Legato is always a tricky concept for amateur singers. Here’s another kinaesthetic technique that I use.
Have your singers sing a slow 5 note scale 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1, using the numbers as lyrics. (Think half notes at about mm 80)
If you notice any energy leaks or lack of synchronization try having them physically mime bowing each note along with you, as if they were playing a cello – one note per bow.
1 – Down bow – as if you’re bowing a note, drawing the bow out to your right
2 – Up bow – as if you’re moving the bow over the string across the body towards your left side
3 – Down bow – to your right
4 – Up bow….etc
It works well when they understand that there’s always some resistance – a bit of grip on the string by the bow because of the rosin on the bow hair. So it takes even, deliberate pressure and pull to create a lovely cello sound.
Once they can imagine this, vowels in the ‘lyrics’ will become more defined, and longer, without your singers having to deliberately think those thoughts.
Yes, of course, they should know about target vowels and diphthong resolutions to words – but if they are physically bowing each note those things tend to fix themselves.
Once the singers become accustomed to physically bowing the phrases they’re singing, sometimes all it takes to bring back the legato into a phrase is for me to mime the bowing as I direct.
And those pesky pick up beats that inevitably get accented when the singers’ brains stop working can be radically altered into something much more pleasing by me miming the pick up as a short, but smooth up bow.
We learned this trick/imagery recently from Village Vocal Chord director Jeanne O’Connor – and it’s been very useful for reminding singers to focus on a continuous wall of sound.
Imagine that there’s a whiteboard in front of you
Now take an imaginary black marker, and place the tip against the whiteboard. (It’s important to actually mime this as everyone is imprinting the feeling.)
Sing a phrase from a song, and as you do, mime drawing a solid line across the white board. There will be fewer energy leaks in the sound. In fact, if everyone is actually doing the exercise, and not just thinking about doing the exercise, the phrase will be much smoother and more legato.
I find it helps if the singers watch their hands (not me) as they do this.
This is similar to the Toilet Paper Breath Gauge exercise – but the benefit of this one is that you can also incorporate musical ‘blooms’ in the sustained pitches just by having the singers draw a little hill as part of their solid black line.
In case you are curious, or don’t remember the Toilet Paper Breath Gauge…
This trick from Mark Baxter worked really, really well last night with my men’s Barbershop chorus.
Actually, to be truthful, we didn’t even use real toilet paper – just toilet paper of the mind. They imagined the exact amount of drag that could be exerted on the toilet tissue to keep it taught, but not to let it break. With every phrase we mimed the exercise that Mark Baxter demonstrates in the video. (below)
Not only was everything smoother and more legato, but as Harry, one of my basses, pointed out, getting the hand that’s doing the mimed dragging back to the starting position in time for the next phrase helps everyone to time the breath more cleanly. And the breaths happen quickly and efficiently without anyone actually thinking about them.