Vowels, vowels, vowels. I talk about them so much I have earned the nickname “The Vowel Man.”
Why are vowels so important? Are they more important than breath support or other aspects of singing?
My answer is that ultimately the vowels are the single most important part of singing and it is the mastery of vowels that creates the virtuoso singer.
The Road Is Narrow
Take any singer who is straining on a note. He or she will undoubtedly be opening the vowel as wide as they can. ME becomes MAY, US becomes AHS and so on. You can see the shouting posture just by looking at them.
This is because they are holding onto too much chest resonance, the wide vowel is how they are accomplishing this. As a general rule the more open the vowel is, the more chest resonance will be in the sung note.
So it would seem the answer would be to narrow or close down the vowel, in other words: do the opposite.
Is narrowing the vowel the secret to good singing?
The Easy Answer?
The short answer is yes – the longer answer is no. Have I confused you now?
Vowel narrowing is a great way to break the lock that pulled-up chest voice can have on the singer. I will even have struggling singers press their cheeks together with their hands on the problem note, just to feel the relief the narrowed vowel gives.
Great! So if I narrow every vowel on a high note I have mastered my voice, right?
While vowel narrowing stops the voice from pulling chest it can create its own problems.
Like anything else, once we find something that works we will tend to overdo it. Vowel narrowing is no exception. In fact, for beginning singers it is usually necessary to over-narrow vowels for a while, just to break the habit of yelling.
However, an over-narrowed vowel will lead to issues such as flipping and, most often, squeezing at the vocal cords.
This is because we need the energy created by balanced resonance to help steady and close our vocal cords. An over-narrowed vowel does not create the necessary “good” energy.
Without this feedback of energy we are forced to squeeze our cords together in order to prevent flipping into a falsetto.
Tune It Up
The real secret is neither a wide or narrow vowel but rather a tuned vowel. The ability to accurately tune vowels is a hallmark of great singing.
If you have studied voice you may have seen a chart showing vowel substitutions for the problem notes. AH goes to EH, AWE to UH and so on. While this is a great starting point it is ultimately far too general.
The Same & Different
As singers there are things that will be exactly the same from singer to singer and other aspects that will be different.
Let’s take singing the word ME on an A440. (This is the A above middle C). All of us have to sing the same pitch – 440 cycles per second. All of our vocal cords will vibrate at the same rate.
Once the sound waves leave our vocal cords we now have a different issue. The tube the note travels from our vocal cords to our mouths are different for everyone. This means the adjustment of the vowel in order to align it to the pitch is unique to each of us.
The simple vowel chart no longer works due to the degree of precision required by singing, it only gets us in the general direction.
You need to learn the exact shade of the E vowel (and each vowel has a great many shades) in order to get that “good” resonance on an A440. This shade will be slightly different from the other notes around it.
This is because all the parts of the sound wave change on each pitch, therefore the vowel needs to change in order to maintain a proper relationship.
Making the exact adjustments on each pitch is vowel tuning. Tuning is more precise than vowel narrowing or modification.
Time To Start Working
This precision of vowel narrowing is a skill that can take years to develop – and usually requires the guidance of a skilled voice teacher, at least in the beginning.
Find yourself the best teacher possible and get tuning!