I’d like to buy a vowel . . .

April 27, 2014

As I’ve often said, the vowels carry the beauty and meaning of every language, and if they are generalized all that is lost.  Singing is communication!  If your concept of vocal production does not make that clear, you might as well play the kazoo.

What do I want to hear in a voice?  I want the vowels to all be clearly defined, so that even if I don’t understand the language I could write down what is being sung. I also want a consistent quality and quantity of sound and resonance, whatever the vowel and whatever the range. That shouldn’t be too hard, should it?

Well, maybe, but how to do that? Let’s take the vowels apart a bit, and see how we can accomplish all this.

When you just open your mouth, an ‘ah’ falls out. Actually, more like ‘uh’ but it take the slightest attention to turn that into ‘ah’. So, instead of the root of all evil, ‘ah’ can be considered the root of all vowels.

I don’t mean that you need to perfect the ‘ah’ before going on, or that ‘ah’ will be your first and best vowel. I’m just thinking of this in terms of vowel formation, in the physiological sense.

From there we have three types of vowels: tongue vowels, lip vowels and those interesting French and English vowels that need both tongue and lips. Lip vowels first:

You can turn an ‘ah’ into an ‘oo’ with your hand. Try this: sing a good ah, then while you hold it, cover nearly all of your mouth with your hand and it becomes ‘oo’.

That might not work in performance unless you’re in the chorus of ‘Peter Pan’. For most singing, you’ll need to purse your lips like blowing out a candle. Loose lips in a tiny circle, slightly protruding, with the inside of the mouth open and the tongue forward and relaxed. If the lips aren’t forming the ‘oo’ then the back of the tongue is closing your throat for it. That’s why you can often hear singers who have a big ‘ah’ disappear when they get to ‘oo’ – the tongue closes off the resonance.

If you have a hard time convincing the tongue to stay out of it, try this mind game: Sing a long ‘ah’. Just ‘ah’ the whole ‘ah’ and nothing but the ‘ah’. While you’re singing it, more your lips into and out of the position I described in the above paragraph, and you should get a good ‘oo’. It may sound different from your customary ‘oo’ if you’re used to the back of the tongue getting involved. I’m working on an ‘oo’ for the paying customers!

‘Oh’ is half way to ‘oo’ and the other lip vowels (‘aw’ etc.) are just varying degrees of this formation.  To get the hang of it, which shouldn’t take long, practice singing these vowels on a single note, easy mid-range at first, then moving higher and lower. Work to get them consistent clear, and loose, starting on an easy note and then throughout the range. No tongue! That’s for next time.

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