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The Rediscovery of the Non-ligato Touch
by J.A Creaghan

"In general, Segovia's style is characterized by a systematic use of staccato." Charles Duncan (Guitar Review no.42 1977)

In the name of Modernism, we sometimes discard ideas which we would do well to reconsider. One such I believe is the articulation once known as non-ligato.

The way I was taught music was that there were two basic articulations: legato and staccato. However, in the Baroque and Classical periods of music, (and probably the Renaissance as well), there was a third important articulation called "non-ligato". When this is re-introduced into playing the guitar, it completely changes the way the left (chording) hand is used.

The most famous reference to the non-ligato touch is in C.P.E. Bach's Essay on the True Art of playing Keyboard Instruments ( Norton, 1949). Here, he states "tones which are neither detached, connected nor fully held are sounded for half their value....Quarter and eighth notes in moderate and slow tempos are usually performed in this semi-detached manner" (page 157).

For the Classical period, one can refer to Daniel Gottlob Turk's Klavier-Schule (School of Clavier playing, University of Nebraska press, 1982) published in 1789. Here he writes "tones which are to be played in customary fashion that's neither staccato nor slurred, the finger is lifted a little earlier from the key than is required by the duration of the note" (page 345). For music up to the Romantic Era, the non-ligato is the normal stroke.

In general, the nineteenth century did not recognize the non-ligato articulation and many editions added completely inauthentic legato directions over many passages.

In Charles Rosen's fine and recent book "Beethoven's piano Sonatas: A Short Companion" (Yale University press, 2002), he sites an example of a nineteenth century critical edition of Beethoven's piano Works where non-ligato, written in by Beethoven, was changed by the editor to be ligato! - making the passage all but impossible. This is both comic and tragic.

For the guitarist, the non-ligato touch frees the fingers of the left hand more quickly and thus the stronger ones can be used more often. This can greatly reduce the use of the fourth (weakest) finger and put more notes on the stronger ones.

Fernando Sor was likely using this fingering system as it was the norm for this time. This gives added dimension to his sixth general maxim from his book Methode pour la Guitare (Da Capo press): "Never give work to the weakest fingers, whilst the strongest ones are free."

Since I have introduced the non-ligato touch into my playing, the notes half-filled with sound as the norm, I have noted a significant increase in the agility and stamina of the left hand. I now use legato and staccato as similar to tasto and ponticello and view the non-ligato articulation as the natural tone (ordinario).

Nothing has given my playing and that of my students such a quick boost in the right direction as the restoration of the non-ligato touch. The more fourth finger you use, the more you are tiring your hand; especially the hand of smaller size. The fourth finger simply cannot hold the string into the fretwire with the strength of the other fingers. This means less in forte passages, less rhythmic vitality and less vibrato. This problem is exacerbated when playing on the bass strings. The loss of the non-ligato touch made the guitar more difficult to play but with no perceptible benefit.

perhaps Segovia's (born in l893) "systematic use of staccato" was in fact a connection he held to this earlier articulation.

- J.A. Creaghan