Legato

One of my students is so incredibly lucky.  Why?  Because he has the chance to sing my favorite opera – L’Amico Fritz.  This is not an opera that is done very often because apparently theaters have a hard time selling it to the paying audience.  I remember when I was at the Academy of Vocal Arts I prayed Chris Macatsoris to do Fritz… and of course they did it after I graduated.  So, I never had the chance to sing the role.

One thing came up in a conversation about it with my student: Fritz must be extremely legato.  Even though it is a Verismo role, a careful examination reveals a melancholy and heartfelt quality that demands great legato and musicality.  It is like a lullaby, even in the most dramatic of parts.

Legato is an important technical issue that exceeds simple linking of sounds.  Legato requires linking of vocal functions.  The vocal folds vibrate and the vocal tract is tuned so as to give you “voce squillante” – a ringing voice.  It is important to zero-in on the laryngeal function and the correct position of tongue and jaw that is giving you that ringing quality, and then you must continue to feed the function with a constant pressure so as to maintain the function active.  Pressure in this context feeds the flow rather than pushing against it.  For this reason, the sense is almost one of fighting against the urge of pushing too much pressure (lotta vocale).   Lotta vocale exists in highest form as “legato. ”  If you lose support, you get choppy with your sound, meaning that the chords change their vibrating pattern and it feels like many different sounds from one word or pitch to another in a musical phrase.  But remember, it is the vocal function that calls on the breath, and not the other way around.  The impetus for the breath pressure is the voice.  You can never create the voice by dominating the breath.  The voice informs the diaphragm, and that is how you build a mental intention pattern.

When you reach the point of mastering resonance, particularly squillo, there are a few things that help with the legato:

  1. Establish a mental image of the sensation of flow.  When you sing, you should never exceed the sensation of flow.  Even when you get louder, you have to do so within a framework of balance, not pushing beyond flow.
  2. Let the higher resonance be the anchor.  When you go up and down through the passaggio, you will switch between cavita’ of the middle voice (1st formant, open voice) and Eco Sonora (2nd formant, or covered voice).  These two resonances switch dominant roles, but the higher resonance, particularly in the 2200-2500 Hz range, should remain constant.  This is the sound that strikes the maxillary sinuses. It is this constancy in the squillo that keeps the chords functioning  with constant pressure.
  3. Manage the pressure through correct balance between layers of the vowel.  If the compression of the vowel is too much, even if the voice is vibrant, it won’t be good because the vibrato will slow down as muscular actions become unsteady.  The solution is to keep the squillo while focusing on a core of release (1st layer).  If the pressure builds up beneath the larynx excessively, then you need to take a deeper breath, let the larynx relax in a low range, and think of a more generous 1st layer along with the squillo.  You will sense a release of pressure as you establish better balance.  Remember, the release itself is a sound – the lowest of your harmonics.

This is why it is so incredibly important to do scales every day, especially fast moving ones in and out of the passaggio!  The muscular coordination requires constant training, especially as you get older.  I can see this in my own voice.  I practice 3 or 4 times a week for about 40 minutes each time.  That is not even close to enough for a professional singer.

So, next time you think of legato, think of linking breath pressures for various parts of a sung phrase into one breath pressure so as to feed two constants: the ringing squillo and the 1st layer which gives you a sense of flow.  There is no up or down, just constant resonance shifting its shape and striking different ways the hot spots in the mask.

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One response to “Legato

  1. I had two hours of lessons with Dennis O’Neill when I went to the UK last year and he talked a lot about the importance of moving quickly through the passaggio area. We used closed EH vowel ( I think to get the tongue out of the throat) mostly on a presto 1-3-5-6-5-6-5-6-5-3-1 quaver pattern and the voice seems to lighten and slowly go higher from behind the eyes towards the back of my head like a clock from 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock and back again. He said I have to get that same sensation into all my vowels – the AH (in particular) and OO vowels seem the most problematic. Unfortunately no one here in NZ seems to understand any of this very well so I am left to my own devices until I move to Europe or USA.

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