I know there are a few different opinions on vowel modification for classical singers. One: to indeed change the vowel toward (UH or OE) when ascending the scale. or Two: to not change the vowel but adjust the space or shape of the resonators but still think the pure vowel as you ascend. And lastly, some combination of the two. I would love to hear your views on this and especially for a high soprano! Thank you
This is a very important question. The quick answer is all of the above and none of the above. “What the heck does he mean by that?” I don’t mean to be cute, but the reality of the principle of modification is a little more complex than it is usually understood. And at the same time it is also simpler.
Now that I have confused everyone, let me try to explain what I mean. First, let’s try to state how vowel modification tends to be understood.
There is a general understanding that as we ascend in pitch on a vowel there are changes in the acoustic values of the voice. These changes have a negative affect on the tone, usually noticed as “spreading”, so the vowel needs to be “modified” to alleviate this. This is important in classical singing to keep a consistently beautiful tone quality. Which is why the idea of vowel modification is almost exclusively an issue for classical singers. We rarely associate it with non-classical singing.
The examples you included in your question are accurate descriptions of the accepted manner of accomplishing this modification. I remember hearing Allan Lindquest on a lesson recording explain that some people respond better to thinking of altering the vowel, while others responded better to adjusting the size and shape of the pharynx. He stated that it was important to always say both the pure vowel and its modification at the same time. This led me to explore this concept even deeper.
My thoughts on this topic question if this common technique is really the best way of dealing with the problem of higher pitch. Or at least if it’s an accurate concept of what is going on. At the very least we will learn to look at this from a different perspective.
In order to understand what I’m talking about we need to remember that, for me, what is most important is to work from the cause. If you have read this blog for any length of time you have probably seen at least one reference to the difference between cause and effect. We experience this as action and result.
When we investigate any aspect of singing, or even in life, it is important to be clear about what is a result and what is the action that caused that result. In this case of vowel modification the answer we are looking for is directly related to what is the action and what is the result.
I should point out that most voice training is focused on the result. We are taught to try to do things to alter the result without much or any reference to what causes that result we are trying to change. Because trying to work with the result is so common, some may not agree with what I am going to say. (Just a side note. It is because people are dealing with the result that it is such a common practice to use imagery in teaching)
So again, let’s go back to the situation we are dealing with. We sing vowels. As we ascend in pitch these vowels tend to change into unpleasant sounds. But what are vowels? Vowels are the result of how we use our instrument to pronounce.
So if we alter, or modify, the vowel we are just dealing with the result some more. And dealing with the result doesn’t effectively improve the cause. So we are using an indirect method to deal with a problem of an undesirable result. (Confused yet?)
What is much more effective is to deal directly with improving the cause so we get a satisfactory result. So what is the cause of vowels? The combination of the vibration of the vocal cords and the form of the resonators. If we change the condition of either – or both – of these aspects the resulting vowel will change.
Understanding this relationship of the vibrator and resonator allows us to see why there is a need for vowel modification, and what it actually is. The vibration changes with the change of pitch. Along with that change, there is an acoustical change of the resonance with the change of pitch. All of this is very interrelated, so it is hard to discuss these things independently.
So as pitch changes we need to make sure the laryngeal adjustment changes appropriately for the pitch. This adjustment is aided by an adjustment of the resonating form. The reason for this is the proper resonation acts as reinforcement to the vibration of the vocal cords. Which makes it easier to phonate completely at higher pitches.
There is another aspect of this situation that is important, but not commonly applied. This is the use of the upper resonating space. What is called the “ng”-“nasal”-“head” resonator. People call it different things, but basically we are referring to the space behind the nose and above the palate.
This resonating space is very important for ease in the high range. And something that people don’t realize is that this is where the resonance wants to go as we sing higher. The problem is the typical form of the mouth and throat don’t allow this to happen. But if we do allow it (by lifting and opening the nasal passages like when smelling a pleasant aroma) and have a good vibration, we can’t keep it from existing there.
Sound will exist where ever there is an opening. But at the same time, if we are not producing a complete sound through intense vibration we can’t place the resonance up there. If we try we are imitating good function, which is poor function.
This can get confusing, but the basic thing to understand is the difference between what the listener hears and what the singer does. What the singer does, or should do, is the cause. What the listener hears is the result.
In good coordination the whole air-way, including the nasal passages, should stay open to be available as a resonator. No attempt should be made to place the resonance at any time. Just be open like any other musical instrument.
Next the singer needs to articulate the vowel by mentally stimulating the larynx to vibrate. This creates vibration sound that is amplified by the resonating space. The mental stimulation is not an abstract idea, but a clearly defined thought of an accurate vowel quality to be pronounced. This clear concept of a vowel both stimulates the adjustment and activation of the vibrating vocal cords, and also unconsciously adjusts the resonating system to form the vowel.
