Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Vowel Modification

"Vowel Modification Revisited"- John Nix

The idea of vowel modification is actually a relatively new one. Singers used to train without “cover” or modification, but this changed with the career of a famous tenor named Tito Schipa. Tito Schipa modified his vowels where no other singer had before. The results were enough to revolutionize the vocal world. Today, teachers all have different philosophies about vowel modification and when and where it is appropriate. However, it is universally accepted that cover is an integral part of singing classically.
There are many bad facts floating about cover among singers. Sometimes, cover or vowel modification is associated with singing to darkly. Other times it is used to describe voices that are darker naturally, or those that aren’t placed correctly. The idea of cover comes from the Italian concept of Chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro literally means light and shadow. Classical singers must find a careful balance between these two elements to sing freely. The scuro or shadow is achieved by vowel modification or cover. For those who have listened to brighter singers, it is easy to imagine the problems with a voice that is all light to sing the classical repertoire. High notes would simply sound pinched. Coloratura would be next to impossible to negotiate. Cover is an integral part of healthy and beautiful singing. It should not be thought of as necessarily a bad thing.
The idea behind vowel modification is to not only unify the voice, but also to maximize the formants, which are what give the voice carrying power. Acoustically, singers need these formants to carry over an orchestra. The formants occur in sound ranges where few other instruments vibrate. The result is the “big” operatic voice that can fill an opera house. Vowel modification also helps unify the voice because it makes it easier to negotiate the various breaks and shifts in register. In classical singing a unified voice is a necessity. Perhaps most importantly, modification allows singers greater flexibility and dynamic contrast.
The article “Vowel Modification Revisited” talked of six important concepts key to understanding vowel modification and when and why it is used by singers. First, the formants are different in each singer because of anatomical differences. Second, different voices require different amounts of modification and this depends on size and the actual song being sung. For example, a tenor singing an art song that lies mainly below an E probably would not need as much modification as would a baritone. Some singers even say that the amount of vowel modification they use depends on the time of day and how much they have warmed up. Third, vowel formants have to do with a band of frequencies rather than a specific pitch. Fourth, it is impossible to tune each note absolutely when singing. Fast songs with lots of moving notes simply do not allow a singer enough time to tune absolutely. In these cases the movement among the notes becomes more important than the actual individual notes. Five, men and women tune differently. Men generally try to match the formants while women usually tune to the fundamental. Six, there are six guidelines for vowel modification: as the vocal tract lengthens the frequency of the formants decreases. The same phenomenon is seen when the lips are rounded while the frequencies are raised by lip spreading. Singers can lower the frequencies of first formant and raise the second one by fronting and arching the tongue. By backing and lowering the tongue, the opposite occurs. Also, lowering the jaw raises the frequencies of the first formant and lowers those of the second.
In the discussion of vowel modification it is also important to touch on the sub glottal formants. These formants unlike those in the vocal tract are not changed by altering the position of the tongue, lips, jaw, etc. Also, they do not change from vowel to vowel. Rather, only the laryngeal position has an effect on these formants. Scientists studying these formants noticed that their intensity decreased in certain pitch areas. Part of the process of unifying the voice is learning to compensate for these different pitch areas. The change in intensity accounts for the changes in pitch intensity in different areas of the voice.
Another important use of vowel modification is to negotiate the passagio. By adding cover, tenors for example are able to shift from tuning mainly to the first formant to the second which produces the brighter, freer color seen in singers such as Alfredo Kraus and Luciano Pavarotti. Other singers choose instead to continue tuning to the first formant. An example of this style of singing is the tenor Placido Domingo.
Tuning directly to a formant, however, can be detrimental to a singer. It is better to tune slightly below the formant. This allows the vibrato to be freer and allows its cycles to follow the formant itself which prevents the classic out of sync vibrato that sounds too fast or too wide. To do this a singer must sing a slightly more open vowel. Examples of singing this more open vowel are when a soprano is required to sing an [i] vowel on a high note, such as a Bb5. The frequency of the vowel and the note do not match, so the singer picks a more open vowel with a higher frequency to match the higher frequency of the note. In this case, the vowel sung will not be a pure [i] but a more generic sound.
The idea of covering the vowels actually aids in the ease of production and helps the vocal tract to work as little as possible in producing notes. In classical singing it is always more important for a note to sound beautiful than for the words attached to it to be understood. In other styles such as the Musical Theater belt, singers tend to focus more on the words than the beauty of the vowels; however, by focusing simply on the vowels and the acoustics of singing the diction of a singer will improve.
After all is said and done, the amount of cover that a singer should use depends on both their sense of aesthetics and the tessitura of their instrument. Some singers prefer a more covered sound and they tend to focus on the heavier repertoire. It would not be pleasing to hear the Rossini repertoire, for example, with the same amount of cover as Verdi or Puccini operas. Tessitura has to do with where a singers breaks lie and where their voice sits comfortably. A tenor that easily negotiates Fs and Gs, for example, would not need as much cover as a baritone that struggles to obtain a G. The best advice to a singer is to consult your teacher about this issue.
In conclusion I would just like to talk about what teachers can do to better teach the idea of vocal cover. Some singers respond better to images. For example, giving a singer a color or an analogy to brighten or darken the sound can help a teacher find the proper amount of modification. Still, other singers respond better to physiological examples such as “raise your soft palette” or “elongate that vowel.” Whatever tactic is chosen by the teacher, it is important for the student to get to know their own voice and understand the idea of cover.
Singing is about producing the most natural and beautiful sound that the body is capable. Singers will find that an understanding of cover will actually help their natural voice come out more and that the pitfalls of breaks and difficult vowels will be neatly avoided.

Source: Journal of Singing, November/December 2004