Vowels Matter

By Erica Phare-Bergh  |  Artistic Director  |  Voices in Motion

You’ve heard me frequently say in rehearsal: “We want a unified vowel on that.” What do I mean by that? And why so much attention to vowels when we sing? I’ve had you repeat the sentence: “Vowels carry beauty and consonants carry expression.” The beauty of our sound is dependent upon our vowel shape – both as individual singers and together as a choir. Each vowel has a “colour” and can be a bright vowel (chiaro = clear) or a dark vowel (oscuro = obscure, dark, murky) or a combination of the two. Renaissance paintings were all about the contrasts of bright and dark (chiaroscuro). That term found its way into bel canto singing as well.

Examples of bright vowels: “ee” as in “heat” / “eh” as in “head” / “a” as in “hat”. They are bright because they are placed in the front of your mouth.

Examples of darker vowels: “oo” as in “who” / “oh” as in “hope” / “ah” as in “hot”. They more closed and resonant more inside the mouth.

“Ah” is the in-between vowel. It can be dark and covered or it can be brighter, depending upon where you place it in your mouth. I can hear you experimenting with that right now as you read!

A good example of this is the playing of a didgeridoo or a jaw harp – it’s the vowel shifts between bright and dark that create the change in sound.

If vowels are too bright, they sound edgy (nyah-nyah or a witch’s cackle), but if they are too dark they sound swallowed, fuzzy and unsupported. So, it’s best when we can combine dark and light vowels to get both warmth and clarity.

I’ve often asked you to “tuck in” the corners of your mouth when you sing; to sing your vowels “North-South” not “East-West”; or to sing “tall” vowels. Those are just 3 ways of saying the same thing – we want to let the vowels resonate in the front of our face, BUT we also need to space in the mouth to create the warmth in the sound.

While you’re social distancing or self-quarantined, why not experiment in a mirror with your vowel shape and sound?