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The Art of Vowel Modification

In today’s post, we are going to continue with last week’s discussion on vowels, and discuss how we modify vowels as we approach the different passages of the voice.

As a singer approaches the first “passage” of the voice (passaggio), and then again at each successive passage, certain vocal adjustments are necessary in order for the tone to remain consistent and for there to be no audible breaks in the voice.  Oftentimes singers are taught to “cover” the tone during these transition points. 

The term “cover” is an unfortunate one since there are so many disparate definitions of it.

Commonly a covered sound is one in which the larynx is forcibly depressed, the soft palate is artificially raised and the vowels are overly modified. 

Teachers who like to have their students, “sing in a yawn,” tend to be responsible for many of these types of typically covered sounds.  Often this effect is what many people find detestable when they think of what an opera singer sounds like.  

However, in all good singing – opera included – the overly covered sound is no more desirable than the strident, wide and strangled sounds often prevalent in so many of the current televised pop-singing competitions.

Both a “covered” sound and an overly “open” sound are simply failed attempts to navigate the passages.

While it is necessary for the larynx to stay in a relatively low posture in order to sing evenly through the passages, this is not accomplished effectively by consciously and forcibly depressing the larynx and widening the pharynx. 

When the larynx is artificially depressed, (usually with the aid of the back of the tongue), all vowels deviate quite a bit from their spoken counterparts. 

It is evident that this type of technique was not a part of the historic Italian school of singing, since one of the basic precepts of training in this old school was, as Pacchierotti wrote, “Pronunciate chiaramente, Ed il vostro canto sarà perfetto.” “Pronounce clearly and your singing will be perfect.”

In order to have a free larynx and a balanced timbre through the passages, a certain amount of vowel modification, aggiustamento, is necessary through the zones of each passage. 

In order to allow a “rounding off”, arrontondare, of the vowel, a slight adjustment toward a narrower neighboring vowel is all that is necessary.  When I say “a slight adjustment,” I simply mean that the vowel is colored minutely by only the very idea of the next narrow vowel. 

To over modify a vowel in performance is a grotesque injustice to the text of any good song or aria; therefore, the singer must always be on guard to allow for the purest execution of each vowel that any given pitch will allow without the sound becoming too open.

Vowel adjustment is an art that takes training, time, practice and patience in order to achieve desirable and consistent results.  The daily practicing of these very slight vowel adjustments as one sings through their passages results in the process becoming second nature and automatic. 

As in all singing, the audience must never be “let in” on the technique the singer is using.  The process of singing must sound effortless and spontaneous to the listener, so as to give full focus to the text and the music being sung. 

The art of sounding spontaneous and effortless requires a daily training regime that continues for the entire career of the singer.

A popular saying, voiced by Pavarotti and others says: One day without practice and you notice; two days without practice and your friends notice; three days without practice and the audience notices.”

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