I went to the ICVT (International Congress of Voice Teachers) last summer, and one of the most exciting talks that I went to was a lecture by Dr. Kimberly Roberts, Assistant Professor at University of Tennesse, Knoxville on LEGATO!! She basically brought together all the components of good singing technique for me, all under the theme of legato. And she’s so spot on, I asked her permission to reprint the whole lecture, as I thought it was such an important and clear condensation of great vocal teaching and technique. Here it is! Many thanks to Dr. Roberts!
Kimberly Roberts, DMA
Assistant Professor, University of Tennessee – Knoxville
Voice Teacher, Des Moines Metro Opera
Lecture – ICVT 2022
I have been teaching voice for over 25 years, and I currently teach both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, my private studio is made up primarily of emerging professional and early professional singers from across the United States, and I am the Resident Voice Teacher for the Des Moines Metro Opera.
I also teach vocal pedagogy at the undergraduate and graduate level. When we do a survey of pedagogical writings, many of the students ask why there are so many resources on structure, function, and acoustics, and so few on how to actually translate that knowledge for their future students. I remember thinking the same thing when I was a student.
More troubling to me is the amount of singers I meet every year, that have just finished their master’s work or beyond, yet are so desperately trying to validate their technical journeys with the scientific explanations of the voice. They can regale me with detailed definitions of anatomy and acoustics, and they are experts at using Voce Vista, but most of them can’t tell me how that knowledge equates to the visceral experience of excellence in singing or how it helps them engage an audience. And these are also the students who can never seem to find their honest voice.
All the brilliant research that has happened over the last century is invaluable to us as teachers, but we must remember that quantifiable scientific results cannot be the first or only way to connect young singers with excellent technique. Perhaps you have heard the old educational maxim – students must experience something before they can understand it. I would like to add an addendum to that thought – truth in voice science does not always match perception in singing.
Over the years, much the same as many of you, I have taught and worked with singers of varying ages and talent levels – ranging from the truly tone-deaf to the wunderkind 21 year old Metropolitan Opera winners. And again, much the same as many of you, I have always been struck with one question: What exactly is that magical thing that makes for an exceptional singer but eludes quanitification, and, more importantly, can it be cultivated?
Colleagues, I think the answer to this question, is legato.
Many musicians struggle with legato. The concept permeates lessons over several years, but how do we actually approach legato? What instructions have been given in the past? Often, our experience lies within nebulous ideas such as connected, smooth, constant air flow. Even the definition of legato from nearly every dictionary of music is something as simple as, “a smooth flowing manner, without breaks between notes.” While these words are beautifully descriptive of the result, they are woefully inadequate for the process by which to achieve it.
If we look primarily at that definition of legato, singers have the most potential for creating true legato as we are able move from pitch to pitch without any interruption – our air can keep flowing while minute muscle movements can change the frequency of the pitch. The best voices, whether naturally well-coordinated or well-built, have ever-present legato – indeed it is arguably the main aspect of sound that distinguishes a professional from an amateur. True legato sounds easy, elegant, full.
How, then, does one develop and achieve legato? I believe true vocal legato is built on an intentionally linked and systematic development of 4 pillars that are completely interconnected, ever consistent, and ever continuous – breath, phonation, vibrato, and resonance.
I – Let’s start with Breath
When you ask a technically proficient singer about their process for legato, they often just credit support. This is true, but there are also many singers that feel they have achieved great support, but not great legato.
Breathing is a necessary process of the body, and yet some toil at the great mystery of breathing for singing as if they suddenly step into another body. Yes, we must work up the muscular antagonism required for extended breath management and sustained sound but breathing for singing shouldn’t be completely unrecognizable.
Many of the words voice teachers use to build support involve sensations that move along the outside of the body. Yet when one truly experiences support, it is a uniquely inner sensation. You can focus on whatever style of breathing you want (tuck in, push out, rib cage spread, etc.), but the end result should be a sensation of release and intensity that resides surprisingly deep within the body, running somewhere along center of the torso. This sensation of energy/support should release tensions in other parts of the body and vocal tract, and never add stressful tension.
