Here’s what I wish someone had said to me when I was 16 or 17.
“Master your vowels, master your voice.”
Sounds simple doesn’t it? I mean we were all know our vowels right? A-E-I-O-U? Well, not quite right.
There are probably about 200 vowels contained within the languages of the world, and the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) details the different symbols that are regularly used to detail these different sounds. This chart here provides a really cool and interactive guide to the different vowel sounds of the English language and as you can see, there are so many more than A-E-I-O-U!
So, what do I mean by “master them”? Well, I remember that in my earlier singing lessons, I was often taught to follow sensation when singing, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it was pretty much the only thing I had to go off. So, I would frequently be told to “place” the sound in different areas of my face, coupled with cries of “breathe from your stomach”!
*TANGENT ALERT* The psychological relationship between teacher/student is an interesting one and probably one that requires further study, but I’ve found that when put in the position of “student”, there is a tendency to do what’s asked of you from the other side of the piano, sometimes even it seems blatantly ridiculous! This led me to not really question some of the things that I was being asked to feel, even though I wasn’t 100% convinced that I was singing the song any better or any differently than I was before. Sadly I believe that when it comes to “vocal coaching”, a completely unregulated industry, this probably happens quite a lot around the world!
Fast forward twenty or so years and I know better and I have actively sought out better teachers, laryngologists, different pedagogies, vocal health specialists, physicists and other very bright people and discovered that many of our vocal ills can be fixed by making sure that we “master the vowel”.
Let’s take the issue of laryngeal height for a moment. Is my larynx “too high”? Is it “too low”? Do I sing with a “stable larynx”? These are terminologies that get thrown around quite a lot and come complete with a whole set of anxieties (laryngophobia – joke, but maybe not….) and negative connotations, when in actuality the vowel will more often or not dictate laryngeal height for us. We can choose to open or close (brighten or darken) a particular vowel sound to affect the height of the larynx, but ultimately, directing a student to “lower their larynx” is quite an abstract concept and can be avoided completely if you know how to successfully modify a vowel in order to achieve the desired sound.
Let’s look at vocal fold/cord closure as well. If you have a breathy tone, and assuming for a moment that you don’t suffer from a vocal pathology such as nodules, you probably have something called “weak medial compression”, which is a fancy way of saying that your vocal folds/cords don’t meet with enough contact to efficiently resist the air pressure/flow from the lungs.
Many teachers would be inclined to get you lying on your back and breathing in an out with breeze block on your stomach, however, by selecting the correct vowel sound (like “a” as in “cat”) the vocal folds/cords can be gently coerced into meeting more effectively. Similarly the reverse is true, if there is too much medial compression, an appropriate vowel sound (like “ee” or “oo”) can help to maintain a healthier level of vocal fold/cord closure.
Making lighter work of your break/bridge/crack/passaggio. Again, vowel sounds can be the saving grace to help to smooth out this particularly troublesome area of the voice helping you to glide through it like greased lightening. A finely and precisely tuned vowel on a “belt” can be the difference between a yell that sounds like it’s on the edge and about to crack, and a sublime sound that literally gets the hairs standing up on the back of your neck.
Vowels. They’re the golden ticket to singing that I wish I’d discovered at 16. Why vowels are the golden ticket is a subject for another day (the science can make your eyes bleed), however, it’s suffice to say that whether you are a singing teacher/vocal coach or a vocalist yourself, learning to master your vowels is the best thing you can do for your voice. Become obsessed. I am and I haven’t looked back.