All singers agree that the mastery of legato is a prerequisite for successful creative work. The ability to sing long legato lines is therefore maybe on of the things that are characteristic of an international sound standard – because you can hear it from all renowned singers.
In spite of that, it is always difficult to describe the typical quality of this ability and therefore there is a danger of falling back on nebulous definitions, which hampers the teaching of such skills, especially its reliability.
There are many good singers who are just able to sing a legato line and do not have to think about it, and therefore they find it difficult to pass their knowledge on to students who do not possess ‚it‘, because the teachers were never in the situation of having to explain it.
Here we enter the realm of conscious and unconscious competence.
Two levels: psychology and physicality
A singer can only sing as well as he is able to imagine his tone beforehand: this is a force of imagination you could also call the ’singer’s will‘, the will to sound.
Thomas Hampson has described the following beautiful picture which is very striking:
„The art of legato is the ability to resound the sound.“
For me, this means that the singer’s will needs to be able to continue producing sound from note to note and to let it grow with every note, i.e. to sing a legato line.
Whereas the sound describes something different than just the tone: the first word sung always resonates with the personal, distinctive peculiarity of a voice.
For the singer it is important that he does not think from note to note (the score suggests just that), but he must realize that this note has a note value reaching to the next new note in which this sound must develop. Thus the sound also takes place ‚between‘ the notes. Otherwise holes in the sound emerge which want to be picked up with an emphasis on each single note – and this leads to the death of legato.
There is a phenomenon that allows this sound line to continue which happens in the overtones of the voice. The Swedish-Italian school of singing speaks of the ‚ring‘ in this context, which is an audible musical occurence in the harmonic spectrum coinciding with the tone that is really sung and physically felt for the singer, and which is responsible for the focus and the sustainability of the voice.
Again and again David Jones calls this „traveling on the ring“ a quality of guiding the voice which leads to a legato line.
This particular sound unfolds between the notes and the singer must maintain the ring and not interfere with the sound itself. If I listen too closely to the sound, I risk trying to improve it at the same moment which inevitably results in ‚dents‘ in the sound and carrying the voice unevenly. If my attention is on the ring, which can always be felt physically, this „resounding the sound“ can take place.
To achieve a legato line technically, I need to work on three basic aspects: the tongue, the jaw, and the continuing flow of breath.
To establish the ring, I must take sure the tongue is in the ’ng‘ position, i.e. the tongue tip is on the lower incisors while the upper molars are touching the edges of the tongue.
I understand that the principle of the flat tongue is still often taught in Germany, but experience shows if the above mentioned place of the tongue is its home position, an open throat will be guaranteed. The old schools of singing have always thaught it this way.
The jaw is relaxed and in an back and down position – we now know that the vocal cords can approach each other best in this position. If the chin pushes forward, the vocal folds are pressed apart, the consequence of which is the interruption of the sound up to the breaking of the register.
Especially in the high range this pushing forward of the jaw happens all the time because the sound will turn inside the body and we can hear it better. Thus we sacrifice the legato line or even the blending of the registers to protect our hearing.
After these two rather ‚mechanical‘ factors we need to adress the continuous air flow as the main feature of the sound stream.
A few images have proven useful to let the breath flow without pushing it:
exercises with the consonant ‚w‘, which produces a feeling that the air swirls in the nose and is not pushed out of the mouth – this makes a sound like blowing on a comb with parchment paper. This sound can be led up to the highest range.
Scales are done downwards, beginning with a ’sigh through the nose‘.
Handling the text
The singer needs to know that in contrast to the Italian or Anglo-Saxon languages the German language requires the separation of a word ending and the beginning of a new word to understand the sense of what is said. There is a clear difference in the quality of the legato sound if the singer sings in German or English.
I often recommend singers to sing text passages in syllables without meaning or not to sing in their native language to try to transfer this guiding of the voice into German.
Effect on the listeners
If the singer is capable of guiding his sound in this way, this has a significant impact on the listeners: the audience is captured by a basically non-ending flow of ’sound‘ and can be emotionally affected by this force to a very great degree.
This is one of the secrets of the human voice which can move the hearer, even if I do not understand the text, or if actually none is used.