BY DANIEL WARD
Legato, an Italian word which translates to “tied together,” means that musical notes are played smoothly and connected. Even if you are familiar with the idea of a smooth legato melody, it’s probably not the first thing you would think of coming from a ukulele. Ukuleles are notoriously choppy, happy chord machines with little sustain and have no place trying to swoon and sing a long, smooth melody right? Wrong.
Learning to play smoothly and connecting your notes is one of the most enlightened paths to becoming a better musician, regardless of your instrument. There are several reasons, but the most obvious and immediately useful is the technique. It takes practice and attention to hold onto each note as it moves seamlessly to the next, building a bond between your musical ear and your fingers.
One of the best ways to learn smooth connection of notes is to practice scales. Doing these over and over without much context can be very boring, however, so why not put the practice right into music, and avoid the mindless running up and down that too often happens with scale practice?
I’ve written a short, easy melody that puts a descending C major scale over rolled chords in the first section (A) and jumps around just a bit in the second part (B). (This is an excerpt from the first study from my book Melodic Meditations for Ukulele.)
Music of all types is made up of hundreds of different articulations. Some can be smooth, short, accented, slurred, or even muted, like pizzicato strings, but this lesson concentrates on developing your skill to make the melody sing and control the tone from your strings so that every note rings into the next. This piece should be learned slowly and carefully, and I would encourage you to play the A section many times before moving to the B section. Once the whole study is flowing nicely, loop the piece as many times as you like over and over until you can really hear the music.
As you work through, keep the following tips in mind:
- Play the entire piece with your thumb. You can easily change to other fingers if you want to later, but it’s great to go slowly and pull the music with the same articulation on every note: long and smooth, like bell tones. Roll lightly through the chords on the first beat, but remember the first note of each chord is part of the melody, and connects right to the next. Try to get each note to ring all the way into the next, even if it’s an open string.
- Take extra care to leave every part of the chord ringing and held down until the melody literally runs through it and you have to take a finger off. This is not easy at first, but it is the magic technique that will give you a sweet legato touch and set you on course for clean chord-melody playing, too.
- Learn each measure carefully until it is really in you and it’s hard to make a mistake, then move on to the next phrase and connect them. If you go slowly enough, you’ll get the music under your fingers in half the time as someone who goes too fast. By practicing slow, you can keep track of more things at once, like tone, tempo, hand position, holding the chord tones down, and of course, your ear will be more involved.
- Use the suggested fretting-hand fingerings. The little numbers next to the notes on the upper stave let you know which fingers to use. (Remember, 1 = index, 2 = middle finger, 3 = ring, and 4 = pinky.) These fingerings are important, as they allow for maximum ring time from every note—while also helping to get your fourth finger in shape! Even if you usually just read tab, go ahead and take a look at the standard notation, and you’ll find it easy to figure out.
- Most important, enjoy the music!
This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Ukulele.
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