Another problem that consistently presents itself is the confusion between breath support and breath control. Support is what we feel somewhere in the torso, while control is the amount of air passing through the glottis. Now, I am not the first person to speak about this difference, but many students use these terms interchangeably, and a quick reminder about the difference can be helpful. Sometimes in the search for support, singers mistakenly lean on breath control sensations. When this happens, there are two common ways they abuse it, and both build some kind of pressure sensation in the throat.
First, some singers try to feel as much sub-glottal air pressure as possible, thinking the resulting pressure must mean it is a big or dramatic or solid sound, or, that increase in pressure means they are staying connected to the lower part of the voice. Some sub-glottal pressure is necessary for clear tone and amplitude, but there should be little to no discernable throat pressure while singing our most efficient sound.
On the flip side, some singers feel the pressure above the glottis, blowing out so much air with the sound that they feel surely it must be loud and connected. This is often a result from misunderstanding the phrase, “Sing on the breath,” or “Legato is constant air flow.” But moving air is not necessarily pitch, and pitchless air is not legato by definition.
Returning to the definition of legato as, “a smooth flowing manner, without breaks between notes,” it would seem then, that both breath support and breath control should be smooth and flowing as well, without breaks, puffs, or heftiness between notes.
With many young singer’s preoccupation with the dramatic voice, it can be hard for overly eager students to embrace that even the most dramatic voices (of which they most likely are not) don’t feel like their throat is going to burst open, nor do they feel like they are vomiting air. We must always remind the student – Did Birgit Nilsson have a husky or breathful tone? No! Was it big? Yes! Did she have an impressive range? Yes! The moral of this story is – if the tone feels thick in the throat or sounds husky in tone, the student is wasting air, sound, energy, and ultimately, longevity.
As teachers of singing, we all have our preferred method of support. However, in all of the singers I have known and worked with, no single method works for everyone, and every method works for someone. Even singers successfully using the same method, will have entirely different descriptions for how their body feels that support, based on their perspective and perception. How then, are we to help the singer explore and solidify their honest method of support? Especially when their truth may not match ours.
Often, I find singers use their most efficient version of support during their favorite moments in a song, no matter the age. Ask them to sing their favorite piece, and you will know exactly when this occurs. Find that moment, have them sing it as an excerpt, and ask what they feel in their body? In their throat? In their mouth? In the amount of air actually leaving the mouth?
Then have them sing one of their worst moments and ask them the same questions. Have them sing the less efficient phrase while recreating the sensations from the more efficient phrase, return to the first phrase to remind them, if necessary. Make them be specific in their description of sensations because that is how their body feels support and it will immediately give you the vocabulary to be more specific with them.
II – Next comes Phonation
It may seem obvious to say that phonation is necessary for legato, however, we don’t often consider the difference between absolutely constant phonation and the tiny breaks in phonation many of us insert between pitches in the pursuit of accuracy. A overly simplified explanation of pitch adjustment reminds us that the stretch of the vocal folds changes the pitch we sing.
That is where the trouble comes in. Often, a moment of pitchless air escapes between notes to cleanly delineate the separate pitches. But air is not pitch and vacillating between tone/no tone isn’t really the “smooth, flowing” manner of legato by definition. Therefore, true legato would come from a muscular coordination that can make slight and specific adjustments to pitch without having to stop phonation.
Indeed, we are capable of sliding from one pitch to another without any stop in the sound, and we are capable of stretching out the duration of the slide, so we should also be capable of shortening the duration of the slide to the point of almost imperceptibility. All of this can be achieved with intention, and without extraneous muscle movement.
One of my favorite ways to help a student become aware of this concept is to have them sing an exercise or a phrase of a song slowly on a single vowel – most likely ah, because it is a difficult vowel for most Americans and can garner the most awareness. But feel free to use any vowel your student finds to be difficult.
Singing the phrase on ah, point out any interruption in the tone and have them repeat it with a slide between pitches. Repeat until they can feel where the interruption occurs and where there is an actual slide. Sometimes the student will need to stretch out the duration of the slide in order to feel the difference between the sensations, but the goal is to eventually shrink the duration of the slide.
Next ask them to describe what they feel when they have an interruption in the tone and when they don’t. Most likely, it will be contrasting sensations in the throat or base of the tongue.
