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Gliding successfully into legato singing

Updated: Aug 16, 2023


Recently, a student and I were both surprised when the student found it difficult to glide from A4 to a D4. In singing the same pitches for a scale she had very carefully over-emphasized each note as she thought she should. “I want to make sure I’m singing the pitches exactly in tune,” she said. I happily told her that her natural tuning was very accurate. I wanted her to make a more connective chain of tone to create legato, so I asked her to glide the downward five-note pattern to cushion the individual stress she gave each note. Together we found she was so accustomed to emphasizing individual scale tones that it was awkward for her to glide between the pitches (she thought that was illegal) to create legato and took two lessons before she leapt into the murky tones between scalar pitches.


The dictionary says legato is, “in a smooth flowing manner, without breaks between notes. Compare with staccato.” New Oxford American Dictionary


“Smoothly” was how my teacher asked me to sing and, although I didn’t know how I was doing it, the result was legato. Gliding in a legato manner between pitches is something we all do naturally in certain circumstances of which we may not be aware, for instance, on the exhale of a yawn, or in the normal course of conversation with the normal or exaggerated inflection of our voice. If one

thinks of singing as simply extended speech, this gives us a very good place to start in the development of a natural legato. Another exercise to develop legato in singing is to imitate a police or ambulance siren sound.


I also like having factual ways of thinking about what I do to practice legato into my tone more efficiently and, I have a number of questions.



6 people sliding down a water slide into a pool

Does legato mean to ‘glide’ or ‘slide’ between each pitch? Is there any space between two adjacent pitches? What do we mean by ‘a little sharp’ or ‘a little flat’ on a pitch, or does sharp or flat prove there is space between adjacent pitches? When singing in a choir we need to be careful not to ‘slide around’ too much or we may jeopardize the composite tone because not everyone ‘slides’ at the same rate. And what about those ‘glides’ and portamento that we sing in Mozart, Puccini and even in popular songs? Have you ever thought about the plausible gaps between two adjacent notes?



In order to answer these questions, we need to think in smaller increments called Hertz.

graph of several sound waves
Sound waves of different frequencies, from lower to higher

Hertz, or Hz for abbreviation, is a unit of frequency equivalent to one cycle per second. If you sing 440 cycles in one second, you are singing an A440 which is what pitched instruments often use to tune with each other. If your voice teacher says, “you’re sharp on that note”, that means you might have sung your A440 at, perhaps, 450Hz per second. We never know exactly how many Hertz we are singing, and we don’t need to know as singers, but our detailed knowledge and understanding of what pitches are made can help us more easily and accurately adjust our tuning.


Let’s say your teacher has now suggested you glide between the two pitches A4(440) and Bb4 which is 466 Hertz per second. Amazing, you have 26 Hertz on which to glide! It may feel like the ear is unnaturally bending to go sharp as you ascend from A440 to Bb466, and it might even be more disturbing to flat all the way from Bb466 through the 26 Hertz back to A440 before we get used to gliding or legato! Please understand, we don’t ever think of exact Hertz when we sing. If our brain knows by ear from where the pitch begins and the ear knows where our destination is, it is easier to glide or go through pitches in a legato manner. Gliding can help singers learn to sing in a legato manner.


a glider plane

These are the kinds of things one learns in voice lessons and are demonstrated in choral practice. Although the terms may be subjective, I arbitrarily term the word “glide” as the positive word and “slide” as the less positive word. "Glide" knows by ear where the pitch begins and where it will move to and sings appropriately in the style. With a "slide"; the ear may not be certain where the pitch begins and might meander to a destination, or not, and blur styles. This, understandably, is the reason voice teachers and choral directors discourage sliding, but gliding through pitches with direction can help develop a dependable legato and foster an acute ear as well.


Mastering stylistic gliding and legato gives direction, color and drive to the melodic line and adds musicality, individuality and drama to the story being told. A benefit to your singing of gliding exercises is the control one can take in possession of the breath line to develop an anchored legato. Moving through the feeling of “infinite pitches” can help us navigate and manage the often-unsteady pitch-to-pitch volume as well as making us feel more communicative with our audience, which in the end, is the heart of the matter.


 

Dr. Barbara Dyer and her colleagues at Lori Moran Music have coached hundreds of students who have gone on to star on Broadway, in national tours, film, television, commercials and concert stages. If you are seeking guidance in learning to sing with more ease and confidence, contact any of our voice teachers.


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