Open Up and Say “AGH”!

Weekly Teaching Tip – July 4, 2016
by Earl Harville

(*note: The vowel “agh” is the American “laugh”)
In recent months, I have been drawing my students’ attention to the merits of the rogue vowel sound ‘agh’. Early on in their training, they often perform pharyngeal sounds in an effort to establish some level of mix. For some, it has even allowed them to find elusive head voice tones as well as taking off undue pressure off of chest voice. Plus it can be fun to make such a bratty noise- even the adult students like it!!

I now want my students to realize that ‘agh’ has great value beyond the exaggerated ‘witch’s voice’. I am emphasizing the importance of the wonderful ring we get from even a normalized production of this vowel that is so important for healthy voice production, regardless of the style they sing. We are using ‘agh’ as a centering vowel to establish openness and an awareness of resonance before connecting it with another vowels. I am finding it helpful in keeping singers’ ‘ah’ vowels from becoming overly dark and the ‘oh’ from being overly rounded, especially for my classical students.

Here are the exercises that I am currently using:

1) ‘Agh’ vowel with tongue extension- Students are asked to let the tongue hang out of the mouth. This heightens the sense of openness and is a great way of sneaking a tongue stretch into the exercise routine. The octave and a half pattern or octave arpeggio are the patterns I employ most often here, but an octave down arpeggio may be good if the student still pulls chest a bit. I really like for students to watch themselves in the mirror for this one to be aware of mouth shape and tongue activity.
2) ‘Agh’ with tongue extension to ‘ah’ or ‘oh’- After evenness is found with the previous exercise, we then move to another open vowel. I use ‘oh’ most often. The tongue is again extended on ‘agh’, but then is allowed back into the mouth for the following vowel. The ring established on the first vowel should remain on the second. Students are moving to ‘oh’ with less tendency to go a bit nasal or to round the lips too much, allowing them to keep a more consistent tone. They tend to stay with a more pop mix approach instead of a more covered choral sound. I again use the octave and a half pattern mostly.
3) ‘Agh’ without tongue extension to ‘ah’, ‘oh, or, ‘uh’- I now move to a five tone scale, which tests the waters of the mix further, since it adds more resistance to the vocal folds. I urge students to change mouth shape very little as they move from vowel to vowel.
4) ‘Agh’ to close vowels- Using either an octave arpeggio or the five tone scale, ‘agh’ will now go to ‘ee’ or ‘ooo’. I save this for last because there will be a bigger adjustment in mouth shape now. Again, the hope is that the ring of the first vowel will be maintained in the second.
I have been having students to employ what Lisa Popeil refers to as ‘belter’s bite’. It’s the posture of preparing to bite into an apple. It can be very helpful with students when singing with an edgier approach like in gospel, rock, and belty musical theater.

For my more classical choir kids as well as my powerhouse pop and gospel singers, this approach has been extremely beneficial. They are finding more consistency in their mix and more aware of the sensations when singing in their middle voice.

Happy Singing- MIX RULES!!!!!

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