Matching vowels, modifying the vowel to find what is sometimes termed the narrow place
Matching the vowels is a necessary ingredient for a legato line and vocal stamina but what does that really mean?
It means moving from note to note and vowel to vowel on fullest natural acoustic with legato line whilst the vowel and consonant are still perfectly distinct in the theatre.
The pressing question is how do you achieve this?
Before you can match the vowels it is necessary to have correct formation of each vowel without tightness of any kind in the throat. If this is achieved, this makes an enormous difference to the amount of vocal freedom that a singer has in performance and produces also a natural pathos in the voice directly from deep in the body.
The opposite of this is a tight throat and a feeling of squeeze and shove from the throat. Sometimes lovely artists who have magnificent and robust voices are able to push in this way for quite a while, a few years perhaps, before the effort in the throat regrettably takes its toll.Here is a list of things to look out for which cause that feeling of shove from the throat which is the opposite of freedom in singing:
- Lip tension will cause grab on the throat
- A tense neck and shoulders will cause tension in the throat
- The jaw thrusting forward
- A flat tongue and retracted tongue
- A feeling of adjusting the throat as the voice goes up in pitch or even from note to note.
If a singer forms the vowels in the mouth in the way that they would when they speak it is not at all satisfactory. The more difficult the piece that you are singing the more difficult this way of singing vowels is to sustain. It seems that every singer has sometimes unwittingly done this, myself included, as it is not usually made very clear to a singer what they are supposed to do instead.
Some singers who come here to the studio tell me how they have tried to find the narrow place by trying to place the voice forward into a tiny focus by one method or another which inevitably causes constriction. The cords eventually become pre loaded with tension before the singer even breathes to sing.
For the sake of simplicity I am going to mainly concentrate in this article on the vowel i as in the word feet because it is a good vowel on which to base the others. This vowel is at the centre of the Italian School of Singing. From its correct use it is somewhat easier to see how all the other vowels should feel.
So let us take the i vowel, the shape of which is generally thought to be wide in the lips, horizontally wide, in other words a narrow letter box shape. Occasionally some singers come here to the studio having been taught to use this letterbox shape for vowels and then to place the sound in the mask to smile. This does not produce an easy resonating vowel. This facial posture will cause the larynx to raise and get stuck and will cause tightness under the chin and most certainly the tongue will flatten and pull into the pharynx, thereby constricting it. Also when you attempt to go from this smiling letter box i position to a rounded o as in singing ioioioio it is a very awkward movement and does not help he voice to go from one register to another smoothly. This is particularly felt in a rising scale up through the passaggio as the cords are pre loaded with weight from a squeezed throat. To sing with legato line and clear vowels through the vocal range, economy of movement is needed which does not pull down the palate. Sometimes the singer will feel that by smiling when taking the breath that they are lifting the palate ready to sing when actually the opposite will be what is happening.
In order to explore correct singing pronunciation of any vowel, make a soft oval shape with the lips. That is oval from top to bottom not from side to side. The teeth should be apart, almost two fingers width apart at front teeth. I say this as singers sometimes do not realize they are clenching the jaw. Release the tension at the corners of the mouth. Rest the tip of the tongue gently just behind the bottom teeth but not pushing against them and lift the middle of the tongue and then release it so it releases wide, spread out either side as though flying under the side top set of teeth to the cheeks. Have this feeling of the tongue flying out at the side and then see how much tension you can release. The jaw must be persuaded to go back and down loosely then the tongue will flop up into a free position. The mouth is feeling rounded but the tongue is releasing wide towards the cheeks. Inside the cheeks between the molars the muscles should be relaxed. Lifting and stretching the palate is an involuntary action. These latter instructions are stimuli which will help stretch the palate and lift it. Each vowel must have palate stretch on an open throat
This will feel at first a very strange position in which to form vowels if you are used to doing something else. If it is done correctly the vowel will bypass the grab at the throat and go to the ring in the cheekbones and acoustic of the head. The singer should never have to place it there. This makes the term the narrow place a little misleading.
