Vowel Modification or Vowel ‘Narrowing’?

Weekly Teaching Tip – August 6, 2012

Question: I have read most of the book and didn’t notice a section about vowel modification – you speak of keeping the vowel round – do you still subscribe to the idea of modifying from one vowel to another in a song – from man to mehn for example?

Answer: As far as “vowel modification” goes, I do discuss “vowel narrowing” rather extensively in the book and that is what you are referring to. I prefer not to think of it as “vowel modification”. I have found it more effective to encourage the singer to try and maintain the “same” vowel as they move up and down the scale and since the body seems to have a tremendous desire to try and “spread” the vowel as the singer goes higher, if the singer will think of “narrowing” the vowel they will be able to maintain a consistent vowel all the way through.

You can also think of this as ‘centering’ the vowel so that all of the vowels are moving toward the middle or toward the ‘oo’ (as in book) or ‘uh’ (as in buck). I often think of keeping all of my vowels ‘inside’ of this ‘oo’ or ‘uh’ and this helps to ‘hold’ the vowel and keep it from spreading quite nicely.

Scientists would say that we are changing or modifying the vowel and yes, there is movement from the first to the second formant as the sound ascends; however, what is most important to us as teachers is how we can help the singers the most and what is the most effective way to help them. I choose to diminish the singer thinking about “changing” the vowel, and instead have found greater success encouraging them to try and maintain a consistent vowel and to use vowel narrowing and dropping the jaw as they mover higher. However, in some cases I will still give the singer a slightly different vowel to think of on occasion such as “man” moving toward “mehn” as you have suggested. This keeps the vowel from spreading and helps the singer maintain a consistent sound throughout the range. I will also occasionally tell the singer to say ‘ee’ or ‘oh’ through ‘oo’ lips (as in blue).

Technically, air and vocal resistance are also constantly changing throughout the singers range as well. However, it has been my experience that if a singer thinks about maintaining consistent air flow, consistent resistance and a consistent, ‘centered’ vowel the body will make the adjustments necessary to move up and down the scale smoothly, easily and evenly. Yes, when we actually analyze what is happening physiologically inside the body we will find that vowels and “placement” are changing, air flow and muscle are reacting as the scientists describe. But I have found if the singer tries to “make” those changes happen it doesn’t work. The singer should try and remain consistent and allow the body to make the changes. So, yes, if the singer is spreading their vowel, encouraging them to narrow their vowel can be very effective.

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