In my classroom we define staccato as "separated." In other words, there will be a space between the staccato note and whatever comes next. How much space? Well....
Too often students develop a mental image of staccato notes as "short," or "stabbed." This frequently leads to a sound that is not characteristically appropriate.
To help students conceptualize what a staccato note should sound like I will draw this diagram on the board. Assume the column's width represents a beat in 4/4, the arrows represent sound, and the music has a staccato quarter note. Which of the following would you consider to be staccato?
Students will vote for the arrow(s) they think are correct. Then I will ask "which ones are separated?" Of course arrow A is not, so clearly that is not staccato. But the rest are all separated to various degrees. So according to our definition, B through G are all staccato.
Next I will ask "which one is the correct staccato?" Again, students will vote for different ones, mostly C or D. This leads to a brief discussion of what makes a particular note=length correct.
Most students would say that G is too short. But it might be appropriate in a latin-jazz tune for a note with a carrot top. Some might say that B isn't separated enough. But it might be a good choice for a staccato note in a slow, lyrical passage. We discuss the various elements that contribute to making a good choice (style, tempo, etc.). The conclusion is that any one of them could be correct depending on the situation.
To drive the point home I will put on a metronome at a moderately slow tempo and try to sing or play a measure of each articulation. Students experience the space between notes expanding as they listen and try to match each other. At this point they have learned to put a great deal of thought into the length of each note.
Summing it Up
When staccato is taught this way students learn to think about it as a musical concept rather than a rule to be followed. Students learn that when they see a staccato in their music it represents an idea that is subject to interpretation. By using this approach you will encourage your students to be thoughtful, engaged musicians.
Tips for Band Teachers
Practical ideas for your elementary and middle school band class.