Thoughts on Legato

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I have been re-reading Joszef Gat’s The Technique of Piano Playing, which I last read in its entirety age 20. I have dipped it into it maybe a couple of times since, but it’s safe to say there’s a lot in there that I had completely forgotten about. It is that curious mixture of, ‘Oh, that’s interesting and insightful,’ and, ‘Really? You’re kidding me!’ that you often get in the writings of practical musicians, and as such is a very rich reading experience.

Anyway, as you’d expect in a book on this subject, he talks about legato, which is a notorious challenge for pianists. In common with many writers, he holds up singing as the ideal model for this, contending that even string instruments can only achieve a partial legato. Whilst on the one hand (literally!) the bow offers continuity, on the other, the act of forming pitches by stopping strings means you are effectively playing a different string for every note, as each is a different length.

Pianos of course offer the worst of all worlds, as every note has not only a separate string but a separate mechanism to sound it. Singers, meanwhile form every pitch from the same sound source. (As do players of the musical saw, but I guess he didn’t mention those because they don’t feature very prominently in the kind of classical conservatoire culture he was writing from and for.)

I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of his discussion of how pianists have to go about creating the illusion of legato as my attention in this blog is more focused on the voice. Though I will share his comment that you have to ‘smuggle’ notes into a melody, as I think that’s a nice thought for anyone creating a musical line.

What struck me, though, was that while all these other instrumentalists are busy idealising the voice as the source of the only true legato, how much work it takes to create one even with voices. The vocal instrument might allow the production of legato, but it does not guarantee that you’ll produce one without considerable care and attention.

First there are the consonants. These, by definition, interrupt the airflow, most of them entirely. We need to work on keeping them crisp and brief to minimise the time they are preventing the vowels from sounding. And part of this crispness is reducing excess muscular effort in their formation, as this risks distorting the vowels that follow them.

If we take the consonants out to concentrate on the vocalise, we discover that the changing vowel shapes are often also disrupting the legato. It’s like when you roll out plasticine, if you’re not careful you’ll end up with a roll that’s thick and lumpy in some places and thin and almost breaking in others. If you move your jaw and tongue a lot to form your vowels, you are effectively changing the size and shape of the resonant space from syllable to syllable. The violin might have its impediments to legato, but at least the box stays the same size and shape throughout.

We might then take out the vowel changes to focus on the line in its purest state, singing to a single vowel or bubbling. And then we might still hear bumps in the sound as singers mark the beginning of each note with a pulse in the airflow. We need to make it sound as smooth as singing a single long note, only with different notes in it. Gat’s metaphor of ‘smuggling’ notes in feels as apt here for singers as it is for pianists.

Both singers and instrumentalists have a tendency to fetishise the voice as a natural phenomenon, as the instrument and its operator are one and the same. But that belies the amount of work and culturally-shaped technical input that goes into creating a ‘voice’, whether through formal training or through private, personal dedication. And I think it also belies the extent to which instrumentalists incorporate their ostensibly separate instruments into their own body maps, and sense of self.

The specifics of the technical challenges will of course vary according to the mechanics of our means of sound production. But achieving the artistic aspiration to melodic flow doesn’t come easy to any of us.

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