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Legato Singing

Hi!  Who can recommend some exercises to improve legato singing?  Vocal and PHYSICAL activity ideas would be greatly appreciated.  Thank you so much!
Replies (6): Threaded | Chronological
on December 9, 2012 6:46pm
Is this for adults or younger singers?  Physical actions are the same... ie. using the hand to sweep across the body, but the imagery would differ. 
I would start by having them sing a familiar melody that is primarily step-wise in motion (My Country Tis of Thee, etc...) on a legato neutral syllable like 'loo' while sweeping a hand in front of their body, changing direction after each phrase.
If that gesture doesn't quite work or sound right, then you could have them imagine holding a piece of gum or caramel in their hands and pulling it apart to stretch it. 
And above all, if you are conducting them, make sure you are showing legato in your gesture.  What they see is what you get.
on December 9, 2012 6:52pm
Quinn:  What an interesting question!  But I suppose it depends on what kind of habits you're trying to counteract.  What kind of improvement are you looking for?  My observation has been that most choral singing IS legato and connected, and it's much more difficult to get singers to use a staccato or accented style.
All the best,
on December 10, 2012 2:47am
Hi Quinn,
You may find some useful ideas in a couple of my blog posts on that and related questions:
John and Brent's questions are also interesting of course - a lot of what you need to do will depend a lot on where you're starting from.
And there's that whole other dimension of how what size chunks people are thinking of the music. If they're taking it a note at a time mentally, it will sound clunky even if they're not actually breaking up the sound - if you've seen that lovely Ben Zander TED talk where he charts the development in phrasing in a young pianist, legato thinking would be where you get to what he calls 'one-buttock' playing. (This metaphor only works for piano of course. I occasionally entertain myself by wondering what 'one-buttock singing' would look like, but it's more fun than productive as a train of thought. Ahem.)
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on December 13, 2012 12:22pm
I agree that mental phrasing is a big part of the legato effect.  However, a singer can craft a beautiful phrase and still not fully execute true legato singing at the physical level.  Physically, legato singing happens when the vocal folds remain in contact with each other through note, vowel, and voiced consonant shifts, while phonating on an evenly balanced air stream.  Most children have no problem with this concept (no inhibitions), and most well-trained singers re-discover what it means to sing legato, but many middle-school through college age singers really struggle with true legato singing due to their inhibitions and loss of trust in the voice.  They are constantly (like every milisecond) adjusting their approach based on their own perception of how they sound.  It's sort of the "Adam and Eve feeling they need to cover up their naked bodies" thing, only for the voice.  One of the subconscious results is that they place a little "H" between each note, for what feels like increased precision, but actually robs them of precision and a good, healthy approach to singing. 
Teaching awareness of this phenomenon is the first step.  Then, glissandos are most effective in breaking this habit.  Take the ears out of the equation with plugs, tissue, or just cupping them with the hands.  Omitting the ears will not only free up inhibitions toward a sloppy glissando approach to singing, but it will also encourage naturally brighter vowels than what most of them are used to singing (the "ungaurded" sound is what we're going for as a foundation to singing).  Then apply glissando to a piece of music.  Amazing Grace works.  Encourage students to evenly slide between all notes (not scoop) and demonstrate it for them so they understand what you're asking them to do.  Pre-teach that this will feel/sound wierd but it's GREAT for singing.  (Having them "cup" hands over their ears discourages them from making it into a joke with their neighbor)
There can be more detail, but this is a platform anyway.  Hope it might be of some help.
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on December 14, 2012 8:46am
Quinn -- I think legato singing is dependent on 3 things:
1. As already mentioned, the singers need to conceptualize the phrase as a connected unit and not just a series of syllables.  A number of kinesthetic exercises can be used to help this along, such as pulling the arm to make a semicircular arc (like a rainbow) as the phrase is sung, or slowly lifting the arms as if pulling a heavy bag of groceries up to a countertop.  In addition, if the singers are aware of a "destination" for the phrase, or a sense of sense of where the phrase should "pull" to, it will help the conceptualization.  (The stressed syllables of the text and the meter of the music will be strong indicators of where this destination will be.)
2. The breath needs to be pulled along in a steady supply, and the singers need to think of it being used between syllables as well as during them.  Singing the text on vowels only can help this, as well as many other tried and true exercises to encourage steady breath (such as lip trills, hissing, etc.).  I also feel that costal resistance (keeping the rib cage from contracting to quickly, or in other words, using the intercostal muscles during singing) is very helpful to sustaining a legato, and there are exercises for helping this as well.  Most amateur singers greatly underutilize costal resistance, and as such, run out of breath by the end of the phrase.  This certainly doesn't help the effort to sustain a legato sound
3. Jaw movement should be minimized to encourage legato singing.  Most beginning singers equate singing to talking on pitch, and as part of that they tend to move their jaws as excessively when they sing as they do when they talk.  They sub-consciously equate good enunciation with movement of the jaw, and fail to realize that it's more a matter of properly using the lips and tongue, not the jaw.  I will sometimes ask my choirs to sing the first phrase of "Deck the Halls" very quickly.  When they get to the "fa-la-la" portion of the phrase, they will either continue to use their jaws and slow down, or they will properly just use their tongues to make the "l" and be able to stay in tempo.  I'll then ask them to press their hands inward on their jaws to immobilize them and sing the phrase again.  They then begin to realize the "L" only necessitates the movement of the tongue, and doesn't require the jaw.  Other consonants like m, b or p require the lips to be brought together, but with more effort from the lips and far less from the jaw, the movement of the jaw is again minimized.  Try having your choir make fists with their hands and then push their hands against their cheeks, pushing the jaw down.  (Have them push just hard enough to keep the jaw down, but not so hard that their lips are mangles into strange shapes!)  Then have them sing a phrase that you would like to have sung legato, and see what a difference it makes not only in legato, but in warmer tone.  If you can, record the phrase both ways (with and without hands to cheeks), and then play it back to your choir.  They will hopefully be convinced of the value of the quiet jaw.  
Doing this exercise will not magically cure all their ills permanently, because they will go back to being over-active with their jaws when they're not thinking about it.  It will take constant reminders and repeating of the exercise.  (A less invasive method is just having them put a finger on their chins so they can monitor how much the jaw is moving.)  
Hope you find this to be of some help.  I'm glad you're tackling this issue, because I think mastering the art of legato singing is very important to vocal and choral music.  (In instrumental scores, when you see the marking "cantabile," it is almost always a very legato passage.  I think this helps to prove the point that legato style is predominant in singing.)
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on April 12, 2013 1:59pm
Priority: get them to LISTEN to good singers who sing with a leagato line and to identify those who are able to exhibit this quality. The old advice to sing the musical phrase and lightly to drop the consanants on that is not a bad one. In fact there are not so many singers who show this quality and the prevelance of the intrusive 'h' is all too common even in singers of note.
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