Concerning Vowels

What is an ‘A’? I have struggled with this for the whole life of learning to sing, and I am still learning. I come from a Minnesota ‘A’, which is flat, nasal and friendly.

Why do Italians have such resonant ‘A’s?

The Swiss ‘A’ is definitely very pushed down with the tongue in the throat, whereas our Minnesota ‘A’ is characterized by a high larynx, making a bright penetrating timbre.

Italian throats are so simply configured – just 5 basic vowel sounds with some modifications on the ‘E’ and ‘O’ ,all of which fills me with envy! I study the tv and radio announcers on the RAI. Their lips move sideways and forward quickly to keep up the pace of their sentences – and I hear basically nothing in the back of the mouth, it’s all resonating near the teeth, and in the larynx itself. I visualize their facial muscles, able to capture the sound into the tissues and bones of the masque. Just speaking the Italian language places the voice in a very different area. In fact, when I speak English or German for a while, I definitely have to readjust my facial configuration to sound the way I like.

It is a basic misconception, that to avoid the ‘throaty’ sound, one shouldn’t feel anything at all there. No, there is a difference between ‘throaty’ and a vibrant larynx.

In fact the tongue can add a very velvety, warm vibration, if it’s not hard and stiff at the back. The tongue is the other name for ‘language’, in the latin languages, ‘lingua’, ‘lingue’, means ‘language’. It follows that the tongue must have a major role in a singer’s timbre – even very slight changes in height, the high curve slightly more forward or back can make the difference between constriction and ease. It is the lever for resonance and for harmonics.

When the larynx is properly sitting low, it feels compressed and fleshy. I can put a lot more breath pressure under it, which causes it to vibrate more, and is very efficient. ‘Efficient’ meaning that the breath gets converted completely into sound, with no escaping hiss. The study of breath pressure is complex for those who don’t have the ability naturally. Connecting downward is a concept so foreign for the modern generation, who are used to understanding things mainly with their heads. We have to learn to expel breath with resistance, and from a lower area in the torso, and sometimes we use higher pressure from the chest as well! It takes time, and is hard to get across to young singers. The only way for them to get it is to try, experiment, and find out in their own original way.

I try to describe what I feel, zeroing in on the various parts of my head, throat, body, jaw, tongue, etc. And sometimes just demonstrating well does the best job of communication. My students tell me they appreciate it, that I can demonstrate the way I’d like them to go.

An ‘A’ vowel is scary, because as a non-Italian, it is so far from what our throats are used to. Students describe the ‘A’ as having no borders, no interior sense of vibration, difficult to anchor on the lower torso, difficult to feel anything at all! ‘E’ is so much easier, one readily feels something in the masque, forward in the mouth, so sure and secure!

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