Legato Line

I remember as a young singing student hearing one of my early teachers telling me to "sing the line legato". As a pianist, my primary university teacher, Ann Dean Turk, had explained "how to do it" correctly from a technical standpoint. I had no technical suggestions from my singing teachers, however. In all of my vocal study, I never had a clear explanation of "how" to sing a legato in language function.

In this article, I will attempt to clarify the mystery of the legato line and how one pursues this "buried treasure". This is one aspect of singing which most great professional singers have already found.

The "breath support function": In my experience as a teacher of singing for over 25 years, I have found that most singers do not know about breath and breath management (see articles). This is crucial for real legato singing to occur. Again every vocal concept must be done in balance for it to be effective. Many singers, including myself, take a concept too far and then we search for balance again. In singing a legato line, the singer must learn a low breath into the lower back. I often have singers "breathe the lower curve or the back into a straight line". This breath is "not too much breath, however it is a low breath". Over-breathing will encourage a singer "blow out the cords" with too much breath pressure, especially at the consonants. Many call this "pushing" the voice; too much "pushing of air pressure" through the cords. Over-breathing will certainly distort any legato line. Sometimes I call the "breath management" part of the breath control the "legato grunt or moan". It resembles a deep "hum" only the back muscles (lumbars) are stretching gently outward as the tone is being produced. This "legato grunt" is the basis for a legato line. It diminishes the "over-blowing" of the consonants with too much breath pressure. This elongates the vibrational time of the vowels. A slow and gradual release of breath through the larynx is crucial for the basis of a legato line. The other "breath factor" in relaxed singing is the Caruso "cough off", which releases the "old left unused air" in the lungs after the musical phrase is finished. This "cough off" or "puff off" as Lindquest often called it, is crucial in order to help the singer find a "resting spot" within the music. After this "resting spot" is created, the "body re-breathes automatically" so the singer can begin the next phrase with the correct body response.

The Jaw Function: I learned a lot about legato line from watching Alan Lindquest and his student Virginia Botkin teach. Lindquest explained the proper position of the jaw as "hanging slightly down and back"; much as the jaw would hang down and back if one went to sleep with the head back. The jaw NEVER goes forward. Too many singers open their mouths too much until the jaw "pops forward" out of its socket or joint. This is completely incorrect for healthy singing. It also makes a legato line impossible because the jaw cannot manage the relationship between vowel and consonant function. If a singer attempts a legato line with this extreme jaw motion, there will be "dead spots" where there is no vibration at the cords. The "gag reflex" becomes employed at the root of the tongue as well. This "gag reflex" puts pressure directly on the vocal cords and they cannot vibrate healthily in this circumstance. If the jaw is "slightly down and back", the relationship between vowel and consonant function is smooth. (See article on "Shaking Jaw and Tongue.) This creates a longer vibrational time between vowel and consonant function: a pure legato line. Lindquest taught this by using a "gentle chewing motion" of the jaw. He used to have me chew several times before singing. Then he would have me sing "ee,oh,ee,oh,ee,oh". When a "gentle chew" is achieved, as in eating food, the pressure in the jaw muscles is released. This exercise creates a smooth, gentle, and elastic motion of the jaw muscles. I have often had singers who would either "lock the jaw closed" or "force the jaw down too far". Neither of these situations makes for healthy singing or speaking. The gentle chew is the only way to create a relaxed jaw. Small motions of the jaw create the balance needed for the foundation of the legato line. It is crucial that the jaw chew "down and back", NOT down and forward.

The Tongue Function: I have explained in other articles that Lindquest taught the "ng" position of the tongue as in the word "singing" or "hanging". This "ng" position of the tongue is the basis for nasal resonance to be present in singing a legato line. I have found that using the "ng" position of the tongue as "home position" makes for more "ring" in the voice. If the back of the tongue is not out of the pharynx, there is a "muted" or "darkened" sound in the voice. True resonance cannot be achieved.