As pitch ascends the normal tendency is for the glottal adjustment to weaken, which reduces the natural resistance of the vocal cords and allows more breath through the vibration. This condition results in a progressively more “open” quality of the vowel that makes the listener think the vowel needs to be modified.
What needs to be done by the singer is keep the integrity of the glottal adjustment as pitch ascends. This is done by continuing to mentally stimulate the vocal cords by pronouncing “at the larynx”. (It is critical that there is no “helping” by the larger muscles of the tongue and throat in this process) By keeping the glottis adjusted it will not open larger, but stay small. Keeping a pure and efficient vibration that doesn’t increase in weight.
This pure vibration needs to find a sympathetic resonating space to amplify the vibration sound into tone. If the air-way has been kept open it will be available to receive the sound vibration sympathetically and amplify it into tone. As the pitch ascends to a certain level this sympathetic resonance is felt to ascend into the post-nasal space. When this happens the tone is complete and lacks weight and effort. A way of describing this is we don’t place the tone, the tone places itself because we are open.
Part of the act to ensure the form of the resonator is properly adjusted is to keep the form from opening too much so it releases the resonance out of the mouth. Because there is a need to open the jaw as we ascend there is a normal tendency to open the mouth opening as well. This can disrupt the balance of the resonating form. In order to avoid this and keep an effective resonating form we should keep the mouth rounded around the open jaw. I often call this “shading” the tone.
(This relates to the concepts of “open” vs. “closed” tone. The ideal is a closed tone which is the result of the glottis keeping a closed condition. Modification appears to be necessary when the vowels start open. Open vowels don’t work as we ascend, so they need to be modified to be more closed. This is really just trying to make up for an improper coordination to start with. If we keep a “closed” condition of the glottis, and of the tone, from the beginning and all the way through the range there won’t be a need for “modifying”. Just a need to keep the balance as we go along.)
If we do this well while keeping the nasal passages open the resonance will find release into the head. A common mistake is to round the mouth but block off the upper space of the naso-pharynx. This results in a heavy, “covered” sound that is often believed to be correct. But it is not comfortable and certainly not flexible and free.
Another aspect of this situation to consider is if it is really only for classical singers. I would say if it is being done by dealing with the result and trying to modify the vowel the result will be an imitation of a rounded, dark classical sound and won’t be suitable for non-classical singing. But if we are staying true to operating as a musical instrument keeping a balanced resonance will only help us in anything we sing.
So again everything comes down to perspective. Do we operate from the perspective of a style and deal with manipulating the result, or do we operate from the perspective of a musical instrument and deal with the causative actions. I encourage the latter because I have experienced the benefits of that approach both in my singing and those I work with.
I hope this gives you something to think about. It is difficult to explain in words. The answers are not always easy. But if we stick to the fundamental principles it is relatively simple. Just keep your balance. Comments are always welcome below. And if you find these discussions helpful or interesting, please share them with the buttons on the top and bottom of each post. Thank you.
Furrealz? That’s marvelously good to know.
Thank you so much for writing on this topic of (Vowel Modification). I thought it would get some good discussions to happen and it did. I really enjoyed what Beatrice had to say because the way she was taught is also the way I approach the subject with my students. Thinking pure vowels throughout but being aware of those things that need to happen. I would just like to add to this list the importance of keeping the looseness of the jaw as one ascends, I have found this to be a big issue for many singers. I thank you all for your comments. Jeanette
Thank you, Olga. I feel very much the same.
Bea, it is funny, because I feel like you are disagreeing with me and then you say you agree with everything I said. My response is too long for the comment section so I will have to make a new post.
As a conservatory drop-out, I have to say that what is REALLY REALLY wrong is the system. We are still studying with the same “didatics” (so to speak) from 150 years ago, but the contet is completely lost. I went to a school in this God-forsaken state, in one of the poorest regions of my country, and my teacher – a very kind human being – had nothing to offer us but what he had heard from his past teachers. And then his teachers heard it from another teacher who heard it in a masterclass from some singer that read it in some book… etc, etc, etc. Of course it doesn’t work! The words we hear are void, completely meaningless. All there is left for us to do is sing by pure instinct. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It worked for some of my colleagues, but it absolutely did not work for me.
The funny thing is that, if we were all learning a different craft, like, for instance, being a circus acrobat, we could never survive on the kind of instruction we do as voice students. We would hurt ourselves in our very first attempt. But, since we are resistant and we love what we do, we accept it. There is an expression in Portuguese (no idea if it exists in English): the “hipocrisy pact”. You pretend you know what you’re talking about, and I pretend it’s really working for me. It happens more or less in every field of study, but it is DEFINITELY the norm for formal conservatory education.
