Legato - Vocal or Musical?

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smoothI first encountered the concept of legato as a young pianist. Which is of course, the least literal medium to engage with it. Every note a pianist plays immediately starts to die; there is no way actually to join the sound up into a line. So legato as a concept was glossed as ‘smooth’ rather than the literal ‘linked’ or ‘joined-up’ of the Italian term, and was achieved by a sleight of hand by which you manage the attacks and releases of notes to create the illusion of continuity.

So when I met ‘legato’ as a concept in singing, I was used to it as an essentially musical, even metaphorical concept. It came as something of a surprise, therefore, to discover how it operates in singing as a central element of technique. ‘Line’ is something that is achieved through a consistency of airflow, placement, and vowel shape.

Many central challenges of vocal technique revolve around how to maintain this sense of line through exigencies presented by actual pieces of music: articulating a text intelligibly without chopping up the flow, for instance, or managing the passage between registers. I have been surprised how often ways of using the voice I learned from the bel canto tradition prove themselves useful for helping people overcome vocal difficulties in all kinds of other contexts.

(Of course, it could be the old chestnut of having a hammer making every problem look like a nail. Except that my default mode is to start with that individual and where they are rather than with a particular vocal tradition - hence the surprise. Still, even if I am being culturally-blinkered on this, as hammers go, the bel canto tradition is a reasonably healthy and humane one.)

But then as you start to work through the basic technical controls of the voice with people, when they are starting to be able to engage their support and place their resonance more or less at will, something interesting happens. Once the voice starts to get joined up, you start to hear to what extent the singer’s musical thinking is joined up too. You can hear if the singer is taking the music a note at a time in their heads, or whether they are grasping it in longer-range units: motifs, phrases, melodies.

I wrote some years ago about the metaphor of music as being like light in having a dual nature: particle or wave. (There was some Lydia Goehr floating at the back of my mind when writing this, for those who enjoy their musical philosophy hard-core.) This comes to mind as I’m working with people who are thinking musically as a series of discrete notes which I am trying to get them to join up. It’s not just a matter of making the sound continuous, it is a matter of hearing the notes as a bigger whole. It’s not just messing with their voices, it’s messing with their heads.

These thoughts on legato are also resonating with Schelling’s ideas of the real and the ideal, which I have previously applied to aspects of arranging. This is in many ways a version of the classic Western dichotomy between mind and body, concrete and abstract, perceptible and imaginable (in music education: practical and academic). Mark Johnson’s wonderful critique of this mind/body dichotomy contends that our capability of abstract thought is an illusion, that it emerges from and relies on the physical experience of living in the world.

Musicians know this too. Every day, through activities like working on legato, we find that the dichotomy keeps undoing itself. Every time you try claim that legato is a quality of the ‘music itself’ you run head first into all the physical actions you need to undertake in order to execute that. Every time you try to claim that legato is an attribute of technical skill, you find it is impossible to achieve through physical action alone, and that you need to think it as well.

This is not necessarily to say that the question in my title is pointless. Legato may be both a musical and a vocal quality, but it is often still valuable to focus on one dimension or the other, depending on what needs working on. The question is tactical, though, rather than ontological.

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