Try on the next phrase or exercise, paying attention to the same differences. As you work throughout the voice, even though it might be sloppy for a moment it will be easier for the student to notice how often and in what way they restrict free phonation.
III – Moving forward with Vibrato
Vibrato is a subject with a lot of baggage. Some teachers want to hear it on every note, while others say the voice will vibrate when it wants to – both are true but in different ways. When we begin to work on the idea of vibrato, we tend to focus on what we hear while singing, but again, we should instead focus on what we feel when the vibrato is at its most honest. Vibrato is a natural occurrence and a result of free production, while inhibiting it is not. Thus, for the ultimate legato sound, there shouldn’t be a moment without the freedom one feels in the throat and neck that leads to vibrato.
Often, singers will unconsciously restrict that freedom of vibrato at the end of a pitch or the beginning of the new pitch, or both in the pursuit of pitch cleanliness and accuracy. But vacillating between vibrato and no vibrato, no matter how quickly done, isn’t ever going to be perceived by the audience as the “smooth, flowing” manner of legato. And this repeated practice of restricting the natural occurrence of vibrato creates more tension issues in the musculature of the larynx and tongue, and causes detrimental disturbances in the amount of subglottal pressure.
These extraneous tensions then cause audible changes to the speed and character of the vibrato, as one or both pitches in the vibrato will become forcibly produced. This will manipulate the perceived audial shape of the pitch variation creating inconsistencies for the listener, making the voice sound irregularly shakey, angular, wobbly, or even bleaty. Instead, embracing the looseness in the throat that accompanies our natural vibrato will create a bulbously-even oscillation of pitches, that will sound way more pleasing to an audience. An audience, by the way, that is actively listening for any anomalies in vibrato speed, consistency, and character. If these anomalies in the vibrato are not attached to a dramatic intent, it will be perceived as an inconsistent or troublesome vibrato – which is not harmonious with the definition of legato as smooth and flowing.
To find one’s honest vibrato, I like to have a student choose a pitch they can easily sustain. Then, begin with straight tone on [a] for about 2 counts (this should remind you of music theater), then let the tone release into vibrato, for at least 4 counts, changing to [ɑ] or [ᴐ] if necessary.
What did the student notice had to happen in the throat and neck to inhibit the vibrato? What had to happen to allow for vibrato? How long did it take for the student to find complete release in the vibrato? Most students feel the release immediately upon intention, some take a bit longer to fully sink into it. More often than not, students are able to articulate how loose the throat feels during their most free vibrato, and some will even notice when the base of the tongue releases.
Next, sing a vocalise or a phrase slowly, striving for the same free vibrato sensations in the throat and neck, no matter the rhythm. Just like in phonation, the vibrato cannot restart for each pitch. The student may need to revisit the idea of sliding between pitches, then allow the vibrato to continue through the transition from one pitch to the next. It should sound like little portamenti. Again, just like the duration of the slides in phonation, a portamento can also take a long time or an imperceptibly short amount of time with the right mental intention.
Gradually, speed up the excerpt, maintaining the same vibrato consistency. As the speed increases, the vibrato may no longer be discernable, but it is important that the same looseness in the throat remains. From there, take this idea to their melismatic music.
IV – And the fourth pillar – Resonance
Our journey as singers is a constant search for consistency of tone throughout the range and the ability to project over an orchestra, while being able to create both magically sublime and intensely dramatic sounds at any given moment. Many teachers talk about breath as the unifying force behind those goals, but that is only the first step in the journey. Indeed, that step can take years to master and recognize, but there is another, arguably more important unifier – resonance.
Resonance, ping, ring, chiaroscuro, squillo, formant tuning – whatever you call it, it is the sound that enables us to feel like our soul is flying when we sing. It frees the body and creates our loudest sounds with the least amount of work. It is that special thing that we hear in voices that make us leap to our feet in excitement or weep in its subtlety. Resonance should be present in every sound we make unless we have a specific dramatic reason to leave it out. We should hear it in louds, softs, and everything in between. It should be present with the onset of phonation and disappear with the cutoff – resonant singing should be the default, not the specialty. I’m sure you can all think of singers that flop in and out of resonant sound – and how frustrating it is to the listener, certainly not the smooth and flowing sound of legato.
