Magic Choral Trick #52 The ‘Ah’ Vowel – Not What You Thought
I’ve never met anyone who actually liked the sound of their own recorded speaking voice. Most of us are unpleasantly astonished, and wonder how anyone can stand to listen to us speak.
So it always comes as a bit of a surprise to me when singers don’t make the connection between a speaking voice that they didn’t think they had, and a singing voice that’s not at all the way they’re hearing it themselves.
One of the places where this seems to cause trouble is with the vowel ‘Ah’. Singers generally make it either two wide, and too much like the short vowel ‘a’ (as in Cat) or it’s being gargled as a very dark ‘Aw’ right in the back of the throat. If I ask for either a brighter or a darker sound, then demonstrate what I want, many students or choir members will say “but that’s exactly the vowel I’m singing”.
An mp3 recorder is useful at times like this – but will solve only half the problem, which is having the singer realize what vowel they’re actually singing. The next step is to draw out the correct vowel.
These are the steps I use most often.
Sing ‘ah’ through a very narrow mouth shape (it should feel like the insides of the cheeks are only about an inch apart)
No need to open the jaw really wide – the narrowing of the cheeks is enough.
To prevent the sound from being a short ‘a’, some singers need to imagine a whiteboard in their head with AW written on it in black marker. While they’re reading this, the vowel will be darker.
If the sound is too far back in the mouth, I ask the singers to imagine that they’re biting into a tiny, very sour crab apple – with their front teeth – and the sound comes forward. Don’t know why this works.
And finally if the sound is still too far back and dull I ask them to have the sound that they’re hearing in their own heads be nastier and more like Jerry Lewis.
Oh yes, and no tongue tension, and back teeth open! I realize that this is really too much for anyone to think about while they’re trying to sing a song, so a bit of work on this vowel during warm up will pay off.
Sometimes what works best of all is to have singers immerse themselves in an Italian sound bath – listening to recordings of Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli and Cecilia Bartoli – and the Italian 101 series (how to speak Italian) on youtube. Preferably round the clock.