Semester has begun and here we are busy teaching and studying again. Things have changed sometimes after the summer holidays. Students have worked on their own and perhaps taken summer courses with different teachers. Oh, the excitement: this is what I´ve done, I learned this new technique, what do you think about it? Aah, the teacher wonders, what are you up to now? Have you forgotten all we worked on last year? WHAT are you doing?
But sometimes progress happens over time as things get digested without even knowing it.
Then we begin vocalizing. I hear my student complaining how some vowels are so difficult while others resonate so nicely. This is very common with all developing singers. And even professionals do have to take special care of some vowels, especially in the tricky passaggio area.
Female singers often like the U (oo) because it helps with head voice resonance. Male singers might prefer the E (Eh) since it is sort of in the middle and gives a forward placement feeling. The I (ee) is very bright and forward, easy for many, but difficult for some because it might cause a tension at the root of the tongue and raise the larynx too much. But almost all singers complain about the A! Aah, why is it so backward, almost as if you´d try to swallow the poor vowel. The tongue seems to be pulled back into the throat, perhaps even pushing on the larynx. The A often sounds off pitch, mostly flat, lacks in overtones and generally feels unstable. On the other hand, the A has more space, it requires a more open mouth and you can easily open the jaw.
The reason for A difficulties is in fact the position of the tongue and it has a lot to do with one´s native language. Don´t we all envy the Italians for their forward articulation? Singing in Italian has always been considered a great way to school the voice – and for good reason. So, we must get rid of the ear´s dictatorial command that A sound exactly as we have learned to speak. Theysay: “Canta come si parla” (Sing as you speak) but what good does that do if you speak while swallowing your tongue and using minimal lazy articulatory movements. It also seems that the vocal cords don´t close quite as well on the A, whereas on the I you tend to get a really good closure (sometimes even too tight adduction). That means, the feeling of support is not always as obvious on A, which makes this situation worse still.
My advice: practice alternating forward and back vowels, like I – A or E – A patterns, learn to accept a new feeling for the vowel. Remember that you cannot hear your voice as others do. Your ear often wants to hear a slightly muffled sound because through bone conduction it might sound nice and round in you OWN ears. The ng-sound (like in sing) is a good tool for you to learn a more forward position of the tongue. Remember, it´s actually the back part of the tongue that needs to come forward, not the whole mass of it. Sing NG – Aa on a downward slide and while releasing the tongue down from the soft palate, feel the space behind the tongue stay open.
More about the NG sound later!