Piano Tips and Techniques: Playing Glissandos

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There are many musical terms that you will hear when learning to play any instrument, and the piano is no exception. You probably started off with terms related to tempo, such as largo and allegro, and progressed accordingly. You will learn new terms at every level, so maybe you have already heard the word glissando. Even if you haven’t heard of the term, you probably have heard a glissando in music. For example, Jerry Lee Lewis’s song “Great Balls of Fire” uses glissandos.

Derived from the French word glisser, meaning to glide or slide, glissando is an Italian term that means the same thing. Musically, it tells the player that they are supposed to move, or glide, from one note or pitch to another. It sounds quite simple – after all, when you play the piano, aren’t you already moving from one note to another? Well, it’s actually not as simple as it sounds. It’s a quick slide through a series of consecutive tones in a scale-like pattern.

There are a few different types of glissando. One, called continuous glissando or portamento, is used in stringed instruments such as the violin, viola, and guitar. The one that pertains to the piano is called a discrete glissando, because each individual note is audible.

How do you know when to play a glissando? In your score, it is indicated by a diagonal straight or wavy line that connects the first and last notes of the glissando. Often the word “gliss” is noted.

How do you practice glissandos? Regardless of which way you are going, you need to locate your starting note. If you’re moving from a lower note to a higher one, do the following:

  1. Place one finger on the beginning key (typically your middle finger), and hold the other fingers straight and together.
  2. Let your thumb relax while your four fingers remain stiff. Touch the keys only with your fingernails.
  3. Play each note (white keys) in the glissando, ending on the note as written in your score.

If you are moving from a higher note to a lower one, here is what you do:

  1. Place your thumb or the back of your fingernails on the starting key.
  2. Drag your thumb down the keys, being sure to hit all of the white keys.
  3. End on the note as written in your score.

To play a glissando on the black keys, here is what you do:

  1. Stiffen your fingers on your hand so that you fingers are curved with your fingernails pointing upward.
  2. Using the first line from your palm to your fingers, press each black key in the glissando.
  3. End on the note as written in your score.

While you can try glissandos on black keys using your thumb, you may encounter difficulties to the spacing of the black keys. Also, due to the smaller keys and irregular spacing, this one tends to be much harder, but fortunately, not as common.

Of course, reading about how to play a glissando is difficult, therefore, make sure you have your piano teacher demonstrate proper technique when learning glissando. Use these instructions as guidelines or for reference.

One of the problems with glissandos is that when not done properly, your fingers can hurt! It’s a common problem, but there are ways to minimize or prevent pain. Here are a few tips:

  • Keep your fingers at a 45-degree angle when playing. This is an optimal playing position for your fingers.
  • Don’t press too hard on the keys – you want your fingernails to touch the keys but not much more. Pressing too hard can hurt your fingernails.
  • Start off playing very slowly until you are comfortable with a certain glissando and slowly work your way to playing at the required speed.

With practice, you can perfect your glissandos to add awesome emotion and flair to your music!


Photo by Bryan Ong


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