To achieve a resonance that filters through the cheek bones the jaw really must release easily back and down (see article on the jaw). This will eventually result in the total avoidance of responsibility for phonation by muscling up of the jaw, neck and tongue. I have an acquaintance who is elderly and of course perfectly entitled to a relaxed afternoon nap in his chair. When he snoozes his jaw drops in a beautifully relaxed way. Try literally chewing your jaw loosely back keeping the mouth gently oval.
Begin as if you know nothing about how a vowel should sound in your head or be pronounced and look for some completely new sensations a few of which I will try to describe in this article. I was recently asked, If Italian is your mother tongue does all this come easier? I can honestly say that I have taught Italians and out of my experience so far, I can safely say it is difficult for some of them too. In fact whatever your language it seems there are sounds to be reconsidered to enable freedom in singing.
Vocal exercises should be tailored to the individual according to type, size and weight of the voice so that the singer can sense appropriate responses reflexively. I have chosen to give some exercises below, and it may be just possible that you will find them helpful and would like to try them. They are a way of illustrating what matching and modifying the vowel means physically and my be useful for somebody.
This exercise is designed to encourage the tongue to stay out of the pharynx, the jaw to release, the palate to lift, widen and stretch from front to back on an active body. Stick your tongue out in a relaxed way and seal your lips around it in a soft oval, slightly flare your nostrils, and gently push your jaw back with your finger. Now sing in this way down a 5 tone scale separating each note with a puff of air out through the nose at the start of each sound as you sing and taking a little sniff of air through the nose after each note. You should not block off the air but rather let it come naturally through your nose as you go in a sort of nasal pant. Let the sound be a little bit woolly to you in fact do not worry too much what you sound like and just think about what you want to happen physically. Perhaps you feel that the jaw is closing and coming forward as you work? Chew the jaw loosely back continually and rhythmically on every phonation so that the jaw does not freeze in any position at any time. This is because when the jaw is held in any position everything gets stuck! It is important to feel the sternum move forward slightly on each phonation. Make sure you are standing up straight with tall buoyant ribs and that you are leaning very slightly forwards. I say this as it is not helpful if a singer goes backwards with the body when the sing. You should feel your body working.
Putting the tongue out of the mouth also helps the imposto. This is the Italian expression for the use of the muscles each side of the nostrils. It is as if the singer is shutting off the breath to create resistance and allowing a slight thread to come through at the same time. As if there were tiny feathers under you nose and you were trying to shut you nose off and breath out at the same time to stop them tickling. I have used the word airy to describe the feeling of ng as often in a singer the breath is shut down so much that the throat closes and squeezes the nearer the voice gets to the upper passaggio. Allowing the air to come through the nose in the way I have described can start to help the body feel the natural resistance at the imposto co ordinate with the body If there is too much air through the cords in repertoire in the lower or upper passaggio then that will be caused by too much force of air pressure and not resistance and this makes the voice very tired.
If this is all completely new to you then I recommend that you read articles on this website and David Jones’ website to gain more of an understanding of how to use the body whilst singing.
If you try the vowel i first the jaw needs to go back. Put your fingers on the chin pushing back firmly but gently on a loose jaw: it should generally go back slightly and slightly down. Looking in a mirror is useful as you can see if the jaw jumps forward (Gently massaging the jaw muscles in the cheek is one of many ways to help to loosen a tight jaw) the jaw going forward is generally related to tension in the back of the neck. Let your tongue rest gently behind the bottom teeth and lift the middle of the tongue, to check that it is not pressed down to softly sing i on a comfortable mid range note for your voice. Make sure the tongue is lifting and widening out to make certain of a proper i vowel as in the word feet and not a watered down version. Look for the oval mouth. You can put your fingers in the middle of the cheeks each side of the mouth to encourage this shape. The sound should still be slightly woolly to your ears, with what I can only describe at the moment as an airy feeling in your nose. You can help it release a little more by putting your tongue out and singing the i on the same pitch and then singing with the tongue in a released position in the mouth gently and singing. This sounds a little bizarre but it can sometimes be very effective at releasing tension at the root of the tongue.
