The World English Dictionary defines legato as: “a style of playing [singing] in which no perceptible gaps are left between notes”. Random House says: “smooth and connected; without breaks between the successive tones.” I like the latter definition because it includes “smooth”. It is possible to connect notes that have rather violent boundaries between them. Do the neighbors have an invisible property line between them that they both agree on, or is it a peaceful stream, or is it a cement wall topped with barbed wire?
I feel that some experience with vocal music, however rudimentary, is extremely helpful, maybe even necessary, for a good understanding of legato for all instruments. Let’s focus on a very “smooth” interpretation of legato. Listen to how Beverly Sills, Barbra Streisand, Mel Tormé, Luciano Pavarotti, or k.d. lang sing a phrase, and how the notes and words connect to each other.
Some students can readily hear that expert singers sing smoothly and connected, and that they can’t. How do you begin to do it yourself? Sometimes it’s as easy as my saying, “How about trying it with the words all smushed together like this?” Then I demonstrate, and they’re off and running. But for students who are just starting out, they may need more help. Many students will sing very legato vocalises, but not be able to do it with songs yet.
I usually initiate a two-pronged approach, one starting with text without music moving towards integration, and the other starting with music without text, also moving towards integration.
First I state the problem of “missing legato”, and bring it to their awareness. They have to hear it and be willing to change it. Once they’re on board, I usually start with text. First, we talk through the text in normal speech. Then, I may have them “talk like a robot”, with the phonation continuing with minimal interruption, in a monotone. Then I introduce rhythm, so that the robot starts talking in the rhythm of the song, nonstop, no breaks except to breathe. Then we sing a phrase or two (adding pitch to our robot voice), and I give lots of verbal reinforcement for improvements in connection between notes. After the typical “that’s weird” observation, I encourage them to go for that all the time. It is paradoxical that the “robot voice” leads to a legato that then sounds like a wonderful sung line, but it works. From there, we can continue to add expressive elements that take it to artistic places.
Secondly, I will go phrase by phrase (not necessarily thru the whole song, a few phrases usually does the trick) on a friendly vowel, and just sing the music with one vowel. I may have them think about an overall emotion for the phrase, and how that might be expressed with the choice of vowel, its volume, and its color, but that’s usually fancy stuff for a little later.
The next substep of the above is as analytical as the “talk like a robot idea” but it’s usually a fun exercise for them – we sing all the vowels of a phrase, without consonants. This is where I emphasize that speech and song are different because we are singing long vowels on particular pitches, while speech has short sounds that are always sliding around in pitch. I may demonstrate a spoken utterance normally, and then without consonants, to show the constantly changing pitch and ephemeral nature of speech compared to song.
From here, I may have them gradually add in a word here and there, while still singing the rest of the phrase as a vocalise. This gradual integration, along with going back and forth between vocalise and sung lyrics, helps to drive the idea of singing legato home.I do not subscribe to the “either you’ve got it or you don’t” school of thought in any skill. Most skills can be learned, and legato singing and “phrasing” are teachable. The fact that some singers do not need to be taught does not mean that it cannot be taught.