Aggiornato il: 22 mar 2019
How do we articulate vowels while singing?
Personally it was a real surprise to discover at my first singing lesson with the mix method, that we need to articulate the vowels in a certain way if we want the sound to be produced more easily, especially in the passage area. Before discovering the mix method, I had always been told to lift the cheekbones, to make a sort of smile, because this helped the sound to come out. Basically I used to articulate all the vowels horizontally, and obviously I was doing it unconsciously. What shocked me was to find that this attitude wasn't helping me sing through the passage.
ARTICULATION INFLUENCES MOVEMENTS
As you already know the larynx is the "box" within which lie the vocal cords, where we see the Adam's apple. The movements of the larynx affect our ability to sing both the highest and lowest notes. In fact, the tendency of the larynx in beginners or not well trained singers is to rise for the highest notes causing the pressed and strident sound associated with the classic sensation of "choking". While in the lowest notes the larynx tends to "sink" creating an empty and not-so-"spoken" sound.
The way the singer articulates the vowels influences the laryngeal movements. An excessive opening of the vowels horizontally, activates the extrinsic musculature (external to the larynx). We basically need these muscles to swallow but not to sing. In fact, thanks to the activity of these muscles, when we eat, the larynx is raised, the epiglottis extends above it, forming a kind of bridge that allows the food bolus to go into the esophagus and then into the stomach.
On the other hand, a vertical articulation with a lower jaw and a relaxed tongue facilitates singing through the passages, because it inhibits the activity of the extrinsic muscles and therefore the rising of the larynx. In a nutshell, singing becomes much, much easier.
VERTICAL OR HORIZONTAL ARTICULATION?
So how should we articulate the vowels? The articulation that physiologically helps us to sing through the passages is the one associated with a vertically open mouth, relaxed and dropped jaw (without clenching the teeth) and relaxed tongue. The articulation should be rounded. Why? Because this way of articulating helps the larynx remain stable. Below you'll find a chart with the sounds and related articulation, divided in BACK (TONGUE IN THE BACK) and FRONT (TONGUE FORWARD). The vowels that help laryngeal stability are the BACK ones: in fact, you can see that the articulation of these vowels is rounded and vertical. The problem arises mainly with the brighter vowels, the FRONT ones. Why?
For at least two reasons: the first is linked precisely to the articulation. By nature these vowels are pronounced more open and the risk is to exaggerate their horizontal opening, so as to activate the extrinsic musculature with consequent raising of the larynx and a sense of constriction. The second reason is related to the tongue position which, being connected to the larynx, influences its movements. All the FRONT vowels with the tongue positioned forward tend to raise the larynx.
I found this very interesting video of Beniamino Gigli, in which he explains during a singing lesson how to open the sounds.
"You open the sounds too much".
So now I invite you to test the correct articulation on yourself. Let's take an example: suppose you have to sing an AH in the passage area. Based on what has been said so far, which of the two AH's shown in the image below will help you sing better and effortlessly in the passage?
Exact!!! The AH Back helps you to sing without effort !! I'll give you a practical example from one of the greatest professionals in the world. In this video, Luciano Pavarotti, during a masterclass, shows how the way we sing an AH in the passage can help us or not.
But now I know that you are almost certainly thinking that here we are talking about opera singing and you are perhaps a modern singer. But you have noticed that at a certain point Pavarotti says that there is a way to sing "PHYSIOLOGICALLY, TECHNICALLY SPEAKING". It doesn't matter what style you are singing. Physiologically, the voice is designed to work a certain way. If I open the sounds, it doesn't matter whether I sing opera or pop, I will choke because of the high larynx.
This rule applies especially to the passage areas. In fact, Pavarotti's example was made in the passage area of a male tenor voice. If I start to open my mouth horizontally or as some say, smiling, in the passage area the larynx will rise because of a purely physiological reason. Maybe you can still do it, because you are very young and the instrument still assists you. But the effort is greater.
Do you want a practical demonstration applied to modern singing? Here is a video from one of my voice lessons in which I demonstrate the before and after of a performance, fixed by using the correct articulation.
CONCLUSION: SHOULD I THEREFORE ALWAYS ARTICULATE VERTICALLY?
Obviously not. There are no rules in art that should not be broken. But the rules do exist. The general rule is that if I articulate vertically, I physiologically help the passage from one register to the other, deactivating the extrinsic muscles and helping larynx stability. This is called vocal balance, and it's what good vocal technique must aim for. Sometimes it may even be necessary to temporarily go to the extremes with the exercises to teach the voice where it should be, hyper-articulating in that direction. Once the sensation is memorized, you can move on to a more natural production of sound, which should never be opened horizontally. On the other hand, the imbalance could even be a choice. That is to say that I can also articulate exaggerating horizontally for a matter of style and for interpretative reasons, to give a different color to the voice in certain areas. But it must be a choice, not a condition forced by the singer's lack of awareness of the vocal instrument.
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