No offense to dedicated teachers out there, but the system IS torn. Exceptional instruction is an exception, not majority.
The “Adjustimento” as it is often referred to, or migrating of vowels (which is different from modifying them — this has always been to my mind a deliberate changing of a vowel sound into something else to round the tone; I was never taught that, so it seems strange to me, and ruins diction) is a topic often talked about, but seldom really explained. The explanations here are good, excepting no singer can see what they are doing with their resonating chambers. The larynx itself doesn’t actually produce any vowel sound (and in fact doesn’t even produce an even tone, but rather a series of pops) so talking about “having the vowels formed at the larynx is really just getting people to understand that the vowels are formed at the pharynx and not with the lips. And yes, everything we do IS to protect the balance of the vibrating glotis. But absolutely NO singer or teacher can see what is happening deep down inside you. THEY HAVE TO LISTEN TO THE RESULTS. Although it is nice to condemn teachers for using what they hear to judge what is happening, they really haven’t any other way of doing what they do. That is where sometimes I think too much is made of this “people striving for a result” rather than “seeking to understand function.” Though it is absolutely necessary to understand function, you simply cannot ever see if it is doing what you think it is doing. You have to judge that by the resulting sound. Even you, Michael, cannot judge the progress of your students by any other means than their sound. Certainly we shouldn’t ever be striving to “produce a certain sound” but rather have a freely balanced produced sound. But what does that sound like? How can one know what is balanced? You may not feel a thing in your body, it may have no visible tensions, it may be functioning perfectly so the resulting tone should be good. But how do you know it is good? This judgment relies totally on what someone hears, and then their interpretation of what sounds good. That is why people get more interested in the resulting sound than whether all the little muscles are working in balance: they can hear the sound and know if the result is good, they cannot see anything happening in the pharynx, or the larynx, or any other resonanting chamber. And unless a singer actually feels noticeable strain, they would have no real clue if things are in balance or not.
Intellectual bantering is nice, but it really doesn give direction. It is like I have heard all my singing career, “Have an open throat”, “support that tone” “more support” “sing naturally as you speak” all those axiom and in that state they mean nothing. Or such things as “round that tone” (which implies making it darker and richer by actually rounding the mouth opening more) or this wondrous thing: sing with a pear-shaped tone. Whether it is worded like that or worded “Next the singer needs to articulate the vowel by mentally stimulating the larynx to vibrate. This creates vibration sound that is amplified by the resonating space”, on the surface is it saying a lot, but in practice it isn’t saying much at all. In order for anyone to know if any of that is happening, they still have to go by what they hear, the sound. While I agree that putting TOO much stress on the results and not enough on HOW to achieve those results is wrong, completely wrong, I do not believe one actually improves the situation by stressing so much the theory of how it is done and divorcing it from the final sound.
As I say, I do agree with the explanation completely, but how would a student actually achieve that? What things should they do, and then how would they know they have succeeded? To just say they will have good tone doesn’t mean a thing, for that is very subjective, extremely subjective (example is the Sarah Brightman lessons; everyone comments on how bad she sounds when everyone, including her teacher, is telling her she sounds good; same with Josh Groban; certainly the teacher may be concentrating too much on results and not how they are achieved, but the resulting sound is all the singers have to go by, and the listening ear of someone else — we never hear ourselves as others hear us — and if someone else is saying it is good, we are forced to trust their ear, as we are forced to trust all our teachers we go to).
I only say this because if I were a student, I would not know where to begin in my vocal studies, for I wouldn’t know exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I would understand the function of the vocal structure, but have little understanding of what exercises, what things I needed to actually be doing to make things work.
I only write this because in all my years of singing, I have also had to listen and judge at many singing competitions, and at university singing classes. I just finished on at a very important university. I listed to about the worst singers I have ever heard in all my life. Musically, yes, they were prepared, but vocally they were not even beginners.
When it was through, I spoke my piece, and their teacher really lashed into me. Obviously his pride was hurt. He quoted all sorts of anatomy books, all sorts of writings by great vocal teachers (like Lamperti). He spent about 45 minutes lambasting me. I sat there quietly then stated to him: “You asked me to be here, I didn’t apply for the job.”