Try this exercise on the ng. When the tongue is on the roof of the mouth in the ng position you will feel a light filtering of air through the nose. In the vowel that follows your tongue may want to crash to the bottom of the mouth. This will be because of too much air pressure. The perfect position for the i is the middle of the tongue near the ng position not far from the roof of the mouth.
- 1 2 3 2 1
If this information is new to you then this way of singing a vowel will certainly feel very unnatural. Indeed this is a first taste of how unnatural a feeling it is for us to produce free resonating vowels in the middle register. I can only say that when you get used to it then it will be the squeezing version that feels unnatural. It is unfortunate that it is much more usual for us to speak and therefore sing on a squeezed pharynx and pulled down palate with no connection or very little connection to the body. An open pharynx demands a shifting of responsibility for control of phonation from the throat to the body. Therefore we are looking for sensations we are not normally used to.The i vowel is the deepest in the throat. It is the pharyngeal vowel to which all the other vowels can be matched. (Sometimes some singers have another vowel that is easier to work with at first this can also depend on what their mother tongue is) It is the means by which weight in the sound, warmth and volume at any level is added through correct use of the body and not through pressure at the neck, tongue, jaw and pharynx. These at all times should remain light and with the elastic muscles of the jaw chewing back and the middle of the tongue lightly, gently floating up, then there will be no grab on it or bunching up. When we sing in this way there is a great feeling of freedom yet the sound bypasses the inner ear so the singer does not hear the voice in the same way at all.
It is much easier to sing vowels if when the breath is taken in, the act of doing so stretches the palate and opens the pharynx ready to sing.
Let us turn the attention to the vowel e as in the word let. It will be tempting to allow this vowel to be too shallow by not letting the jaw go back sufficiently. If the jaw hinges back enough to free the tongue, the ring will naturally come to the cheek bones radiating out from the narrow ring which will filter through the nose.
Another helpful way of thinking of the open pharynx is feeling a deep uh in the throat as in the word hurt. This is an appropriate way to modify the vowel in the open throat for the e vowel. There must be no grab and bunch up of the tongue, instead it should be wide and not pressed down in the middle. Within this deep open uh the cords can seal delicately along the thin edges on the appoggio.
Next are a as in the word hat, o as in hot and u as in hoot. These 3 vowel sounds are related to each other, as generally they present the same problems of the depressed tongue at the root.
Try singing the sounds ngu ngu ngu ngu ngu down the 5 tone scale all the while helping the jaw hinge back and slightly flaring the nostrils. Look for a very light feeling of the air filtering very slightly through the nose on the ng. The filtering through the nose should be looked for in all vowels at all pitches, it is very important! This is not breathy singing and this is not nasal singing but is what is meant by bringing the sound to the tiny narrow resonance. From there it can bloom naturally without the weight and shove of a tight body, neck, or head. It will mean that you will hear your voice less in your head but it will ring more outside. You may feel that you will want to close the nasal port as the tongue will want to depress and grab, but encourage the tongue to stay near the wide ng position on every vowel on a lively body. Try this same process on the other vowels a and o.
The vowels will only match for a perfect legato line inside an open pharynx with the tongue being free to form the vowels in a relaxed fashion on a good body hook up and with no help from a tight jaw. Only then can balance in registration naturally be found all the way up and down the scale. The singer will eventually trust the body to work and the jaw to free first before the sound can happen. This is the pre phonation stage and as a result of this the cords will close and you will have phonation as a reflexive result. The definition of phonation is the making of sound in the larynx. The pharynx will naturally adjust itself for the formation of each vowel but it will not be the initiator of sound by squeezing to close the cords. The tongue will adjust itself slightly for each vowel too but it will still be required to release constantly wide even for the o and u. Squeezing the pharynx through the passaggio causes inability to crescendo and decrescendo, can result in tuning difficulties, and in extreme cases, diplophonia. Even quite serious cases of the diplophonia can be over come by skilled re education of the vocal folds through the use of the correct exercises.
