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On the Alchemy of Vowels

"Each vowel contains all the other vowels." Thomas Hampson

A vowel is a sound produced with no constriction in the vocal tract, as opposed to consonants. The word vowel comes from the Latin word vocalis, meaning "vocal". Vowels probably earned their name due to the fact that they are the actual carriers of sound in the vocal tract.

In sound healing, different vowels are used to activate the different energy vortexes in the body – the chakras – and in this way restore harmony. It’s no coincidence that singing has a very healing effect and diverse cultures have used it all throughout the ages as a means of healing and spiritual connection. The shamans are an example of that.

Back to classical vocal technique, there is a lot to be said on vowels. It took me several teachers to be told that I needed to modify vowels when singing, and unfortunately that cost me more time than necessary in my classical singing development. Vowel modification is also known as formant tuning and implementing it helps to iron out the registers (aiding in passagio/breaks of the voice), to beautify singing, to increase amplitude and to remove vocal strain (easier sound production).

In a nutshell, each vowel has a specific spectral envelope and is defined by 2 formants, F1 and F2. A formant is a sound potential of the vocal tract. And formants are altered by changes in shape of the vocal tract (tongue, jaw, lips and position of larynx).

But why is vowel modification so important? Let’s give an example: if I were to sing an [i] on an F5 –sharp, I have an issue! The first formant for [i] in women is roughly 310Hz, meaning, right about D4-sharp. Singing [i] above the staff for me will then signify that I have to produce [i] way above its first formant (remember that the formant is what defines the vowel in itself). If I attempt to be true to the vowel, the resulting sound is not as pleasant and uncomfortable to produce. Naturally I will modify the [i] by raising F1. There are a few ways of accomplishing this – opening the mouth/dropping the jaw, constricting the back of the vocal tract and rounding the lips.

This is why it’s easier for sopranos to sing [i] on lower chesty notes and [a] on higher, above the staff notes ([a] has its F1 around G5-sharp).

So, as I teach my students to sing through their different registers (and every person will need to be fine-tuned, case by case), I like to use the circle of vowels bellow by Scott McCoy to guide me. Each vowel can be shifted one or two positions more closed or open to enhance the sound, as he suggests in his book "Your Voice: An Inside View". This diagram shows the closed/Forward vowels to open vowels (i-a) and closed/back vowels to open vowels (u-a).

Now let’s talk about a different kind of alchemy!

We often sing with text and different vowels are all over the place. I usually tell my students to pour from one vowel into the other. I like to use imagery a lot. In my head I have the image of the Temperence from the Tarot (the head image of this article). This is a card about alchemy, about mixing and matching. One cup pours into the other cup which is a symbol of finding the right mix. So, when singing alternate [i] and [e], as an example, it would be as if you could pour the qualities of the [i] into the [e] and the [e] into the [i]).

Thomas Hampson said in one of his masterclasses that “each vowel contains all the other vowels”. In the book “the world is sound” by Berendt there is a passage that says “each electron has to know what all the other electrons in the universe are doing in order to know what it’s to do. Information about the whole [universe] of it is available at its every point.” Now, isn’t this beautiful? And doesn’t it somewhat meet what Thomas Hampson said?

This is to say that i feel that singing is a fluidity challenge, and vowel modification can be viewed as a play in the plasticity of the acoustic world. Nothing is fixed and nothing is placed. There are only potentials that can be tuned into as we juggle the waters of sound from jar to jar, offsetting extremes, creating synthesis and streaming beautiful music.

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