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
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.
#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
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
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.