Then I began explaining to the kids: they had no concept of support, nor how much was needed; WHY – they were taught it didn’t matter, all that mattered was a balanced approach, too much stress was put on breathing and support; the result was they had none. The vowels were all strange sounding, not migrated or covered as talked about here, but simply strange. When asked why they sing that way, again the idea was “we are letting our resonating tract do with our vowels what they are to do naturally to keep balance.” That floored me. And the list goes on from poor diction to not even understanding what they were singing about. The professor was super angry with me, and privately told me so. I told him I had 40 years of successful singing, while he didn’t have 10 minutes of it — not perhaps a nice thing to say. And by the way, he sang like a screech owl burping.
Obviously his explanations sounded very similar to what you are teaching, but his understanding simply didn’t compare. The results were horrible. It took very little working with a few of the students to get them back on track, very little. But I had to go back to some of the most basic things: breathing, appoggio, support, which muscles were used, and actually let them see just how much muscle it really takes (far more than most people think).
This is my only caution: explanations need specifics, not just just specifics in talking about what is happening in the body, but HOW one learns to do that. HOW do you learn to modify the resonating chambers to create good vowels? It is one thing to say it, it is quite another to learn to do it, especially when you have no clue what you are doing because you cannot see what you are doing. All you can go by is sound.
It is easy to say (and totally true) that good vowels should produce good tone, and good tone should produce good vowels. But HOW do you do that? What specifically must a singer do to achieve that? Does that mean they must open their mouths more, suck their cheeks in at the back, flare their nostrals, or what? (I am not saying any of those things need be done) Since singers cannot see at all what is happening in their throats and have to go by feel (which is strange because you are always told you should feel nothing, especially in the throat) they are often lost. They rely on sound and VISUALS. Yes, they rely on see what is happening in a mirrow, seeing what things are happening in their faces, with their mouths, or what have you, in order to see if they are really doing what they are supposed to be doing.
Teachers in the past knew nothing about all this stuff we talk about today. They knew about breathing and support (that is why they stressed it so much), they knew about a subtle throat (which is needed for colorature and trills). They never talked about lowered layrnx, and I think because they never gave that any thought. They did vocal exercises for eternity, scales to drive a student mad. Stressed even production and a nice even sound. For hundreds of years, with not much more than that they taught great singers, some far greater in ability than any singer we have ever heard today. Garcia tried to make singing a science, and to physically study all that is happening. He got some things right and a few things wrong. Everybody basically just repeats everybodies elses information, sometimes with their own twist, but it is basically much of the same. Even Lamperti was not the expert we often take him for. Few vocal teachers of today consider that he and his father both were teachers, and both of considerable fame. They totally disagreed with each other on everything. While the older Lamperti taught great singers such as Alboni, the younger taught “modern” singers such as Marcella Sembrich, who publicly endorced the forward of his writings on singing. Who was the better teacher? Who knows. Sembrich had a pop-gun fire technique especially in coloratura which was not even seen as correct in her day (now days we replace that hard coup de glotis with breathy “H” sounds) but she was a great singer. Alboni had a smooth legato and all her coloratura was based completely in that legato, but we have no recordings of her so we can see just what she sounded like.
The other reason I am writing this is because people do read your writings (as they read David Jones and a few others) and that horrible professor I wrote about, I KNOW he based some of what he taught on things he read on this site. I could tell by how they were worded.
You DO understand what you are saying, and it is clear, by that I mean, we can all understand what you are writing. But not everyone understands how to interpret it, and the results can be horrific. And that is what was so sad about all those students; they did read your writings, David Jones (but he gives actually exercises, which you do not, so that was as least quite easy to deal with — just make sure they were actually doing what he said) and a few others. Because what you wrote sounded so similar to their teacher, they felt that they were learning the same thing. The truth was, they were learning nothing of the kind. What they learned had NOTHING whatever to do with what you are trying to say.
I had no time to really teach any of these students, but it really opened my eyes. Even when we teach correct and necessary principles (not dogma or entrenched technique) are they given in a clear enough way, with specific examples of HOW and WHAT to listen for (which I have no clue how anyone would do that through writing) so as no misunderstanding takes place. I don’t know who referred them to your site, but they were reading GOOD information, and it was being turned into something bad.
I felt so sorry for you. I know just how hard you try and how dedicated you are. But people will learn as they are willing to, and understand only at the level they wish to understand. We can’t expect more, sadly.
