Earlier this week, I shared Part I in a new series called "The Church Choir's Guide to Vowels.
Part I included everything you need (and ever wanted) to know about vowel production, vowel placement, tone, and diphthongs and triphthongs.
Today, I'm sharing Part II with some of the most common "problem vowels" and helpful strategies for fixing them in rehearsal.
But, before we can get talk about problem vowels, we need to talk about what they look (and sound) like and how to diagnose them.
Here are some common choir problems you may have faced:
Problem #1: My choir has a tendency to sing flat or sharp.
This might be related to a lot of things - breath, posture, vocal production, etc. But, it might also be a vowel problem. If that's the case, manipulating the vowels a bit might do the trick.
Guillermo Rosabal-Coto wrote: "Overly bright vowels, which cause sharp tone, as well as dark vowels, which produce flat tone, are common vowel production problems" (source, p. 60). If your choir has a tendency to push sharp, try a few strategies for darkening the tone and color. If they're singing just under pitch, try having them bring the sound more forward.
Often, the solution is as simple as asking choir members to mix vowel sounds: add in a little of ___ vowel or move toward ___ vowel (source). For instance, if the "ah" vowel is too bright (a constant challenge here in Rochester, NY because of the accent), modify it toward "aw."
Here is a helpful cheat sheet for brightening and darkening vowels.
Problem #2: My choir tends to "chew" R's.
This may seem like a consonant problem, but this can actually be addressed with vowels, too.
The simple answer:
Skip the R's completely. Have your choir draw a slash through R's in the middle of words and sing the word as if that letter isn't even there. What once was "Eeerth" (I shiver at the very thought of that chewed R) becomes "uuhth" (earth), "weeerd" becomes "wuuhd" (word).
The complicated answer:
There actually is such a thing as an "r-colored vowel," where the R is ever-so-slightly there, as if the vowel is pointed toward R in the distance. Think about words like “bird,” “heard,” “sure," and "earth" - read those with a British accent. Do you hear it? The R is just barely there. That is an r-colored vowel.
Problem #3: My choir does not sound unified. I hear a lot of individual voices.
Again, this can be a lot of things - vocal production, dynamics, tone, breath, and yes, it might be a vowel problem.
One notable issue is singing like we speak. There are two problems with this: 1) lack of space and 2) inconsistency in vowels. Think about how far you open your mouth when talking. Tall enough to fit three fingers in? I'm guessing not. However, when we sing, we need lots of space to create resonance and produce pure, rounded vowels.
Solution #1: Open your mouth.
Second is inconsistency in vowels. Think about the people you know, their accents, and the way they pronounce certain things. There are so many shades of differences in the way we speak. However, when we sing (in choral settings), we use tall, pure vowels to create a beautiful, unified sound.
Solution #2: Focus on tall, pure vowel sounds.
An isolated issue may by moving to the last vowel sound in a diphthong too soon. As I mentioned in Part I, diphthongs and triphthongs have multiple vowel sounds in a row. A common problem is disagreeing on which vowel sound to sustain and when to change.
Solution #3: Sustain the first vowel sound.
Sustain the first vowel sound for the duration of the note, moving quickly to remaining vowel sounds and consonants at the last minute. For instance, in the word "hour" ("ah" + "ooh" + "uhr"), "ah" is sustained, with "ooh-uhr" coming in at the very end.
Problem #4: My choir has trouble singing pure vowels.
Each vowel has it's challenges. Here is a quick summary of common problems and solutions (source):
[e] (like "name") sometimes gets turned into a diphthong. Solution: Focus on singing and sustaining the first vowel sound ("eh") until the ending consonant.
[i] (like "meet") can sound pinched in middle and upper registers. Solution: Keep the tongue up near the roof of the mouth and as far forward as possible. If you flatten the tongue or pull it back, it will sound muffled. If the sound is thin or shrill, it may mean the tone is too bright.
[a] (like "father") tends to spread, at least that's our problem here in Rochester, NY. Solution: Darken the vowel by thinking "aw" instead of "ah."
[o] (like "bone") is more of a diphthong when spoken: “oh” + “oo.” Solution: Keep lips from coming forward at any point. Focus on singing only the first vowel sound ("oh"), with rounded lips.
[u] (like "boot") can get too dark. Solution: Be careful not to pucker. Keep upper lip from coming down over teeth. Also, make sure lower jaw doesn’t jut out as you sing.
Looking for new ways to address problem vowels in rehearsal? Here are some helpful strategies from Katherine Tiefel:
Use hand gestures with each vowel.
[u]: Pull a piece of spaghetti out of your lips [i]: Pull a thread out of your forehead [o]: Draw a circle around your lips with your pointer finger [e]: Gesture up neck and out (palm up) [a]: Hold hand next to face with wrist arched up and fingers hanging loosely down
Try this during a warm-up exercise or when working on a piece of music to remind choir members about good vowel production and placement.
Visualize the vowel shape.
Hold an imaginary rubber band. Stretch it side to side, in front of your mouth, and sing an [i] vowel in that shape (this is the wrong way, in case you were wondering). Then, turn the rubber band to a vertical position, perpendicular to the floor, and sing [i] vowel in this shape (right way), feeling the tall space inside the mouth and loose, relaxed lips.
Ask the choir what they think.
Ask choir members to show, with their mouths, the first vowel they will sing in a given phrase. (Sometimes, the responses are hilarious.) Once everyone is in agreement, ask choir members to breathe in with that mouth shape. This helps create a pure vowel sound right from the start.
Here’s a tip for the [u] vowel:
Sing “ooh” with your lips and “oh” inside your mouth. Remember, the [u] vowel has a tendency to get too dark, so be careful not to pucker lips or let the lower jaw jut out.
Listen and agree.
Build a chord or give everyone a note to sing in unison. Name a vowel sound and invite everyone to sing, listen, and agree on a vowel as a group.
“Sing half as loud, listen twice as much.”
God gave us one mouth and two ears, after all...
Do periodic vowel checks.
Have your choir stand in four circles, one for each voice part (if you have a smaller choir, this will also work with one big circle). Sing part of an anthem, stopping on a particular vowel sound. Ask choir members to freeze when the music stops. (Again, sometimes the facial expressions are hilarious.)
Talk briefly about the different mouth shapes you see vs. the ideal, have everyone try it together, then move on.
How do you address vowels with your choir? What are your favorite strategies?
Develop the practical skills you need to lead and teach your choir with creativity and confidence.
Join me inside Music Education and Leadership Skills for the Adult Choir Director, an online mini course for church musicians.
Packed with practical tools, resources, and strategies you can use right away, you’ll learn the basics of how adults learn, how to teach vocal technique and choral methods, develop sight-reading skills, choose music, and plan rehearsals.