Vowel sounds and mouth positions

Download a printable, one-page PDF version of this article and chart.

Vowels and vowel sounds are not the same thing. In the English alphabet, there are 5 vowels: A, E, I, O, U. However there are many more vowel sounds. This document deals with vowel sounds.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) maps all the language sounds the human voice makes. In the notational system, some of the symbols look like normal letters, but there are many strange and invented symbols as well, some of which can be seen in the chart below.

This particular chart maps the most common vowel sounds on the basis of whether 1) the tongue is moved nearer the front or back of the mouth, 2) whether the tongue is raised closer to the top of the mouth, or lowered, and 3) whether the lips are forward, neutral or back. Read more ›

Posted in Resonating, Uncategorized Tagged with:

‘Mr Bojangles’ (Singing as storytelling)

This is the third in the blog series Singing as Storytelling. There are many big name singers doing cover versions of the classic hits. It’s easy money, because the songs are already well known favourites, and the singers already have a fan base who are prepared to buy whatever the singer records, and attend whatever concert the singer puts on. But, sadly, audiences are getting used to singing that neglects the power of the lyric, that, in fact, seems to suggest almost ignorance of what it means to use psychological insight and dramatic integrity to deliver a story or character in a lyric.

‘Mr Bojangles’ was written and recorded by the country music artist Jerry Jeff Walker in 1968. He said that, while in jail overnight for being drunk, he had met and learned the life story of a homeless alcoholic who called himself Mr Bojangles, after the famous American tap dancer and actor Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson (1878-1949). Robinson had been the “best known and most highly paid African American entertainer in the first half of the twentieth century”, performing with Shirley Temple in a number of movies. The entertainer (and member of the famous ‘Rat Pack’) Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-1990) said that Robinson was an important mentor for him, so it is fitting that, although the content of the song ‘Mr Bojangles’ bears no relation to the life of Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Davis became closely associated with the song; he came to include it in all his performances. His performance shown here in this blog entry is a masterclass in how to tell a story through song. Read more ›

Posted in Interpretation, Singing as storytelling

‘Cry Me A River’ (Singing as storytelling)

This is the second in the blog series Singing as Storytelling. The majority of singers – famous ones as well as amateurs – work hard to produce a stylish and technically excellent performance in terms of musical delivery, whatever the genre. However, it is rare to find a singer who genuinely delivers the lyric in a way that feels ‘real’ or ‘true’. In acting, it is assumed that the actor will deliver the lines as though they are thinking and feeling them for the first time, making them up in the moment as the character. Even when telling a story, a good storyteller does not sound like they have told the story before, but as though they are putting the words, ideas and images and dialogue together for the very first time, in front of us as we listen. That is what makes their performance electrifying. But singers routinely seem to deliver a musical performance in which the story of the words, the choice of a metaphor or image, or the portrayal of a real person going through a real experience, are all irrelevant. The words remained unlived by the singer. But the voice can do extraordinary things. In spoken conversation, tone of voice, and how someone says something, makes huge impact on us. So perhaps we should be doing this in singing as well.

The torch song ‘Cry Me A River’ was written in 1953 by Arthur Hamilton. Originally, it was to be sung by Ella Fitzgerald in the movie ‘Pete Kelly’s Blues’, but it got dropped. It is one of those songs that everyone seems to have heard, but many people have never registered what it is really about. I think that’s because singers don’t understand what they need to do to bring the lyric to life – instead they focus just on the magnificent tune and harmonies, and creating their own musical interpretation. It is a stunning song, and it’s hard to believe that 38 singers (including Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore and Perry Como) rejected it before Hamilton found someone to take it on, a former high-school girlfriend called Julie London. London made the first recording of ‘Cry Me A River’ in 1955; her version is considered by many to be the definitive interpretation. Here is a performance she gave in 1964: Read more ›

Posted in Interpretation, Singing as storytelling

Misheard lyrics and mondegreens

Jule Styne (writer of ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’, ‘Three Coins in a Fountain’, and ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’) famously said: “A song without words is just a piece of music.” The singer’s job is to make sure those words both be heard, and also be understood. That’s not just about interpretation. It is also about good, old-fashioned, clear pronunciation. If, as listeners, we can’t make out the words, then we don’t know what the song is about. ‘Misheard lyrics’ is a great game to play, and the comedian Peter Kay does a wonderful sketch with some. I’ve created a list of some these in this article, complete with links to YouTube so you can hear the original performances. Singers, beware! We have to pronounce clearly, or confusion will reign (rain?) …

Read more ›

Posted in Performance skills

Understanding resonance with MRI scans

This blog post is all about resonance, and how singers manipulate it to their advantage. I recently discovered these fabulous videos on YouTube showing people singing inside an MRI scanner, meaning that we can see what is happening inside their mouth and throat when they are singing. The singers have done wonderfully, considering they had to lie on their backs, unable to move their heads inside the MRI machine! (This also explains the slightly strange sound quality of the recordings.)

