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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As directors, MOMs and worship leaders we often struggle to find enough lead vocalists. Which of course forces us to rely heavily on the 2 or 3 we do have who can step up and lead. Of course you know what comes next. Accusations of favoritism.
But members in the stand seldom understand the fact that you’d rather do anything than have to use the same people over and over. Not only does it wear them out, but it places limitations on the whole group. Still though, you understand better than most that you can’t just put anyone up to lead. They have to be able to deliver that song.
That’s where we run into problems, don’t we? We start asking people to lead songs and we start getting turned down. So to help us all fix this problem I thought I’d list 4 of the most common reasons people say no when you ask them about leading a song. Then I’ll give you soloutions you can pass along to that gun-shy first-timer (the one who’s been complaining about the same people leading but just told you no when you asked them, lol) and hopefully turn that no into a yes.
Many times when you ask someone new to leading songs to step up, it’s not that they don’t want to. They may like the song, but decline anyway. Why? Usually because they don’t understand that they don’t have to be able to do every single part of the song perfectly. Most first-time leaders pass on leading their first song not because of the whole song, but because they might have trouble with one aspect of part of the song. This is where we can offer guidance and help turn that no into a yes. Here are 4 of the most common reasons singers say no to leading their first song, along with some solutions:
1. The song, or parts of it, is just too high
If the entire song is too high but you really like this person for it, then the simple solution is to drop the key! You do have to be careful when lowering the key of a song because sometimes doing so can really rob a song of it’s energy. But most of the time that only happens when you’re making a dramatic change that drops the key several steps down. In general though, you can safely lower most songs a half-step, and sometimes a whole step. A half step drop can make a big difference in the singer’s comfort level.
2. I have to do a lot of ad-libing, I’m not good at that.
Contrary to popular belief, ad-libbing is not something you have to be born with to be good at. It’s a skill most anyone can learn. If ad-libbing is the only thing holding your prospect back, have them purchase a copy of my coaching video Ad-lib Like A Pro. Or better yet, purchase it for them and bless them with it!
3. I can’t do all that stuff the original artist is doing. I don’t know where to go or what to do.
Good, because you shouldn’t. It is certainly important to maintain the integrity of the song. That is, to respect the original by staying close to the melody line and not changing the lyrics (except where there is ad-libbing). But there are always several different ways to approach a certain melody line, riff or high note that is intimidating your prospect. If, for example, the whole song is good for them except this one part where the artist hits this really high note, simply help them find another way to do that part without hitting the note.
Tell your singer “Runs are great but you don’t have to do them if you’re not comfortable with them. Don’t pass on a song because the original artist is doing a lot of runs. Do YOU! Look for alternative ways to approach parts of the song so they fit your skill level better.”
4. I don’t feel it. It’s not my situation or testimony.
You must remember that music ministry is NOT about the singer, but the receiver. Not every song will be your personal situation. Does that mean you’re singing a lie? Absolutely not. Even when it’s not your story or your situation, it’s someone’s situation. That person might be in the audience. So if you like the song but you’re not especially feeling spiritually connected to it, you must first keep in mind that the message is for someone, even if it’s not speaking to you. You can always sing the song from that perspective, as a witness to or testimoniy/encouragement for someone else.
To be authentic though, you do need to find some personal connection to something in the song so you can sing it with conviction and honest emotion. Even if it’s just a couple of lines in the chorus, that’s plenty. It’s perfectly alright though, if you don’t feel like the entire song is about you. None of it is about you (smile). In the end though, it’s all about conviction. So if , even after you’ve shared this with them, a singer feels convicted about singing a certain song because of the subject matter, they shouldn’t.
Consider a Style Coaching session
Whenever you find yourself having some of the above issues with a new leader with a song you’ve been asking them to sing, one thing to consider is having them take a Style Coaching lesson. Style coaching is a bit different than normal vocal lessons. In vocal coaching sessions the primary focus is learning proper technique. Vocal lessons usually need to be taken on a recurring basis over a period of time to see results.
Style Coaching works much faster. You can book style coaching lessons ala-carte whenever you need one and still reap all of the benefits you need from just one session. In a Style Coaching session you’re there to work specifically on a song or songs. A style coach can help you work through and find solutions for issues like those mentioned above. It’s especially helpful for those songs when 90% of it is ok for the singer but just that last part is too high. Or when you’re stuck for how to sing certain parts differently than the original because the original artist is doing some crazy run or something. Your vocal coach can help you work through those parts and find alternative way to sing them. I offer style coaching ala carte, by the hour on Skype. You can book a session here.
So hold on before you accept that no to leading that song! Use these for tips with your timid new lead vocalist and turn that no into a yes.