When I was a younger singer who had just become interested in classical singing, I had the great opportunity to study with a man named Dr. Larry Day. Dr. Day had studied with Berton Coffin at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and much of his teaching seems influenced by Coffin’s emphasis on vowel pronunciation. He was my teacher for two years at the University of Arizona, and one of our earliest exchanges sounded like this:
“Ok, Ian, now sing Ah!” (he played a melody of Do-Re-Mi-Re-Do-Re-Mi-Re-Do)
“Ah!” He had a big smile on his face, and his “AH!” was ringy and sunshiney sounding.
It took me some time, but I did manage learn to sing a pure “Ah” (or for the IPA inclined [a]). We began our lessons every time with this exercise. As we ascended the scale, the [a] then began to be modified slightly towards “Aw” and then “Ah” with a strong sense of [o] followed by a pure [u]. He was teaching me the Caruso vowel scaled without me being conscious of it, and I found in my singing that I would naturally move towards that covered place high in my voice and then move towards the [a] returning to my lower voice.
Lately, I have become interested again in [a]. I have been for the past 1 1/2 years interested in Ingo Titze’s finding that closed sounds like lip trills, buzzes, and vowels [u] and [i] allow the voice to move more easily toward head production. Using closed sounds has been very helpful to aid my students in moving towards their higher voice. They are also useful in vocal warm-ups and when a voice has become fatigued but absolutely must sing.
However, when I see great singers sing, they open their mouths when they sing [a]. I saw La Boheme at the Met not too long ago, and the soprano Maija Kovalevska really opened her mouth to form big beautiful “ah”s. Pavarotti, unless he is protecting himself in preparation for a high note, he will often sing “Ah” with a really open mouth:
Now, don’t get me wrong, I do not imply that a singer’s mouth should be flapping all over the place. But often I see singers try to sing loudly and richly without giving their vowels any space. I have been guilty of this. In recordings I can hear my voice sounding wobbly and out of tune because I am over covering what ought to be an open sound. Recordings done more recently where I made a conscious choice to open more do not have this problem. I also do not mean that [a] is the only vowel to which this applies. “Eh” and “Ih” (like “bit”) are both open sounds and can do with a bit of opening. As a final note, a singer’s breath must be really in place before any extended time working out on open vowels can take place. If a singer is banging his/her poor folds all over with uneven breath pressures and an open mouth, then breath is that with which one must deal first.
So, some things I will be trying with myself and my students:
- Doing slow scales and arpeggios high into my voice trying to sing a pure [a] throughout. What needs to be adjusted? Can any vocal problems emerge? Is there a way to do this safely?
- Comparing that to a more consciously vowel-modified approach. What is louder? What is prettier? How do they feel?
My hypothesis is that, yes, this can be done safely and can be useful. However, I make no claims to how easy it is to do. I expect that breath control must be much greater and that the vowel modification will be there but not be as obvious as moving through clear-cut IPA symbols. I also believe that this may be a good way to simulate the “tight-rope walking” feeling of singing a difficult aria within an exercise. My other hypothesis is that extended covering is a way to “fix” your sound and resonance in advance. Using an open sound is more risky and needs to be created in a different way for each different note and vowel, which is more difficult but perhaps more rewarding.