Speech Vowels

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Singers who insist on singing absolute language values that conflict with the written pitches experience as a result discomfort, an out-of-tune tone lacking in beauty, and a serious diminution of the air supply. The more we approximate the sounds of speech vowels, the more nonharmonic our voices will be.  Speech vowels give the voice a reduction of carrying power (a fact no longer germane to musical theater singers because of the insistence on amplification).

When the most resonant vowel on one particular sung note is found, it is invariably different from the one used in speech patterns. The use of speech vowels often gives rise to inexact pitches, flat or sharp, that are not controllable, even by a singer’s attentive ear. Singers who utilize many nonharmonic sounds (speech vowels) do not sing as long, because this practice is physically unhealthy over time. Contrary to common belief, adherence to speech vowels does not promote clear diction, because of the tonal interference produced by incompatible vowels and pitches.

It is, in short, advantageous to sing with good interaction, where the vocal cords and the vocal tract augment—not fight—each other. Furthermore, this interaction releases the singer’s spirit and energies for that supra-human effort called artistic performance.

The same acousticians hired to correct the deficiencies of a concert hall’s acoustics tell us these facts. When vowels are correctly modified, three advantageous things happen: the singer experiences more comfort; the tone is more beautiful; the air supply lasts longer. When the vowel is incompatible with the sung pitch the opposite happens: the singer experiences anything from slight discomfort all the way to actual pain; the tone is anywhere from slightly less beautiful all the way to actually ugly; the air supply is diminished radically because it takes more air to sustain an inappropriate vowel.

The research done on perceptibility tells us that, when each voice reaches the pitches of its high passaggio, the human ear can no longer tell the difference between that voice singing one front vowel or another, one back vowel or another. So why sing a vowel that is incompatible with the sung pitch (and more difficult to execute) if the listener cannot even tell that you are singing it?

Shirlee Emmons