Resonance is also the binder that releases the voice into doing the other three pillars of legato consistently and constantly. Resonance is the main indicator of superior technique and the way to feel control when we release all other misguided sensations of control.
So often, singers find clarity of tone and think that is enough. Clarity of tone happens when the vocal folds fully approximate during phonation, blocking off extraneous air in the tone. Resonance is what happens after that tone is produced, it is what happens when the singer masters their acoustical superpowers above the glottis.
Can a clear tone be legato? I suppose the answer is yes. However, relying on clarity of tone can easily pull the other three pillars out of whack as clarity alone cannot accomplish the full dynamic range and legato simultaneously. Resonant tone can.
Therefore, if all you feel is clarity at the glottal level or below, you are not being as loud, free, or artistic as you have the capability to be. A truly resonant sound seems to the audience like it is coming from everywhere, no matter the dynamic level, pitch level, or mouth position. If the sound is perceived as coming directly from the singer’s mouth, likely it is just a clear tone, and not a resonant one.
Resonance must also be constant and consistent in all registrations. Many singers often fall into the trap of thinking that the clarity that comes from using the chest register is resonance, but it is not. Acoustically useful resonance should give you sensations above the glottal level. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still feel the connection to that lower register, but you do have to make sure that the lower connection isn’t all of your sound. And, by the way, many singers aren’t aware of any chest sensations when using their chest register, so that is a problematic description for many singers that causes depressed laryngeal positions and increased subglottal air pressure.
Further, we must remember that lower frequencies sound softer to the human ear, and a heavier registration can only do so much to negate that acoustical fact, thus, we must continue our search for resonance in the extremes of the range to maintain the auditory effect of legato.
For years, we’ve heard about singing in the mask, or the cheekbones, or some other description of “placement”. Honestly, every singer feels their resonance differently, so those old ideas are quite troublesome for many singers. In decades of working with hundreds of singers specifically exploring resonance, only about a third of them actually feel resonance in the mask. Everyone else has a different description and location, and that’s ok! Remember, perspective and perception are key players in voice study.
From the beginning of our journey, we are often taught to lift the very back of the roof of the mouth, the portion of the soft palate behind our back molars. Then we look at the diagrams of what every vowel should look like on the inside. Add the eagerness of a young singer and you have a recipe for resonance disaster. When one truly finds their resonance, they often exclaim that it is in fact lifting the middle or the front of the soft palate. For some that is the place between the second molars, and for others it lifting the space where the soft and hard palate meet, and for a few out there, it becomes about lifting the hard palate (while technically impossible, that is the visualization that works best for them). Some singers remark on how nosey, but not nasally, the resonance feels, with many equating it to a goose honk or [õ], while others feel it as extreme sinus pressure.
Upon finding their ideal resonance, it is time to see when how often they fall out of it. Remember, nothing should pull us out of our resonance – including diction. Sometimes we get so caught up in recreating the ideal diction for our coaches, we forget that the sound may no longer be our best. Any anomaly in the sound will be perceived as non-legato, and in this case, that may also mean unintelligible words because the ear perceives resonant singing as louder than non-resonant singing. Thus, the perfect spoken diction may be constructed differently than the perfect sung diction – we as voice teachers realize that, but students quickly forget when faced with an intense coach. The question we need give our students is, “Can I sing the language appropriately AND maintain a resonant sound?” If so, they have found ideal construction, if not, it’s back to the drawing board.
Think of singers whose diction is impeccable, not the ones who make you aware of their diction efforts, but the ones who are beautifully intelligible, no matter what the music is doing. These are the singers that sound just as gorgeous in any language as they do in Italian. What makes this possible? Resonant voiced consonants. So many young singers try to emphasize and lengthen the duration their unvoiced consonants in a misguided attempt at clarifying diction, but the answer lies in the voiced consonants. Often, singers inadvertently pull off the vibrato and resonance during a voiced consonant but think just the continuation of phonation means it’s still being heard. But, that approach does not fit into the definition of legato. To truly be understood and to remain legato, one must sing the voiced consonants as if they are a semi-occluded vowel, with resonant intensity.
