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.