William Vennard suggested that singers try to pronounce in all languages as much like Italian as possible. Integrating the "flipped" consonants such as "d" or "t" or "n" with only the action of the tongue allows the jaw to stay slightly open while pronouncing. When the jaw can assume a "slightly lower position" while pronouncing, then the acoustical space in the back of the throat stays open. This allows for more vibrational time at the vowels. Also if "m's" are pronounced with the jaw slightly open, then the result is more space in the back of the throat. This behavior can also be adopted for plosives such as "b's" or "p's". The gentle chew, which Lindquest taught, was meant to release pressure in the jaw. We want most of our pronouncing to be made with the flipping of the tongue. Lindquest's favorite exercise for this was using the Italian word "dentale". The jaw is open as the "d" is flipped. The "nt" is produced with only one flip of the tongue. The "L" is also flipped. This exercise can be achieved with the jaw slightly open down and back. In this situation, the tongue pronounces separate from jaw function. There are some consonants that demand a jaw motion. Any consonant or group of consonants in English that involve the "s", "f", "z", "v", or "ch" sounds. Also in English the "j" sound or in Italian the rolled "r". I tell singers to ONLY "brush" these consonants on the same breath flow as the vowels. The "jaw motion" must be produced with the "gentle chew" so vibrational time of the vowels is elongated or maximized. The "jaw motion" must be made quickly AND relaxed, which takes practice. If the consonant is produced with more "breath pressure" than the vowel, the legato line will be disturbed. I often have singers vocalize on Italian syllables on a repeated note: for example, da, me, ni, po, tu, la, be, da. This particular group of syllables does NOT require a "motion of the jaw" when vocalized. I keep singers on these syllables until they learn to control the jaw and leave it "slightly down and back". Gradually I introduce the other sounds into vocalization.

The "ng" and its role: Kirsten Flagstad called the "ng" "the silver thread that is the soul of my voice". In 1938, when Alan Lindquest studied in Stockholm, he was able to find Dramatic Soprano Ingebjart Isene. Isene had taught Flagstad after the death of her teacher Dr. Gillis Bratt. One of Dr. Bratt's basic exercises was based on the "ng" function. This allows for the soft palate to be "slightly raised" without "over-stretching" it. Threading the "ng" feel over each vowel (without nasality) was one of Alan Lindquest's goals with his singers. The result was tremendous power and beauty of tone simultaneously: a duality that makes for exceptional. The "ng" also played a large role in helping his singers to learn "how" to create a legato line in language function.

In my studies with Lindquest, he would often say, "breathe in the 'ng' position and pronounce in the 'ng' position". This gave me a sensation of the slight "ring" over each vowel sound I made. The effect on the legato line is tremendous. The "ng" must be produced with the root of the tongue wide. If the root of the tongue is "bunched", the singer will experience a "closed throat" and very tight singing. The exercise is then counterproductive. The correct production of the "ng" helps to lengthen the "vibrational time" of the vowels as well; thus a musical line can be accomplished much more easily.

We have covered four major elements that, when coordinated properly, help to create pure legato line: (1) Proper breathing and breath management, (2) Proper jaw function, (3) Correct tongue position, and (4) The role of the Flagstad "ng".

Exercises to use in learning coordination of legato:

(1) Use a "hissing" function creating a lot of resistance at the tongue/teeth area. This will give the singer the feel of "holding back the breath pressure" with the body and allowing a "small controlled breath stream" to come through the larynx. Also "leaning slightly forward from the waist" and making a moaning sound will give the singer the proper feel of breath support.

(2) The "hanging" relaxed jaw. Use chewing exercises and imitate the jaw function of chewing food. Use closed vowel function to open vowel function. This could be "ee, oh, ee, oh, ee, oh," etc. or "eh, ah, eh, ah, eh, ah," etc.

(3) Use Italian syllables such as: da, me, ni, po, to, la, be, da. Use the "hanging jaw" as proper position to pronounce these sounds. This can be properly found by using the position of "drinking out of a large glass". Allow the tongue to do all of the pronouncing. This will keep the jaw from closing and the result will be a more "open throat". Note: (if there is a slight "lift" of the cheek muscles under the eyes, the "relaxed hanging jaw" will be much easier.)

(4) Use the "ng" sound and gradually open to an open vowel such as "oh" or "ah". Allow a small "stream of air" to travel through the nose as you open to the vowel. The result will be a vowel that has resonance and this resonance can maximize the vibrational time of the vowels and minimize the time spent on consonants.

It is important to remember that the core of good musicianship in singing is the legato line. A singer cannot become an accomplished musician without this understanding. We really do not pronounce in singing exactly as we do in speaking. The difference is that the jaw takes on the role of becoming "less active" and the tongue is encouraged to do most of the pronouncing. My personal observation of many, many singers is that when the legato line is present in their performances, the audience is moved and touched emotionally. The audience does not know what is creating this emotional reaction. One example I witnessed was hearing Christa Ludwig in recital at Lincoln Center with James Levine at the piano. Her final song group was Mahler. The legato line in her performance along with her great musicianship left the audience "stricken silent". When the last note of the last song was finished, the audience was completely quiet. This silence lasted for at least 20 seconds; a very long time it seemed. I can only say that these musical experiences "touch our soul" for just that small moment in time. May we all learn that real musicianship is based on several different crafts. One of the most important is the legato line. Best wishes in your study of this craft.

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