Most people don’t realize it, but the vowels in the words we sing play an absolutely critical role in just about everything we feel and hear from our singing voices. How easy or difficult a particular word is to sing has everything to do with the vowel in that word and how it’s being pronounced by the singer.
Not only is strain and tension affected by vowels and the way they’re pronounced, but the actual tonal quality is affected as well. If pronounced incorrectly, certain vowels can cause your tone to take on a harsh quality that is a lot less melodic, lacking warmth and richness. Vocal coaches generally place vowels into two categories. We refer to those categories a couple of different ways. The first two should sound familiar to you from school:
1. Long vowels
2. Short vowels.
We refer to them more commonly in vocal training sessions as:
1. Wide vowels
2. Narrow vowels.
Most of us, especially in Gospel, have a tendency to pronounce almost all vowels-even narrow ones- in a very wide position. The position worsens as we sing higher and higher notes.
Pretty soon even narrow vowels like the “O” in God become something closer to “GAD” when sung on a high note.
Vowels like the “A” in Grace, Faith and Wait are all examples of a wide vowel. The vowel “E” is another example of a “Wide” or “Long” vowel. E is the hardest vowel to sing because of all the tension it causes in words like “me”.
This tension comes from the wide position of our mouth when we sing words like these that contain wide vowels. We often refer to them as “smiley” vowels for this reason.
To alleviate some of this strain and tension I teach students a simple technique called “narrowing” or “shortening” the vowel.
Here’s an example:
If we were singing Hezikiah’s song “Grateful”, at the vamp where the song gets really high and you have to keep singing that long, wide “A” in the word grateful, we would just “shorten” that vowel by pronouncing it differently.
So instead of a pronunciation that sounds more like this:
We shorten that long “A” by pronouncing it like a short “e”, so we end up with a pronunciation that sounds more like this:
That looks weird, I know. And your first thought is that it would sound weird too. But to the audience it sounds pretty-much like the first pronunciation.
Doing this however, does a couple of very cool things. First, it takes a great deal of tension off your vocal cords. A wide mouth causes the larynx to raise, which causes a great deal of strain and tension.
Shortening the vowel puts your mouth in a much more oval, narrow position so you larynx drops and you feel less tension and strain.
You also use less air because there is a smaller space for you to push it through.
But here’s the really cool thing. Shortening or narrowing these wide vowels has a dramatic affect on the tonal quality of the singer. It’s especially dramatic in choirs and other large groups, but it works the same way for everyone.
Singing with narrow vowels takes all the edgy, harshness from your vocal tone and replaces it with a warm, rich tone. Almost instantly!
Here’s a really neat way to try this easily. Put on a cd of a song you like that requires you to go pretty high. One where you find yourself straining a lot; screaming for the note.
Then sing that part with your hands pressed against your cheeks until your lips kinda pucker a little. You’ll sound funny and look even funnier (lol) but it’s a cool way to find the narrow pronunciation of a vowel quickly. It also helps you feel what it’s like to sing higher notes without all the tension or screaming. Chances are, if you do this correctly and keep your stomach relaxed, you’ll feel a pretty dramatic difference in those high notes.
So give it a try! To learn more about narrow vowels and get a “low larynx exercise you can do every day, sign up for my free 5 day vocal training course. Details at the bottom of the blog. Don’t forget to come to the Facebook page and tell me about it.
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