Foundation 101 | Part 4
Vowels are the cornerstone of your singing approach. Without the right vowels, your resonance will suffer and you will likely experience issues with certain words and vowels while also building bad habits and vocal strain. In speech we often use the front portion of our faces, known as the articulators, to pronounce our sound – this including the tip of the tongue, the teeth and the lips. In singing however, each vowel sound is created by a specific tongue shape and a corresponding vocal tract size and shape, known as resonant space.
The easiest way to illustrate the simple, but often misunderstood art of shaping your vowels, is for you to alternate between an EE and an AH sound. No doubt you can feel how your tongue is raised at the back on the EE, and lowered to a concave on the AH sound – every time you sing a word with each of these sounds, you must ensure that your tongue takes this position for the most efficient and powerful resonance, while also avoiding the temptation to use speech pronunciation.
Speaking and singing are ultimately two separate acts, even if they do use the same mechanism. This is similar to walking and running – running isn’t just fast walking in the same way that singing isn’t just speaking at pitch. Learn to shape your vowels correctly for the most efficient resonance and the most consistent singing tone.
As you can see, all vowels either stem from the AH or EE shape, except for OO which is on it’s own. Vowels like AA and OH stem from the AH shape (low and concave), AY and EH stem from the EE shape (raised at the back) and the OO vowel is it’s own animal where the bulk of the tongue travels backwards in the throat and the lips elongate forward. The vowel shapes look like this:
This brings me to the next important point, resonant space. We talked about the passage of airflow in the Lip Trill video from this series, and how there are two passages of air, either the nose or the mouth, when you breathe and sing. When you sing vowel sounds, you must ensure that the soft palate is raised up to allow more resonant space in the pharynx, while also stopping any airflow from occurring through the nose. A resonant consonant sound like N, M or NG features airflow through the nose, but every single vowel sound requires closure of the passage to the nose via raising a closed soft palate. This is easily achieved when you breathe solely through your mouth, or when you do a gentle yawn at the back of your throat like we discussed in the strain release portion of this course.
You can now practice each vowel sound, AH, AA, OH, OO, EE, AY using this scale:
Stay light, pleasant and make sure you are singing with a balanced onset, maintaining proper posture and diaphragmatic breathing while also forming the right tongue shapes. If you’re having trouble working out which vowel sound is appropriate for certain words in a particular song, I suggest using The Vowel Translator.
The First Break
Now doubt as you’ve practised these vowel shapes along the above scale you have approached your vocal break somewhere along the way. Don’t fret, this isn’t a limitation in your voice, it’s simply a shift in resonance. You can overcome this break by allowing more resonant space for your middle range as chest and head start to meet. A great way to do this is to alter the character of each of your vowel sounds using the root of the tongue and soft palate. As an example, the AH vowel will subtly move towards an OH sound and EE vowel will have more of an AY character in the back. Remember, pronunciation has no place in a healthy singing voice – these changes ALL occur from resonant space, not your articulators.
As you ascend up in range with each of your vowel shapes, you need to allow enough space for each vowel to resonate in the pharynx without a break. This occurs when you loosen the root of the tongue forwards a touch while also raising the soft palate further. You can achieve this by altering the character of each of your vowels like I’ve just shown you, or you can develop physical control over the root of the tongue and the soft palate and alter your space with a physical intention.
Remember, each vowel sound is a result of the shape of your tongue, and your first break occurs due to a lack of resonant space. Shape your vowels properly while allowing appropriate space to increase your range past the first vocal break – we’ll look at the second break and bridging head and chest with more power in the subsequent episodes.
At the end of this lesson you will be able to shape each of your vowel sounds correctly using the tongue, while also allowing appropriate resonant space in the vocal tract so you can ascend past and through your first vocal break. Remember, resonance is a result of released and strain free singing, not force or strength.
If you have any questions about shaping your vowels or creating resonant space, feel free to leave any feedback or questions below!
Kegan DeBoheme is Bohemian Vocal Studio’s resident vocal coach and voice expert. He teaches professional singing and voice technique to students all around the world and enjoys providing tutorials like this one on how to improve your voice.