I am writing this blog post on the assumption that most of my readers already have worked with me on understanding the following terminology: vocal tract, pharynx, layrnx, Formant 1, Formant 2, resonance, fundamental. My apologies to other readers, but I think it is still worth reading this and watching the videos even if you are not sure of all the terminology yet. I hope to add information about each of these terms in due course. Read more ›

Posted in Resonating

‘Over the Rainbow’ (Singing as Storytelling)

This is the first of a series of blog posts that I am calling Singing as Storytelling. When I was starting out as a singer, my first singing teacher told me: “If you’re lucky, the people who listen to you will say, ‘What a great voice!’, and ‘What a great musician!’. And if you’re really lucky, one day they will stop saying that, and they’ll start talking about the stories you tell, and the characters you bring to life, and how your performances change the listener.” Singers have to be good musicians, and they have to have solid vocal technique, but they become artists only when they truly understand lyrics and become (depending on the content of the lyric) either a storyteller or a character. These blogs introduce what I think are some outstanding examples of this.

‘Over the Rainbow’ started as a song in the 1939 film ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (although, amazingly, it almost didn’t make it into the final cut when the movie was released!). It won the Oscar that year for being the Best Original Song. The song works within the story of the film, but it also works independently of the musical, as a song about universal yearning for better times and a safer world – the reason it was adopted by the American armed forces in World War II. It was written by two Jewish men, sons of immigrants to the USA: Hyman Arluck (composer) and Isidore Hochberg (lyricist), better known as Harold Arlen and E.Y. (‘Yip’) Harburg. The song captures the mood of the Jewish people, on the eve of the Holocaust, yearning for a land they could call home, where the ‘clouds’ of war and persecution would be ‘far behind’, where ‘troubles melt’, away from the ‘chimney tops’ of the gas chambers and incinerators of the Nazis.

Here is the first outing of ‘Over The Rainbow’, sung by Judy Garland, aged 17, in the original 1939 movie. It is sweet, well sung and musical. But … it doesn’t plumb the depths and nuances of the lyric … (Begins at 2:56) Read more ›

Posted in Interpretation, Singing as storytelling

Books on singing technique and voice science

This post is an invitation to take another look at my earlier post called Reading List (8 July 2014). I’ve added a number of books on voice science and pedagogy that have come out of the USA. If you want a quick overview, read this page, but if you want the lists, with brief descriptions of the books, follow the link. Read more ›

Posted in Reference Tagged with: , ,

The ‘3+1’ Map of Singing – Pt 2 (interactive model)

interactive-voiceThe ‘3 + 1’ Map of Singing- Pt 1 describes how Breathing management, Vibrating source (vocal folds), the Resonating system, and Inner Life (thinking and feeling) all play a role in singing.

It is not uncommon for uninitiated singers to think (mistakenly) that singing is somehow a linear process. In a linear model of singing, breath is described as being sent upwards from the lungs, meeting and passing through the vocal folds to create a raw sound signal, with the sound signal then passing into the mouth where it is modified by resonators and articulators, continuing on its one-directional journey out of the mouth. However, this model is too simplistic, and does not reflect the reality of the physics involved in singing. It is important for singers to realise that singing is about interaction between different systems. This article gives a brief outline of an interactive model of singing, in which the systems of breathing, vibrating and resonating all affect each other – this has important implications for how vocal technique is learned. Read more ›

Posted in Models & Maps Tagged with: , , , ,

Taking a step back after a performance

After a performance, we may go through a whole range of feelings. We need to allow those to subside before we do any serious evaluation of our performance. We should assume that we will experience one or all of …

  • Elation
  • Depression
  • Apathy
  • Disorientation
  • Aggression or irritability (towards ourselves or others)

… over the next few hours or few days. Until these reactions have receded, we may not be able to make a discerning assessment of our performance, or how we prepared for it. It’s a good idea to give ourselves some time out immediately afterwards, without guilt, and assume that our post-performance evaluation needs to happen in at least a couple of days’ time.

What can we do in the meantime? Plan to nurture ourselves and to get positive company from others regardless of how the performance went, or how people reacted to it or us; watch our internal dialogue and the messages we give ourselves; also notice how we describe our performance experience to others. This period is really important, because we may repeat old patterns of self-sabotage, talking ourselves down, or fishing for reassurances from others. To repeat those now without being aware of doing so threatens to reinforce this negativity, and undermine our preparation for our next performance. Positive self-talk is a good antidote to this, as is non-judgmental awareness of how we behave and think after our performance.

If we decide to ask others about their opinions on our performance, it’s helpful to remember that we are asking them about their subjective responses, their perceptions. Whoever we ask, it’s worth bearing in mind that the person has their own personal background and priorities, and particular relationship dynamic (hopefully benign) with us; the person giving feedback may not have the specialist craft knowledge, or observational, analytical, and descriptive skills necessary to give accurate and relevant feedback that is appropriate to our current developmental needs and context.

Once we have taken into account all of these points, then we are in a position to evaluate our performance, and see what we can learn from it so that we can build on it for future performances. I’ve written on my blog about a method for doing this in Learning from Our Performances.

Posted in Performance skills, Psychology

Breathing for singers is different from normal breathing (Breathing 1)

Breathing for singing is an extremely important topic, and there are many subtleties to learn about it. So we are going to work on it step by step. However, once we have worked through the various ideas, I hope that it will have become clear that, in essence, breathing for singing is very simple and efficient, and can become virtually automatic. Less experienced singers make breathing unnecessarily complicated for themselves by not having the right information, and getting in the way of the efficient functioning of the body. Read more ›

Posted in Breathing, Models & Maps Tagged with: