Talking to your choir about vowels

Click here for – Why is it so hard to sing in tune?; Hearing and Singing – a modest musical manifesto

One Sunday, I was subbing in a choir in Mississippi.  On that particular Sunday, the church in question was auditioning a candidate to be their next Music Director. He worked us a little bit, then said the following, in the laziest South Mississippi Drawl you can imagine, “Now, when you look at me, you see country, you hear country, you think country, ‘cuz I am country.” Then, switching to the Queen’s English, he said, “But when I sing, I sound like this.” Everyone laughed, and he got the gig.

Vowels play a huge role not only in the singing pronunciation of a word, so that an audience can understand what you’re singing, but equally in the tuning of the pitch that you are singing. In order for a choir to sing in tune – before sight reading comes into the picture – the vowels of an ensemble must be addressed.

Very generally – when in a choral situation, singing vowels formed in a similar way as spoken vowels (whatever your regional dialect) will result in sagging pitch.  In American English, the placement of these vowels (as well as many consonants) tends to be in the back of the throat.  It’s difficult to produce enough breath that will sustain pitches with this placement. Muscular tension and fatigue can result. All of which affects pitch production and the ability to keep a pitch from dragging. It also dulls the sound of a choir.

Talking about this tendency with the average amateur choir can be frustrating, especially when technical jargon is employed. Within the constraints of a weekly rehearsal, time cannot be wasted.  In-depth discussions of the soft palate are probably not the best use of a choir director’s time, and will likely go over the heads of the untrained singers in your group.  For me, one very helpful, and easily discussed, technique has been the “ah” syllable that sounds like the noise you make when you remember where you left your keys.  Try it.

Now, try it again, but as you inhale, think this vowel.  In doing so, you will prepare your mouth, tongue and all the space in your head for the sound you will make when you sing.  Try this a few times, each time remembering how it feels – where your tongue is, how open your mouth is (tip #1 – open it vertically, not horizontally; tip #2 – it’s not open enough), and what everything above your cheekbones feels like.  Are you listening?   Have you still found your keys?  Or is the vowel drifting to ‘Uh?’  How does ‘Uh’ feel, compared to finding your keys?

This kind of excersise will prime your choir for the self-awareness they will need when tuning, and translating the physical sensation of tuning into a sight singing practice.

Adding ‘a few drops’ of the I-found-my-keys ‘Ah’ into the mixture of any sung vowel will help to keep that vowel in the same resonant space as the ‘Ah,’ keep it out of the back of your throat, and counter the tendency of ‘spoken vowels’ ruining your chance to sing in tune. (I have to thank my wife for this observation)  Remember – we’re talking about so called “pure” vowels (only one vowel at a time) as opposed to diphthongs (two adjacent vowels in the same syllable).  The following is a table that shows the transformation of the vowel, with the addition of  ‘a few drops’ of ‘ah.’

Written Vowel

If it sounds like:  

With a few drop of ‘ah,’ it will sound like:

a

apple option

e

any

every

i

even

imp

o

open

coffin

u food

open

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3 thoughts on “Talking to your choir about vowels

  1. PLEASE CHANGE THE BACKGROUND SO I CAN READ THIS. BACKGROUND IS GREY AND BROWN. PRINT IS BROWN. UNREADABLE. I AM LOW-VISION AND CANNOT READ ONE WORD. PLEASE USE BLACK WORDS AGAINST A WHITE BACKGROUND. IF I WANT TO SEE SCENERY, I’LL GO TO A STATE PARK. (first time I’ve ever “shouted” a comment in capital letters, but I feel quite strongly about this)

  2. Pingback: Everything you heard about matching pitch in choir rehearsal is a lie | three hundred and seventy one chorales
  3. Pingback: What’s in a choir’s tone – harmonics, emotions and everything in between. | three hundred and seventy one chorales

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