Vocalizing Vowels

“Consonants make the sense, but vowels make the sound,” says MENC member Ken Phillips.

Try a few classical vocal techniques to give your singing a more open sound even when performing contemporary music.

  • Keep vowels uniform by shaping lips “north/south” vertically instead of “east/west” horizontally. (don’t lengthen the sound too much, or you’ll end up sounding phony!)
  • Relax and open the throat for deep resonating.
  • Place the sound forward.

Vowels in English are harder to resonate because they sound “flatter” than vowels in other languages (Italian, for example).

The trick is to find the right blend between a resonant and a natural sound.

Vowel blending is important for groups of singers.

The same overtones that apply to instruments apply to voices, but instruments blend better because their frequencies are fixed. Voice frequencies aren’t.

Voices have regions that “allow vowels to migrate. So a chorus can sound out of tune even when it’s not.”

Tune the vowel sounds in a chorus as instruments are tuned.

This can be done via warm-ups (singing sequences of vowel sounds like oo- ha oo- ay- ee in unison, for example).

Train singers to listen for bad vowels in contemporary music.

“One of the easiest ways to get students to match vowels is simply to have them listen and try to match! If they learn about pure vowels, they can produce pure vowels in all their singing, thus creating much more uniformity on the whole,” says MENC member Tom Carter.

“To help them realize why it’s important to match vowels, randomly assign folks different vowels for a particular word. “Law” might be a good one. Have some sing “ah,” some “aw,” some “a,” some “eh,” some “oh,” some “oo” (as in “foot”), and some “oo” as in “boot.” Then hold and listen, maybe having each subgroup come back to “aw” until all are matching. You could then go back and forth from previous vowels to matching, or designate which group should not match. After all that, process their experience and observations.”

“Diphthong awareness” says Carter, “especially the ability to maintain the pure vowel until the millisecond before the next consonant — will also be key for them as they develop. (So, “night dream” becomes “naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahiht dream,” not “nahiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiht dream.”)

Adapted from “The Mechanics of Vowel Production in Contemporary Music”, Teaching Music October 2009; pg 54.

Ken Phillips is Professor of music and director of graduate studies in music education, Gordon College, Wenham MA.

–Sue Rarus, March 30, 2011, © National Association for Music Education