Achieving Balance in the Ah Vowel

Throughout the history of vocal pedagogy there has been one constant question asked by singers and pedagogues alike: What creates balance in the "ah" vowel? We will attempt in this article to understand the questions and challenges that this vowel presents to singer and teacher alike. How often have vocal professionals been faced with this most common of problems? How often have many of us attended a performance of a wonderful singer whose voice was entirely aligned except for the "ah" vowel? What is the solution? We will attempt to define all aspects of this vocal problem and suggest solutions in order for the reader to achieve appropriate answers.

What causes a "dull ah"? Why is "ring" so quickly lost in this vowel? There are several causes of the "dull ah". (1) High larynx. (2) Dropped soft palate. (3) Tongue pulling back. (4) Jaw position too high or forward. (5) Spread "mouth opening".

Problem #1: High larynx: Most singers have difficulty finding brilliance in the "ah" vowel without "spreading the mouth opening". Lower, darker voices seem to can have an especially difficult time relating a "brighter sound" to the "ah". Solution: Actually part of the secret of the "ah" vowel is that it achieves much of its higher overtones from having a slight "uh" or "aw" under it. Strange that in singing a slight "uh" or "aw" that the vowel produces more high overtone. Why and what is the cause? The answer is simple: the larynx position. When a slight "uh" or "aw" is present under the "ah" the larynx takes on a slightly lower position. This lower larynx position not only gives the vowel a slightly darker color, but if sung with the tongue forward, it gives a brighter sound to the singer's production. It also makes the vowel sound very clear if the tongue is forward. When the slight "uh" or "aw" is present under the "ah", the acoustical space (pharynx) is more open allowing more resonance to be produced in the voice. The result is a balance of high and low overtones together.

Problem #2: The dropped soft palate: One most difficult problem in the study of singing is learning how to "feel" the soft palate. I personally find it a muscle with little sensation; however, I can "feel" when the tone is dropped into a lower position than is healthy to sing. Solution: One Old Italian exercise is a three tone scale sung on the sound "kiu-ex". The "k" helps to lift the soft palate. The altered Italian "u" becomes the basic vowel sound in the word "book" which lowers the larynx. The "ex" part of the exercise pulls the tongue out of the throat. This makes for three very important functions of this exercise.

Lotte LehmannProblem #3: Tongue pulling "backward" into the pharynx: When the tongue pulls back into the throat, I compare it to singing with a pillow down one's throat. It absolutely blocks the "ring" in the voice by filling the pharynx with tongue mass. Solutions: I advocate the "ng" tongue position as Lindquest did. Of course we all know that the tongue cannot assume this position in all sounds, however, I tend to call this "home base" for the tongue. Healthy singing requires a forward tongue position with a slight "arch" in the tongue shape. Lotte Lehmann spoke of the "ah" as the most "dangerous" vowel. Her approach was to mix a little "ee" and "eh" into the "ah" vowel. This is another approach to bringing the tongue more forward in the mouth space. Alan Lindquest, who knew Lehmann, used a group of exercises that relate the "ring" of the closed vowels to the open vowels. These vocalises also related the "space" of the open vowel to the closed ones. This was indeed an ingenious way to approach the problem of the tongue position and he was very successful in solving this with his singers. The origin of the problem, Lindquest said, is that the vocal cords vibrate further apart at the "ah" vowel than any other vowel. This is why laryngologists will have a singer sing "ee" while being examined. This vowel brings the cords closer together and therefore a better picture of the cords can come up on the fiberoptic camera. It also brings the tongue out of the way for a better view of the vocal folds. This is the reason Lindquest worked "ee, oh, ee, oh, etc." and "eh, ah, eh, ah, etc." Both these vowel relationships bring the tongue in a more forward position in the closed vowel preparing for the "ring" to be blended into the open vowel.

Problem #4: Jaw position: It is true that the "ah" vowel needs a slightly more open jaw position than the closed vowels. The operative word here is "slight". Many singers "thrust" the jaw downward with pressure. This makes the tongue pull back as in a "gag" reflex and causes the soft palate to drop. This is, of course, counterproductive to healthy vocalism. The jaw may need to drop slightly more for the "ah" than for a closed sound such as "ee". However, it is crucial that the tongue stay in the "ng" position and the jaw be slightly "back" in order for the "high overtones" to remain in the sound. This also encourages the soft palate to remain raised rather than "crashing downward". Lindquest solved this problem of how to open the jaw healthily. He used the "ee, oh, ee, oh" exercise using a gentle "chewing motion" as in chewing food. This allows the singer to "feel" the importance of a relaxed jaw. (Again the jaw must chew down AND back.) How often have we as students heard "relax your jaw" without an explanation of how to do it? Lindquest made sure that each concept which was introduced to the singer was accompanied by a "how to" tool.

Problem #5: Spread "mouth opening": One major problem in considering the "ah" vowel is the mouth opening. If the opening of the mouth is too spread, the vowel will NOT align and match the other four vowels acoustically. The mouth position is crucial and must take an oval shape. Some vocal professionals call it "rounding" the vowel. Whatever description one might use, the mouth opening cannot be spread. Solution: Have the singer look in the mirror. As he/she looks in the mirror have the singer speak or sing the "oh" vowel with the jaw slightly unhinged down and back. Gradually allow them to go to the "ah" without spreading the corners of the mouth. This demands that the vowel change be controlled with the tongue rather than "spreading the mouth opening". The result is a higher soft palate and a slightly lower larynx; a must for healthy acoustical balance in singing. Most vocal professionals know that in order for "ring" to be present in the voice, one must achieve an elongated vocal tract. The "rounded mouth" position plays a vital role in helping the "ah" vowel to balance. Dr. Barbara Mathis of Lamar University proved this to be true through her fiberoptic research. While having the singer hooked up to the camera, she would study the interior space of the vocal tract with different mouth positions and jaw positions. The rounded mouth position with the jaw slightly back proved to create the most acoustical space.

So there we have food for thought about the "ah" vowel. Some singers have absolutely no problem with the "ah" vowel. I call them "ah-ers". I have had singers who would rather sing on "ah" than any other vowel. This is an unusual occurrence. Hopefully, this article will be of great use to those who find this vowel more challenging.

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