Hello everyone! Kevin here. Long time no talk. I confess I haven’t updated this blog in several years. The pandemic has had a lot to do with that, and I’ve also had a few personal emergencies to contend with the past few years. In any case, I’m back today with some voice training advice for new teachers and students. Today, I want to briefly talk about the importance of identifying ‘reference vowels’ when working with voice students.

Vowels are of course an incredibly important aspect of speaking and singing. Every vowel sound requires a specific shape in a person’s throat. Think about the vocal tract as being one long ‘tube’ consisting of the throat and mouth coupled together above the larynx/vocal folds. Changes to this tube’s shape will result in resonance changes (aka whether a sung pitch sounds bright or dark). Sudden severe changes to this ‘tube’ shape between sung vowels can also promote tension/constriction in a singer’s throat at times. We want to avoid those things of course.

We can control the shape of the vocal tract/’resonating tube’ via changes to the tongue, lips, jaw, soft palate, pharynx, and laryngeal height. If you don’t know what some of these terms mean, I recommend looking them up. During normal everyday speech, each vowel will look something like this in a person’s throat:

As we see above, vocal tract/’tube’ shapes can vary widely from vowel to vowel. Vowel shaping also tends to be more complicated in singing vs speaking due to potentially different vocal range, registration and breathing requirements (among other factors). Most singers have specific vowel shapes that ‘sit’ easier in their throat vs others. Much of this has to do with how individuals habitually use their voice during speech and singing. For example, if a new student comes in with a bright, brassy speaking voice and they normally sing musical theatre repertoire, you can bet a bright, brassy vowel shape/sound like [æ] (as in ‘cat’) is initially going to sit easier in their throat than a darker vowel like [ɑ] (as in ‘father’) will.

How can we use this vowel knowledge to our advantage in voice training? There are many ways. I often implement a system called ‘reference vowels’ when working with students. This is how I recommend proceeding with that process:

  1. Spend ample time having the student sing through their range on single-vowel scales, slides and arpeggios. While the student is singing, make note of which vowels sound and feel easier in their throat vs others (ask them!). These easy vowels will be the student’s ‘reference vowels’ moving forward.
  2. Spend several lessons refining these easier reference vowels so they can sing them up and down across their range at different dynamic levels. If a particular vowel ever sounds constricted/’stuck’, have the student make changes to their tongue, lips, jaw, posture, breathing, etc. until it doesn’t. This may take some time.
  3. Create vocal exercises that require the student to move from an easy reference vowel to a more difficult vowel in their throat. For example, let’s say a student can easily sing the vowel [ɑ] (as in ‘father’) across their range, but they struggle to do the same with a vowel like [i] (as in ‘meet’). Ask them to sing a vocal exercise that begins on [ɑ] then transitions to [i]. For example, try a 5-note P5 scale up and down performed twice in a row– once on [ɑ] and the second time on [i]. Avoid going too high or low in a student’s range at first during these exercises, and make sure their volume isn’t too loud or soft.
  4. Initially, these back-and-forth vowel exercises may be difficult for the student. However, it’s important to remind them of the shape and overall freedom they felt in their throat while singing the easy reference vowel. They should try to to bring at least some of that shape and freedom to their difficult vowel(s). That may mean needing to modify their difficult vowels a bit so that they’re closer in shape to their easy reference vowel. This is particularly true on upper pitches in a student’s throat. A closed, high tongue vowel like [i] tends to get ‘caught’ easily in a student’s throat on upper pitches, so it’s often necessary to modify it a bit toward a more open, vertical mouth-shape vowel like [ɑ] or [ɛ] (as in ‘bed’).
  5. Once the student can manageably sing from an easy reference vowel to a more difficult vowel, create exercises that ONLY use the difficult vowel. That vowel should now feel easier in their throat than it did before. If it doesn’t, repeat step #4 above.

Now, you may be asking: How can I use the reference vowel work above when working on songs/repertoire with a student? Try this:

  1. Have the student sing the melody of their piece on an easy reference vowel that is appropriate for the repertoire being sung. Hopefully, everything will sound clear and free because the vocal tract/’tube’ shape is staying relatively consistent. If it doesn’t, have the student make adjustments as necessary and refer them back to the previous exercises they did.
  2. Have the student sing the melody again on the written vowels in their song’s lyrics. While doing this, they should maintain the general shape and freedom of their easy reference vowel as much as possible. Again, the goal is freedom and consistency across all vowels. They should generally avoid extreme mouth, jaw, tongue, etc. changes when moving between vowels.
  3. Have the student sing the melody again using both the written vowels and consonants this time. If specific consonants cause issues, try to isolate and fix those as well. Remember, consonants also change the shape of the vocal tract. However, we spend most of our time as singers singing on vowels. Consonants are of course important but also ‘icing on the cake’, so to speak. That is why they’re included in the final step here.

This three-step process may sound simple, but many challenges can arise. If one step is causing the student issues, do not move on to the next one until mastery has been achieved. Always ask students questions like “How does that feel?” and “What did you do to make that sound?”. This will help both you and the student diagnose and raise awareness of challenges they’re facing. Over time, the student will likely learn to diagnose vowel shaping issues in their own body and communicate those to you.

I hope this was a helpful post. I’ll be writing more again here in the future!

P.S. Need help finding musical theatre songs to sing? Check out my professional repertoire guides here.

– Kevin Michael Jones

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