The Church Choir's Guide to Vowels: Part I

Whenever I think of vowels, I think of this scene from Singin' in the Rain:

Any other Singin' in the Rain fans out there?

All jest aside, vowels are a vital component of the English language - spoken and sung. We talk a lot about consonants with our choirs, particularly with words like "God" and "bread" and "heart" that have strong beginning and/or ending consonants. But, what about vowels? How do we talk about them?

For those of you who studied voice or have read up on vowel production, you might know the difference between pre-, post-, and medio-palatal regions off the top of your head. For the rest of the world, the subtleties of vowel production, tongue placement, tone, and IPA symbols are a little more vague and mysterious.

And when it comes to talking about these things with your choir? Well, you can imagine how that might go (and all the jokes the basses will make).

But, no matter your background or the level of your choir, vowels are a significant and vital part of choral-singing. In fact, "Vowels are just as important for intelligibility as are consonants." (source

This week, I'm sharing "The Church Choir's Guide to Vowels." Part I includes everything you need (and ever wanted) to know about vowel production, vowel placement, tone, and diphthongs and triphthongs. In Part II, I'll share some of the most common "problem vowels" and helpful strategies for fixing them.

The church choir's guide to vowels: vowel production, placement, tone, and diphthongs | @ashleydanyew

Vowel Production

"Good vowel production is the essence of creating beautiful sound." (source)

Here is the most basic way to explain vowel production in singing:

Vowels are formed in the front of the mouth. The lips and middle of the tongue form each vowel, with the tip of the tongue resting behind the lower front teeth. (source)

Try it. Pick a note and sing each pure vowel:

[e] as in "name" [i] as in "meet" [a] as in "father" [o] as in "bone" [u] as in "boot"

Keep the tip of your tongue behind your lower front teeth. Focus on the middle of your tongue and the shape of your lips and how they change for each sound.

Vowel Placement

Vowels are often divided into different groups:

Horizontal tongue placement - front, back, and central (source) and vertical tongue placement - close (as in close to the roof of your mouth), open (as far from roof of mouth as possible), or somewhere in between. For more on tongue height, see this article.

Each vowel sound has one of each: horizontal + vertical. For example, [a] like "father" is back + open; [e] like "name" is front + close-mid. Here is a helpful chart (with sound clips!).

Here is a quick look at placement for the five pure vowel sounds we looked at a minute ago:

The church choir's guide to vowels: vowel production, placement, tone, and diphthongs | @ashleydanyew

(information source)

Tone

Like our voices, vowels can be bright, dark, or somewhere in between. Learning how to modify vowels on this bright-dark spectrum is important when singing in a group, creating a unified sound, and working on different styles of music.

Use the vocal production described above. To darken a vowel, increase the space inside the mouth. Avoid pushing the soft palate down (the soft tissue behind the roof of your mouth) or flattening out the back of the tongue (source). To brighten, bring the sound forward in the mouth.

Diphthongs + Triphthongs

Now that you've mastered pure vowel sounds, let's talk about something a little more complicated: diphthongs.

A diphthong is two adjacent vowel sounds that occur in one syllable, such as "out" [ah-oo-t]. A triphthong is three adjacent vowel sounds that occur in a single syllable, such as "hour" [ah-oo-uh/r]. (source)

A general rule of thumb when singing diphthongs or triphthongs is to sustain the first vowel sound and group remaining vowel sounds and ending consonants together.

I like quizzing choir members on this: "Which vowel should we sustain in the word 'house' or 'boat' or 'ground'?"

How to Introduce

The best way I've found to talk about vowels is during warm-ups.

Choose an exercise based solely on vowel sounds so your choir has an opportunity to practice singing each vowel in isolation, listen to each other, and focus on the subtle differences in production. Here is a list of warm-ups to help you get started.

Alternatively, look for challenging spots in your anthems - vowel sounds or specific words or stepwise motion or phrasing - and work on them together (out of context) during warm-ups.

*Note: The choir doesn't need to know they're working on something from one of your anthems. In fact, it's probably better if they don't - they'll just be tempted to take out their music! Make it a surprise for later.

Then, find as many ways as possible to connect back to warm-ups during your rehearsal.

When you get to a particular anthem in rehearsal, remind the choir about the work you did during warm-ups. Surprise! I guarantee they'll sing it differently and with more intention than they would otherwise. I'm always surprised by how much this helps!

Another way to introduce pure vowels is to sing through a new piece on a neutral syllable ("oo," "oh," and "ah" work best; try "noo," "loo," "noh," "mah," or "pah"). Polish that vowel before switching to text. Return to a neutral syllable as needed throughout the rehearsal process (source).

Check back on Wednesday for Part II of this series - addressing problem vowels and ways to fix them!

Read more:
50 Awesome Choral Warm-Ups for Church Choirs
Exploring the Front Vowels in Singing
10 Secrets for Running a Successful Choir Rehearsal
7 Tips for a More Productive Choir Rehearsal