One of my favorite ways to find the location of someone’s resonant sensations is to ask them to hum a one octave arpeggio or a wonderfully lyric phrase of a song, in a fairly easy part of the voice. This hum must be a closed lip M. As they proceed, remind them of the constant and consistent support, phonation, and vibrato from the other exercises.
Ask the student where they felt the clarity of tone. They might feel it in the throat, pharynx, or mouth, or they might not be able to answer the question at all, which is fine. Ask them if they were aware of air moving through the pharynx – because they probably were.
Now have them hum it again, but this time with closed oh inside their mouth, the lips should still be closed, but the oh should be extreme. Be sure to remind them of the continuity of phonation, support, and vibrato. Now ask the student about the sensations they felt. This time you should get emphatic answers about sensations most likely in or around the top half of the head. They also most certainly will notice how easy it was to keep the vibrato loose, the tone continuous, the airflow efficient, and the tongue relaxed. Students that have had huskier tones will remark how far forward the sensations were, while students that have had stridently bright tones will notice how much farther inside the head the sensations were. Both are correct, because that is how their perspective has shaped their perception.
Now that they have accomplished this on a closed vowel during a voiced consonant, they should be able to repeat the exercise on every vowel – working to keep different vowels on the front half of the tongue while the palate and most of the pharynx maintain the oh shaped resonant space. They should also be able to achieve this on every sustainable voiced consonant – noticing what they have to give up in order to maintain resonance, freedom, and ultimately legato.
When successful, some singers express that although it feels awesome, their ears hear the tone as obnoxiously bright. In this instance, we must remind the student that: your ears can’t accurately process the sound while you are singing; if you haven’t been relying on resonant sound, your perspective is already skewed to a more muffled sound; and finally, the goal was not to find brightness in the tone, it was actually to find more space in the vocal tract which then resulted in a brighter tone. If we search only for the sensation of brightness without going through the process of manipulating space, the tone will be obnoxiously bright, the air will feel squeezed, the mouth will get tight, and the amount of sound will diminish. Follow the process. The brightness should be considered a symptom of the correct space – and this is chiaroscuro.
Thinking of legato in this way eventually distills technical work into one all-encompassing sensation instead of a million different and simultaneous technical thoughts. It enhances musicality and elegance, and leads us to truly exceptional dramatic intention.
It will also transform your most honest, beautiful, and sustainable sound into your baseline sound. If you then choose to depart from this baseline for a dramatic intent, then it will have more gravity because it is actually a choice. If there is no constant, consistent sound with which to contrast, any dramatic intent will have little meaning for the audience. But, when all the singing is beautifully free flowing and consistent, one can then choose the way in which to make a dramatic effect – either by using physical manifestations or to make a dramatically effected sound, or both, depending on the situation. When it comes right down to it, that is the superpower of the best performers – the freedom to make whatever effect you want on the audience.
Anyone that has done some Alexander Technique, or similar work, might see correlations between those ideals and this process. Indeed, I was lucky enough to work on Alexander Technique while in the early years of my teaching career. This systematic legato process is very much a product of that work and leads us to notice and release extraneous body tensions from the vocal tract.
Further, thinking of voice building in this way will force the student to recognize the difference between habit and choice. Habits may feel natural, but only because they have been worked into one’s muscle memory. Yet, that doesn’t inherently mean that particular habit is right or good. This journey to honest legato will ask you to let go of any musculation that does not lead to beauty and freedom.
Consistently, singers love the freedom they find in these new habits, and are immediately aware of how much easier singing can be. At the same time, they also become frustrated at realizing how pervasive their old and inefficient habits are, and how tiresome that way of singing is in comparison to the new and efficient production. When the body finds a more efficient way of doing something, the old way suddenly becomes even more fatiguing! This can be tremendously helpful with reinforcement and awareness, but it can also be overwhelming and tedious in rooting out the old habit. Stay diligent and know that these changes take time.
A final thought before I wrap up – There is an Indigenous American proverb that says we are all born as baskets of light, but as we grow up, the world puts rocks in that basket. It goes on to say that the Elders of that tribe have a duty to help others remove the rocks from their baskets.
I truly believe this systematic approach to building legato can help us to pursue that same beautiful goal with our students.
-Dr. Kimberly Roberts