Tweaking the Vowels

Weekly Teaching Tip – December 17, 2012

Sound is originated with the vocal folds, but then this initial sound moves up the vocal tract (throat, mouth, etc) where this initial sound is turned into sounds that mean something to people through words, but also through pitches and tones. So much of this is controlled by the way the singer forms their words. As I have often said, “Sound (like air) follows the path of least resistance.” This initial sound that was created in the voice box is now going to be shaped and formed by the shape of the vocal tract. The singer doesn’t have to worry about where the sound is going, just focus on the shape of the vocal tract and that will determine where the sound is going to go. As such, it is not necessary to ‘lift the palate’ or ‘put it in the mask’ or ‘bring it forward’ or ‘open up the back space’, etc. Many of these things will happen, but the controller is the vowel, not trying to manipulate body parts and muscles.

As such, paying meticulous detail to the vowel being sung is of the utmost importance to the singer (and as such for the teacher as well.) Simply varying a word from “book” to “buck” or from “make” to meek” can make a huge difference in where the sound goes in the body. Typically opening the vowels will encourage the sound to be more in the throat (or chest voice – first formant) and narrowing the vowel will encourage movement toward the mixed voice by bringing the sound forward in the mouth (2nd Formant). Since most singers tend to be comfortable in their chest voice and resistant to moving into their mix voice, many times they will unconsciously spread the vowel (trying to hold onto their chest voice) which makes it more difficult to move through the transitions in the voice. As such, it can be very beneficial to focus somewhat on “narrowing the vowel” as the pitch moves higher. Many times we think we are narrowing the vowel when in all actuality we are just keeping it from spreading. This is why trying to maintain a “consistent vowel” can be very helpful to most singers, especially as they are learning to move through the transitions in the voice range. The “centered vowel” is beneficial for getting a Mix and getting through the transitions in the voice easier because the centered vowel helps find a balance between the chest and head.

It is very important that a voice teacher understand and hear these subtle changes in vowels to be able to help the singer create the right shape in the vocal tract to get the pitch, power and sound necessary. (Review the November 2012 video “It’s All About the Vowel” and also John Henny’s “Science of the Voice”.)

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