to sustain that note through every instant, half-instant, quarter-instant, eighth-instant, and so on, right up to the end of the note. No matter how short the final moment of the note, you are playing during that moment. Even if you are playing a quarter note (which lasts one musical beat), it is still infinitely long as you sustain it right to the end (sort of). Then – bang – you’re onto the next note.

What I love about being a music teacher is: #1, this kind of shift in thinking, in this case away from the second note and into the first note, actually works (I have tried it with my students); and #2, more generally. how we think about things really affects our physical activity.

What got me thinking that I would write about this is my exercise situation. I like to run, and I am quite bad at it. I can go fairly long distances, but at a snail’s pace. It doesn’t surprise me that it took us Jews forty years to get out of the desert – we were moving as fast as we could! Anyway, we are having freak warm weather in Madison, and yesterday (78 degrees) the entire city was running in the park, including me. I lumbered my 3 miles, and felt good having done it, but I am really slow. So, I was wondering if I should try to increase my speed. And that is what brought me back to the thing about legato. Because if “legato” isn’t really a thing, but rather a result, then “speed” also isn’t a thing but a result. To run faster, in other words, I don’t have to really try to run “faster.” Doing the math, I seem to have two options, each of which is much less fear-inducing than the thought of going faster: I can take longer strides, or I can take more strides per minute. Or both, but let’s be reasonable.

Confession: I’ve now written and erased about four conclusions to this blog entry. What that means is that I have no idea where this is going or should go. I’ll leave it at this point, and check back in with my readers when the brain starts firing again.

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