Where we are under most pressure to tighten the throat is at the upper passaggio. In the rising scale the pressure will already want to start at the pharynx several notes before you even get to what is unflatteringly sometimes called the break. As the voice goes up and the pressure mounts the sounds go right into the ear. The singer needs to think carefully and instruct the body looking for new feelings at least a sixth below the break note in the scale and look to see what is going on with the vowel, the tongue, and the jaw. Invite yourself to make listening to your voice as you sing a very low priority even in the middle and low register. What you do here determines what will happen when you go up and it is in this register where we find it easier to sing and enjoy the sound. Quality checking in this way unfortunately does not help as a singer can be tempted to manufacture the sound. Their attention needs to be diverted to the cause of what they are doing, not with the effect which is the sound. Look at what is going on with the nose, jaw, neck and tongue and body in the middle octave of your voice. It helps to use a mirror. Whether a throat is open or closed is visible at the base of the front of the neck. Make sure the mouth does not grab on at the sides and the jaw goes back with a chewing feeling constantly and that the body is with you at the pre phonation stage.
The lower break is also a problem for singers. The same applies. Several notes before you get to the break in the downward scale the vowel needs to look for this narrow acoustic with the tongue wide without tension at the corners of the mouth and the jaw softly instructed to go back and the body encouraged to work. The head and neck will be buoyant and free if the body works well and then the jaw will naturally free up.
Vowels should pick up the natural acoustic cover which always carries perfectly in the theatre but this will mean that the singer does not hear the voice as the audience will hear it. Once a singer has mastered this way of singing vowels there comes a wonderful lightness and rightness in the neck and face at any volume and a beautiful stream of full resonating sound. Crescendo and decrescendo on high notes will become much more easily available.
On up through the voice the vowels will feel at first more removed from speech than ever but to the listener the vowels will sound distinct and carrying. It will mean that the singer will, as David Jones rather eloquently puts it, move from note to note on acoustic and stretch of palate.
When I was a young student I was told to modify my vowels in the upper passaggio to an umlaut u but I did not really know techniques to train body hook up, tongue, jaw etc. There are so many inventive ways of modifying the vowel to ask the body to accept the open throat including the French nasals. They are all efficient depending on how they are used and the different needs of the singer and different types of voices. When I was younger and my voice lighter I could find the room in the throat and body but as my voice got heftier a larger packet of help was needed.
It could be said that the concepts in this article are for the advanced student. I can honestly say that if the correct exercises are chosen for each individual and then are applied skilfully the voice naturally goes this way and the singer immediately senses the authenticity of the feelings. Every morning a singer gets out of bed and wonders how the voice is behaving today. Singers are not happy unless they know how to persuade their voice into vocal freedom. Much of singing is reflexive including the free resonating vowel. So the singer needs to know exactly what actions to take in order to stimulate the body to let these reflexive actions take place at optimum efficiency. This is the remarkable thing about this work. (Look at voiceteacher.com for history of this.)
The first is of a lovely soprano with a coloratura range. She came because she had pain on the roof of her mouth and had had a tonsillectomy which had caused her more problems. It was very soon evident what the problem was. The whole body was tight and pulled down with the effort of forcing the voice up and down the scale. The jaw was forward, the lips very tense and the tongue bunched up tight in the pharynx. If this kind of technique is persisted in it eventually results in serious vocal damage. With gentle exercise and correct stimuli for the palate stretch and instruction on how to use her body, her jaw and tongue started to let go so that her voice could find it’s own focus through the registers. It really did not take much to let her feel release so that she could see the way forward out of the problem. .
The other case I have chosen is of a baritone who came to me with one of the tightest jaws caused by trauma and injury I have ever seen. It was impossible for him to pronounce anything without squeezing the throat and severely depressing the tongue so even his speech sounded very strange: tight throaty vowels and difficulty in pronouncing most of the consonants. The face muscles were pulling down and the jaw was stiff particularly on the right side. When his body was asked through exercises to hook up to the correct facial and throat posture the muscles in the face and body gradually lengthened into a better state. Deep seated tension was unlocked in his body and head as muscles acquired their natural elasticity. His command of the exercises is growing all the time and the 2 octave Cuperto is such a useful tool in taking the pressure off the voice. His facial expression is different: it is radiant and open and very fine. His singing has freedom he thought he would never have.