Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
First of all, my apologies for taking so long between posts. On Sunday July 24th, we wrapped up the 14th annual CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute at Shenandoah, this being our first year with the new format. We had a wonderful time with over 130 teachers and singers from seven countries sharing their love for the human voice and specifically non-classical genres of singing. Stop by the Institute website, CCMInstitute.com, to see pictures and quotes from this year’s participants and be sure to check back at the end of September to see the full schedule and guest artist list for 2017.
Today I am going to share a slide from the “building exercises” lecture I gave in session two. The idea is based on a chart by Oren Brown in his book Discover Your Voice. When we train singers we need to work on all vowels in order to develop a flexible mechanism. I’ve studied with some teachers that have used a structured approach to choosing the order of vowels to work on and others who chose at random. Today’s post is going to make the case for a structured approach.
Research from other fields such as motor learning and exercise physiology are starting to have a significant impact on the way we teach. For instance, motor learning studies have shown that in the initial stages of learning a skill the participant will need a lot of external feedback and will likely benefit from micromanagement. This can be translated into voice pedagogy by saying that students will need help finding the proper vocal tract position for each vowel in a given exercise if you are asking them to do something new.
The chart below (based on Brown p. 103) arranges the vowels in a way that makes it easier to understand which vowels are closely related and why. The left side of the chart begins with the vowel /i/ (click here for definitions of these symbols). When singing an /i/ vowel, the tongue arches up towards the roof of the mouth and there is very little space between the tongue and the hard palate. The mouth opening is also small, meaning there is very little space in-between the molars. Moving from left to right you will notice that the “<” lines grow farther apart. This indicates an increasing amount of space between the tongue and the roof of the mouth and an increased mouth opening/space between the molars as the singer moves towards /a/. From the center, moving right, the lips take over as the primary element of the vocal tract responsible for changing the vowels. As you move from left to right from /a/ to /u/, the lips narrow, the mouth opening closes, and the space between the molars decreases.
So how do you use this information in a voice lesson? If a student is in the initial stages of learning a new skill (for instance isolating chest register), keeping articulation movements to a minimum will simplify the task and make it easier for them to succeed. So instead of moving from /i/ to /ae/, which requires a relatively large shift of the tongue, begin by teaching them to move from /i/ to /I/ to /ɛ/, etc. Or you could start with /a/ and make slight shifts to both sides, exploring /ae/ and /ʌ/. After the student is able to successfully navigate between closely related vowels, you can try jumping between vowels that are distanced a little further apart. For example, move from /a/ to /ɛ/ to /a/ to /ɔ/ and back to /a/.
After the student has mastered small shifts, you can start bouncing around all of the vowels, moving between extremes to perfect the motor system’s ability to alter the vocal tract. When you begin jumping around, the student will make mistakes. Instead of micromanaging them, ask them to assess what is wrong and fix it themselves. It may be frustrating for them, but they will learn better if they are forced to self-assess and rely on intrinsic feedback.
Thanks for reading and have a great week of teaching! ~Matt