Resonance, Legato and Support
These are three qualities that are desirable in choral (and many other types of) singing.* They are also related to each other in interesting ways – and contemplating these relationships can help clarify our thinking about rehearsal and practice strategies to develop them.
Legato and resonance have an immediate relationship at a perceptual level. A listener will hear a more joined-up phrase as more resonant because the singers are committing to the full length of each syllable, rather than letting the sound drop away. They’re basically getting more music out of the experience.
Legato is affected by support in the senses of both attention and technique. Support is both a physical metaphor for muscular underpinning of the sound (think foundations of a building) and social metaphor for nurturing the sound, staying with it mentally and emotionally (think of looking after someone who’s having a difficult time). Unless the mind follows through to join one sound to the next, the body’s engagement and its supply of breath waxes and wanes.
And here’s where it gets interesting. The quality of sound you get when you start connecting the sounds together is brighter, clearer and more resonant than the sound you get when you lost interest in the back end of each syllable.
Here’s an exercise to help explain why this is: take an object that fits comfortably in your hand (a pepper grinder is what I have to hand here), and as you sing a phrase, grip it and relax your grip on each syllable. Then sing the phrase again, gripping it at the start, and continuing to grip it throughout the phrase. You’ll notice that you can get a much stronger and firmer grip by maintaining it than by constantly interrupting and restarting it. Likewise, committing to a phrase at a time rather than a note at a time gives you the chance to get deeper into the sound.
So you can approach these three from any corner of their triangle. A focus on continuity of support will deliver resonance and legato; a focus on continuity of resonance will create legato (and thereby will require the body to supply support); a focus on legato (which again asks the body for support) gives resonance as a by-product.
Now, all this requires some exertion. We may, when first embarking on this, find ourselves short of breath, since whichever way you look at this triangle, you’re going to be committing more breath to the singing. A more continuous sound takes a more continuous airflow.
There’s a great pay-off though: once you commit to legato, resonance and support, phrase length actually becomes much more readily within your grasp. This is partly just a function of shifting your level of engagement up a gear, of singing more actively.
But it’s also because of the voice’s mechanics. The sound is made by air travelling through the valve of the vocal folds. In the face of a weak airflow, this valve stays quite floppy, and so the air rushes through, running out quickly and making a breathy sound (which is why we may be tempted to chop off our vowels to conserve the little that’s left). In the face of a stronger airflow, this valve closes much more efficiently, and lets a much more measured stream of air through. This produces that brighter, clearer sound, but also has the effect of letting the air last longer as it is no longer being squandered. (You demonstrate this letting air out a balloon while you stretch its opening.)
This means that another answer to the challenge of Singing Long Phrases is to work on legato and/or resonance – improving the sound and musical flow also improves the stamina.
*This is possibly one of the less contentious statements I have ever made.