As I said earlier, I was never taught vowel covering or modification. I was taught the ajustamento, where the vowels will migrate to their “darker” counterpart as one ascends. I was firstly taught to sing all pure vowels throughout all the range (and unlike thought, yes, it can be done and the one remain balanced and good, but it takes concentration, and it was ONLY an exercise). Then I was taught to consider the lowering of the larynx, or rather, concentrating on the appoggio as I entered into the passaggio. Those muscles stabalize the larynx and help keep it from travelling upward. I was taught to think of a narrowing of the voice (another of those super wonderful statements that leave you confused), which is this case was thinking of the sound focusing into a sharpt point, while the pharynx felt up and very wide rising the uvula. One can actually sense the uvula rising, and the wide feeling of the pharynx. I was only to notice it, not stress it, and then sing the vowels thinking of pure vowels, but allowing the widening to happen. The result was the vowel migration, the slight alteration of the vowel that to the audience kept it clear, but also created a rounded richer tone, or removed the shrillness that can come from singing forward vowels in the upper range. There was no manipulation of anything, and no list of what vowel sound migrates into another. The migration happened of itself, but the vowel did migrate. The migration between vowels sounds (drawing back forward vowels just a bit, while bringing forward back vowels just a bit) was also much less pronounced than those who are taught to actually modify a vowel into another. Once I learned this, then my teacher told me it was my choice to use which ever suited the music and the expression. I could sing up the entire range without modifying, or migrating, or I could sing the entire range allowing it to happen. Obviously, I allowed it to happen most all the time. However, there were times I didn’t allow it to happen (the witch in Hansel and Gretel). There were even times I exaggerated the pure vowel, which added terrible shrillness, because it fit the character. But that was, as my teacher said, a choice for the moment. This my not agree with your explanation, but that is how I was taught to allow the vowels to migrate. These were specific things I was taught to do. I think they do relate to what you are saying, allowing the pharynx to form the vowel. I was also taught, like you say, to allow or rather think of my vowels being formed at the larnyx (but my teacher quickly pointed out that the larynx doesn’t actually speak vowels, but if we feel the vowel from there then we will be able to allow it to migrate; if we feel the vowel too far forward, then it is in the mouth where migration cannot happen as they tone is now outside the area where migration can take place).
The explanation was great, and as usually I find reading what you write, Michael, most insightful. Even after 40 years of singing, there are many things to learn, even if that is nothing more than a greater understanding of what I have been doing all along.
I am chuckling to myself because you have stated this so well, Dinko. Yes, everything we do, or should do, including resonance form and breath coordination, is to protect the balance of the vibrating glottis. So we adjust the form of the resonator to keep the resonance balanced and effectively reinforcing the balanced vibration.
We actually don’t have to do anything with the vowel itself. I like to say the vowel is inside the resonator, and what we adjust is the form of the resonator. Now of course we can change the vowel by changing the form of the resonator. But I find it is more effective to think the pure vowel inside, and separate from, the resonator. (The resonator doesn’t create the vowel, it just amplifies it. We want to think the vowel is created by the larynx.) Then we can adjust the resonance form as needed without distorting the vowel. Because that really is the problem with vowel modification. Too many people change the vowel so it doesn’t sound like anything we can understand. The whole purpose of making an adjustment is so the vowel will stay balanced. So it doesn’t change negatively.
This all stems from the tendency of thinking of the vowel and the tone separately. This gives rise to the proverbial argument of “which is more important… The tone or the words?” My answer is neither, they are the same thing. If either is lacking there is deficiency in the function. Good vowels should produce good tone and good tone should produce good vowels. If they don’t the singer is missing something.
Your comments on “boundaries” is very good. And yes, as we keep the functional factors balanced the listener might notice slight differences in the resulting vowel and tone. But the answer is not to then try to copy that result, but to understand the functional principle that caused it.
To check if I got this correctly…Basically, it all comes down to, I’ll quote you from another post Michael: “Basically we want to establish the ability to adjust into a small glottis condition at will and stay there.”
All else happens naturally, as a result of our will to keep the glotis in this adjustment.
As suddenly one starts noticing “boundaries” on each tone to which you can safely move without disorting the glotis itself. “Bounderies” (level of pureness of speech vowel, pitch, intensity) which interact with eachother and cause some to be more or less pronounced in certain combinations. As one factor changes, the others change too, they interact…You kind of get the field inside which you can safely move on each of the tones in your range. To move safely means, without disorting the adjustment of the glotis. Or maybe we can call it a palete of different correct expressions for every tone. All driven by or started by our wish what we want to get, which in start forms the relation of these “boundaries.”
When one observes it like that, it seems logical that vowel modification, as it is being considered by many is also dealing with the effect, not the cause. As an observer might notice it. But we don’t really change vowels logically by saying “oh yes, middle C, now I have to turn “i” to “e” or something” for things to sound good, but the effect happens by itself when we want to sing in a certain way (our starting wish again), as we are concerned with keeping the glotis in the proper shape.
Changing them on purpose seems to be useful only for exercise for example and to start getting a feeling of what happens inside, or what should happen in the larynx.