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Vowels in the mask

One of my high school students has had drilled into him that ‘placement’ is the most important thing about singing.

He’s a barbershop kid, and so his reference point is understandable.

In order to humor his fixation on placement, and help him understand his possibilities for control of where a vowel’s focal point actually is, I put together this series of words that he is to sing on one single pitch:

  • fleet
  • flip
  • fled
  • flat
  • flop
  • float
  • flute

Notice that every one of these opens with a labio-dental fricative, followed by a nasal consonant; both sounds live at the front of the vocal tract.  Then we have a series of vowels that move from one end of the vowel chart to the other, and close with a forward-placed plosive consonant.  The idea is to isolate the consonants in one location, and help the vowel maintain a frontal focal point in the mask.

With a few students over the last few days, we have had real success in keeping the ‘o’ and ‘u’ vowels from traveling too far back.  And the resultant increase in the singers formant have been noticeable and notable!


Vocal health

An interesting read.  I would suggest doing these exercises under the guidance of a professional, though — the lack of explanation leaves a lot to the imagination.

Thin lips

I am one of those people with very British thin lips.  People like me (and the student with whom I was working this morning) have to work harder to round the vowel, to flare the bell, to give that last touch of polish to the sound before it escapes us forever.

This morning I worked with C. who had never really thought about this before.  She was really trying to activate that top lip, but was expending too much effort in the process.

So, on the spot, I listed off a bunch of words that she could repeat on an easy pitch, sustaining slightly so that the opening W sound is a little longer.  By doing any series of these words as a little exercise, she could train that top lip to kiss the vowel a bit more.  And by doing a portion of this series, she also hits several different vowel sounds.

Will of a wisp

By the way, I’m one of those who believe that the W sound is a vowel, not a consonant!

Morning routine

Robert came to lessons last week, tired . . . bleary-eyed . . . not ready to sing.

Ten minutes later, he was amazed at how easily he was hitting the tenor notes, and his voice had real ping in it.

All I did was remind Robert of the morning routine, AKA the routine to use before you go to class, or when just needing to get the voice moving without working hard on technique.

Here’s what we do:

1.  Starting at the upper end of the lower register, alternate between a hum and ‘ah’ on three descending pitches.  Continue by descending half-steps until you can’t sing any lower.  Then start again and work up by half steps until you reach a D or E as the starting note.  The hum will start to feel tight at that pitch level.


2.  Then broaden the pitch range slightly, following the other descending then ascending half-step sequence.


3.  Then broaden the pitch range slightly again.  As you move toward the upper register, change the ‘ah’ to ‘aw’ for better roundness and less tendency to spread the upper vowel.


Eden’s Rs

I have a student, Eden, who somewhere along the way picked up a great deal of tongue activity and tension on the retroflex R sound at the end of words (and sometimes at the end of interior syllables).  She doesn’t speak with the a tight R, so this is clearly a habitual event that is now part of the overwhelming muscle memory.

Aside from customary exercises attaining space and freedom and ease on the inhalation, I gave Eden a series of words to sing, slowly and with care.

On a descending 3-2-1 pattern, sing ‘rot.’ Repeat.  Sense the tongue activity that quickly disappears into the vowel.  Then on the same pattern sing ‘tore,’ saving the final R for the instant of release.  This is challenging when the tongue wants to starting seizing up into a lugubrious R sound two pitches early!


Other combinations:

  • rid/dire
  • crack/car
  • rent/tear
  • road/door

Words with initial R sound that are safe for vocalizing:

  • rum
  • rank

Words with multiple R sounds, where the student can be mindful of producing the final R the same way as the initial:

  • rear
  • dreary
  • roar
  • radar
  • rover
  • rare

Another exercise I gave Eden was to mindfully sing word combinations with R at the end, but with alternating fricatives and nasal consonants at the beginning:

  • fire/mire
  • fore/more
  • fear/meer
  • far/mar


And another exercise: on the same pitch, sing a long tone on the word ‘foe,’ then sing the same long tone, now doubled, on the word ‘forest’ or ‘foreign,’ keeping the R out until it’s the initial consonant of the second syllable.


Fixing the break

I’m pulling together various exercises and ideas about helping female singers with that pesky imbalance we colloquially call the ‘break.’

Check this PDF:


Here’s a tease of one of the exercises, but DO read the whole 3.5 pages!–



Sample resources on the ‘Web

My colleague Carole Gaspar prepared this list of sample resources for singers and studio teachers, to which I have added numerous other sites..

Art Song

Art Song Central – limited amount of free downloads in public domain

Art Song Update – news, reviews, and updates for art song enthusiasts

American Art Song – website of the Society for American Art Song

Latin American Art Song – premier site for Latin American art song

Recmusic – Lied, art song, and choral texts archive, but not always the most reputable quality


Free Translation – a basic on-line translator

Google – Google’s on-line translation page

IPA Source – a one-stop shop, but not free after the first few downloads – but well worth the cost!


Barihunks – blog about baritones with numerous video clips

Ian Bostridge

Christine Brewer

Joyce DiDonato

Renee Fleming

Rod Gilfry

Nathan Gunn

Thomas Hampson


Free Scores – search for ‘vocalises’ or ‘Concone’ or ‘Vaccai’ on this website for free downloads of vocal exercises and etudes in the public domain

Hal Leonard – publisher or owner of much of the vocal canon

Hyperion Records – endless riches of information

Indiana University – free scores of songs in public domain

Naxos – more endless riches just by using the search bar

Pedagogues & Organizations

James Daugherty – University of Kansas professor who leads a graduate program in choral/vocal pedagogy

Shirlee Emmons – many articles on singing and teaching

Hyperion – links to various composer societies & trusts, and composer appreciation pages

Lotte Lehmann Foundation – supports emerging singers and composers

Poets – The Academy of American Poets

W. Stephen Smith – author of The Naked Voice and faculty member at Northwestern University

Voice Care Network – a primary US educational organization

Another exercise

I wrote this one in March for one of my freshmen to help with his range and aggiustamento.

Examples of half-step ascending modulations

I firmly and strongly believe that modulations in vocalizing should be by common tone.  Here’s how:

Vowel modification

I made this one up on the spot the other day with E, a high school soprano.  We were working on vowel modification, and these leaps and steps seemed to help make things happen.