How to Sing with more Freedom: Legato
One of the most noticeable improvements you can make to your singing is to use more legato.
Legato is Italian for “tied together” and means singing with smoothly connected notes, not separated.
The voice is a melodic instrument - really, it is the original melodic instrument (meloidia is Greek for singing or chanting). Our role as singers is to tell a musical “story” in the form of a melody. Just as the events in a narrative need to have some sort of continuity for a story to make sense, so do the notes in a melody when we sing.
Our voice only produces one note at a time (we can’t sing chords*) and we have the ability to smoothly connect notes with no pause or breath in between. Rather than singing a melody as a bunch of individual notes, we should think of a line of consecutive notes together as one whole musical phrase.
The voice is a melodic instrument - really, it is the original melodic instrument (“melōidía” is Greek for singing or chanting).
What is a musical phrase? A phrase is a melody, generally 2-4 measures long, that comprises one musical “thought”. It is analogous to a grammatical sentence, or more specifically, one clause of a sentence.
As singers, our musical phrases tend to be spelled out for us, or rather “punctuated” out for us. Typically, one line of lyrics or one sentence will correspond to one musical phrase, and therefore one breath. So, in general, only pause to breathe on the rests, and otherwise on the commas and periods. Basically, breathe where you normally would in speech.
Breathing only at the correct times is a good start, but alone is not enough to change the tone and consistency of our voice. The ability to sing with legato is something that really distinguishes the trained singers from the untrained singers. It can make the difference between sounding choppy like “talk-singing” and sounding like powerful, full-voiced, lyric singing.
The ability to sing with legato is something that really distinguishes the trained singers from the untrained singers.
Legato will help maintain consistent resonance which will translate to reduced tension and more freedom when singing long lines. It will also make the notes and the melody you are singing much more pronounced and easier to tune.
So legato singing is great! But how do we achieve it?
Legato singing can be achieved by practicing a few simple habits:
Plan out your breaths (write them in!). Make sure to not breathe unless there is punctuation indicating a pause: a period, comma, colon, semi-colon, question mark, etc. Ask yourself: where would you naturally breathe when speaking these words? (e.g. not: “I can’t help falling in love with - *breath* - you”)
Take out all the words. Practice the entire melody on one vowel, like “Oo”; or simply hum. Make sure that all consecutive notes in one musical phrase are connected and run smoothly into one another. Don’t be afraid to be more “slippery-slidey” than you normally would be between notes, especially large intervals. Only breathe at your pre-planned breaths. Make sure that you aren’t re-articulating each change in pitch (no “bump” when changing notes - glide smoothly between them all).
Next, try adding the words back in, one phrase at a time.
Elongate vowels and shorten consonants. We sing primarily through vowels. Consonants are an obstruction of the airflow and some can stop vocal fold oscillation entirely. The general rule of thumb when trying to sing with legato is to lengthen all the vowels, shorten the consonants.
Try speaking (monotone, not singing) the words of the phrase in slow motion, hanging on to all the vowels and rushing through all the consonants. You will sound ridiculous! But add the melody back in and you will see that this is more or less what we do when we sing! Singing is essentially controlled shouting on long vowels in slow motion (depending on the tempo of the music).
Singing is essentially controlled shouting on long vowels in slow motion.
Delay ending consonants. Ending consonants can be the enemy of good legato, especially on long notes. Delay your ending consonants as much as possible. In fact, put them on the beginning of the next word.
“Deck the halls with boughs of holly” becomes:
“De… ckthe… haa… llswii… thboou… ghsoo… fhoo… llyy”
Try saying the lyrics like that, shifting the endings to the next word. Again, expect to sound and look ridiculous.
Delay your ending consonants as much as possible. In fact, put them on the beginning of the next word.
Elongating the vowels and shortening/delaying the consonants gives your singing more time “on the voice”, not being constantly interrupted by consonants. Free from these interruptions, your vocal folds don’t have to reset oscillation on every syllable. Thus, you get smooth, connected notes – legato.
Legato singing really does wonders for avoiding vocal fatigue in challenging phrases. It also makes it really obvious when some of the shorter notes that you would normally gloss over are falling back/poorly formed so that you can notice and fix them.
Long vowels results in more time “on the voice”, not being constantly interrupted by consonants.
Watch the Diphthong: Greek: di- (two) -phthong (sounds) (pronounced “DIFF-thong”)
Diphthong – This fantastic term means “two adjacent vowel sounds in the same syllable.”
Think of the word you call yourself: “I”. What vowel sound is the word “I”? It is spelled with one letter, but it is actually two separate sounds: “ah” then “ih”, the first gliding into the second.
Other examples include:
[ah->ih] : lie, line, my, mine, time, night, fly, try, like
[eh->ih] : may, gray, name, vain, train
[oh->oo]: go, know, throw, follow, own
[ah->oh]: down, crown, town, sound, out
So, what happens when we have to sing a really long note on one of these words; when do we change between the vowel sounds? The trick is to hang on to the first vowel sound through most of the note, then add the rest of the word on at the very end with the rest of the consonants, if any. (e.g. “night” becomes “NAH… it”)
It will sound weird when spoken, but try it when singing. If you are worried about the lyrics not being understood, fear not, because the audience will likely hear the correct word anyway based on context, even if you haven’t finished the word yet.
The trick is to hang on to the first vowel sound through most of the note, then add the second sound at the very end. (e.g. “night” becomes “NAH… it”)
Emphasize the important words in the sentence. Every word in English has a particular syllable stress (“SYL-la-ble”, not: “syl-la-BLE”) and every sentence similarly has words that have more importance (generally the subject of the sentence and the action words). Make these words stand out from the others by emphasizing them: grow louder in the direction of the important words in the sentence.
Give the phrase an arch shape with dynamics. Obviously different pieces of music will call for a variety of different shapes in phrase dynamics throughout, but by far the most common is the “arch” shape: starting softer, getting louder in the middle, then tapering off at the end. This shouldn’t run the full gamut from pianissimo to fortissimo, but a tasteful ebb and flow in loudness and intensity on each phrase will breathe much more life into the music.
A change in dynamics can also give motion or musical “momentum” to an otherwise uninteresting note or phrase, most commonly by crescendo-ing (getting louder) on long notes or when leading into the next phrase. Slow tempos and long notes run the risk of becoming stagnant if you don’t change in dynamics or otherwise create some sense of direction. Be sure that every note you sing is “going somewhere”.
Slow tempos and long notes run the risk of becoming stagnant if you don’t change in dynamics or otherwise create some sense of direction.
Every singer can benefit from regularly practicing legato singing, even if the song or the style of music is not particularly “smooth and connected”. The main takeaway here is to think of the notes you are singing as a part of a larger whole. Not every note should be the same volume or get the same emphasis.
Think of the direction the music is going in and allow the loudness and intensity throughout the phrase to reflect that. This will ensure that your singing has motion and fluidity as well as consistency, qualities that will really set your voice apart and display your artistic capabilities.
* On singing multiple notes at once: The human voice can only naturally produce one “note” at a time, but by selectively amplifying certain overtones, one can create a sort of “whistle melody” over a low drone.
See: Tuvan throat-singing. This is not the same as singing multiple complex pitches at once, which is not possible with our anatomy.
For more about overtones, see the previous post on this blog.