Vowels in the Female Classical Voice

Problems of registration in the female voice are sometimes tough to resolve because of preconceptions about one’s sound, ideas like “pure vowels” propagated without clarification, etc. Any classical female singer knows that attempting to sing a pure [i] vowel in the high range is at best uncomfortable. Vowels are based on specific resonances in the vocal tract and have acoustic limits. Same is true for male voices. However, because traditional male voices (basses, baritones and tenors) sing considerable lower frequencies, they only experience the need to modify vowels in the upper range (and minor alterations on some specific middle range notes where formants are going from one harmonic to another). The female voice, on the other hand, requires vowel alterations already as low as D4 (lower range).

Why so low?

It is important to address this question! It is counterintuitive for a female singer to consider not singing vowels as they are spoken around the lower passaggio. Yet, it is precisely in this range that the vowels begin to reach the limits of their first formant resonance. To continue tracking the first formant would require raising the larynx gradually, which in turn would weaken the strength of the Singer’s Formant (the resonance that makes the singer audible without a microphone). Tracking the first formant and keeping the normal speech level quality of the vowel can be used very healthily in genres that use electronic amplification. Once there is a microphone in play, the Singer’s Formant is no longer necessary for audibility.

In classical singing (without microphone), the Singer’s Formant (the so-called ‘ring’ of the voice) is necessary if the singer’s voice is to be easily heard and with intensity. The Singer’s Formant works when the larynx is at its optimum relaxed level, which can be achieved more easily in the lower range (Below D4) where vowel resonance is not so complicated. From a resonant lower voice, the singer needs to experience very subtle resonance changes with the rise of every half tone into the first passaggio. A good exercise is a chromatic third (ex: A, A#, B, C, C#) on different vowels in order to experience the need for subtle resonance changes. When the singer realizes that minor changes on every half tone results in a smooth transition, the concept of vowel modification no longer feels so radical. The issue is less obvious, if the singer takes a “static” vowel quality to its limits and then attempt to modify the vowel at that point. This tends to be less successful and feels very unnatural.

Another problem that makes the first passaggio difficult is pressed voice in the lower range (I purposefully avoid the term chest voice here because this is understood by different singers in different ways). If the lower voice is not flexible and resonant, the singer begins already with a deficiency that will be further destabilize the voice when the resonance changes become necessary. I will reiterate that a resonant, flexible lower voice is necessary in order to achieve an easy transition in the lower passaggio.

Yet another problem is the term “covering”! The term suggests a darkness that often guides the singer in the wrong direction. The idea that the voice needs to be “covered” often leads to darkness from excessive lip rounding and tongue depression. It is crucial to distinguish between the natural darkness of the voice, which should be maintained as the vowel migrates from 1st formant resonance to 2nd formant resonance in the lower passaggio of the female voice, and the artificial darkness that occurs with tongue depression and/or excessive rounding.

What is the solution then?

As explained above, the singer needs to develop a flexible, resonant low range. My female clients (even the high coloraturas) develop eventually a low range to C3, yes an octave below middle C. It is developed with flexibility not forcing. Then the singer needs to become sensitive to when a low note is resonant both in terms of the pharynx resonance (vowel resonance) and the Singer’s Formant resonance.

We singers must develop these resonance sensations. Without them, it’s like walking in the dark! You’re lucky if you find the door opening to the bathroom at night, if you’re walking in the dark. Singing should not be like walking in the dark.

From this flexible, resonant low range (consider the chromatic third exercise above) the subtle resonance/vowel modifications must occur relative to maintaining resonance of the vowel (felt in the chest) and the Singer’s Formant felt like a narrow tube through the mask not on the mask. The singer should monitor these resonances throughout the voice but especially through the passaggi where they are even more significant.

Sensations in singing are tricky but they make sense once they are understood. Sensations of fold approximation and resonance radiate through the body by bone conduction. We do not sense the closure of the vocal folds directly in their location in the throat unless the voice is pressed and then we feel the tension associated with it. That is why some teachers recommend not feeling anything in the throat. When a singer becomes really sensitive, the two resonances begin to feel like a smaller tube leading toward and through the mask, inside a larger tube in the chest. That is actually the relationship between the larger pharyngeal space and the aryepiglottic fold (sometimes called the collar of the larynx). The sensations we have are much larger in size than the actual organs.

Our sensations are based on anatomy and I believe they are common to all singers. The problem is not so much that we feel things differently but that we ascribe arbitrary meanings to the sensations that do not reflect the anatomical functions associated with them.

Already in the female middle range, the vowels are a little less precise when compared to the specificity of vowel qualities below D4. From [a] to [o] or [i] to [e] feels much less extreme. By C5 the vowels feel even less distinguishable and by F5 in the second passaggio even distinguishing sensations between [a] from [i] can be difficult. Beyond the second passaggio, vowel distinction is extremely subtle. However, a skilled singer can be very clear with respect to consonants such that a word can be understood by the sequence of consonants around the vowels. The listener ends up understanding the words very well and not realizing that the singer is singing relatively neutral vowels. A female singer can develop extreme discomfort in the second passaggio by attempting to sing vowels in their spoken form as in the lower range.

The inexperienced singer can sometimes misconstrue text intelligibility with vocalic purity.

In summary, vowels become gradually less distinguishable from one another with a rise in pitch. The human ear makes up for these acoustic modifications. A singer should not be trying to sing pure vowels throughout the range but rather a concept of the text intelligibility and discovering how closely she can get to the spoken vowel while allowing the modifications that keep consistent resonance. I leave you with a beautiful example of this understanding:

©25 August 2021


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