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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It’s common, at least in smaller churches, to find members of the choir also on the praise team and vice-versa. Many don’t realize though, that the two are completely different when it comes to your vocal approach.
What flies in the choir stand doesn’t work in front of a microphone singing on the praise team. It’s a whole different ballgame. Here then, are the common mistakes singers make as they move from the choir stand to the praise team.
1. Adjusting the volume
As I mentioned above, the first big difference in singing in the choir stand and singing on the praise team is that most of the time every singer on a praise team is singing directly into a microphone.
Which is not at all the case in the choir stand where you’re standing there with a large group of other people, nobody on a microphone.
So choir members who join the praise team often bring that habit of singing really loud to make the sound carry and hit the notes along with them to the the praise team. Only now it’s way too much, because every singer has a microphone.
2. Not understanding/knowing your parts
The choir is a very forgiving place to sing. Numbers hide a multitude of faults, lol. Often people who are not as skilled at harmony can be comfortable singing in the choir because there are so many people around to help out and “lean on”. When you come to the praise team you really can’t do that anymore. You have to stand on your own and know that part. On the praise team that tends to go away. Praise teams are much smaller, so it’s much more important for every singer to really know and understand harmony and their parts. Often people who are used to relying on fellow choir members for their parts fail to fully understand that, so they struggle with that aspect of being on the praise team.
3. Not understanding/learning proper microphone technique .
Aside from those who lead songs regularly for the choir, most choir members don’t have much experience with the microphone.
It’s important to learn how to sing into it properly. How to hold up to your mouth, or stand in front of it in the microphone stand. How to adjust the stand quickly when you walk up to it.More importantly though, every singer should be taught how to pull the microphone away a little when you know you’re going for a really high, powerful note. This is a very important thing to practice on especially when you’re used to singing in the choir stand.
4. Not investing in vocal training
This is probably the most important thing a praise team can do as a group to dramatically improve their overall sound. Choirs can slide without vocal instruction for years because of the nature and make-up of a Gospel choir. But praise teams really don’t have the luxury of large numbers to camouflage things. The sad reality, in fact, is that the average Praise team in the average-sized Gospel church doesn’t do a very good job, I’m afraid.
Some simple training as a group would make an amazing difference in the ministry of most praise teams. I recently started a workshop series with the praise team at my own church where I’ve been training them on pretty-much every aspect of praise team ministry that Iv’e discussed here, plus a few I haven’t mentioned. Taken together, just about any praise team can realize a dramatic improvement in the power and effectiveness of their ministry by investing in this type of training as a group. Take your praise team from simply another musical spot on the program to a powerful tool God uses every week to change the atmosphere at your church and prime it for a move of God.
Did you find this article helpful? You can get it and 12 others like it for your praise team in my new e-book Praise Team 101.