January 21, 2011

The Focus Vowel

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may remember my post on Compound Vowels where I mentioned Margaret Harshaw's teaching that every "perfect vowel" is a combination of three vowels: /a/, /i/ and /u/. The last two posts dealt with /i/ and /a/. This one will deal with /u/, what Miss Harshaw called the "focus vowel." 

Of the three, /u/ is most difficult to wrap one's head around. This may have everything to do with the fact that the sound of /u/ in English (on both sides of the pond) is quite guttural and muffled. It may also have to do with the fact that it is the polar opposite of /i/. While /i/ brings the vocal folds together, /u/ has the tendency to pull them apart—a good thing to know if a student is grating their folds together.

What does the thought of /u/ do?  It focuses the tone by lengthening the vocal tract. The soft palate is felt to rise while the larynx descends ever so slightly, the two working in opposition (see my post on movements of the soft palate here).

What can aid the student in obtaining a clear and resonant /u/? Two things. The first is the following instruction: when you sing /a/ think of /u/, and when you sing /u/ think of /a/. The second is having already acquired a resonant /i/ vowel. It is the vowel that is the most "forward."  /u/ needs this influence.


If you want to beautify the tone, think of /u/. If you want to make a vowel more resonant, think of /i/. If you want to free a vowel, think of /a/. Of the three, /a/ is the center on which the other two hinge—a triptych of sound.  

10 comments:

  1. When you say "think of /u/" do you mean setting the mouth, lips and tongue ready to say an /u/ but instead saying /i/ for example? Like in french?

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  2. Dear Daniel:

    Let me please to say that I´m agree two hundred percent with you. Always think that the "A" vowel is the perfect balance between "I" and "U", that "E" and "O" are only passing vowels, the real ones are "I"-"A"-"U".
    In other words: "I"=Vibrations / "A"= Singing Vocal Center / "U"= Depth and Color.
    The other kind are: "E"= Acute and Squillo / "O"= Grave and Morbidezza.
    But...for me, the Master Vowel is "I"; because all the rest are in function and depend of it.

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  3. Other thing, here in Argentina the most ancient resource of data about "I" came by the hand of a french coloratura soprano, namely "Madeleine Mansion", who in other things wrote a book call "The Study of Singing" very connected with Lilly Lehmann´s principles, but more direct and practical, very pedagogical almost for kids, but..really useful. The other resource of course is Kraus, but I want to know if you are abiable to tell me if there is a real ancient data about this, the book of Miss Mansion is of the earlys 1940´s, in history of singing is kinda modern.
    I´m really curious about Margaret Harshaw, she wrote her ideas somewhere? There is some book taht we can find?
    again a pleasure, Joe.

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  4. Pablo- One could make the movements you suggest and not achieve the desired sound. This is why I used the word 'think'. I could have as easily written the word 'listen'. If one has to 'set' anything, it is the influence of /a/ on /i/ and /u/.

    Anon- I like how you express matters.

    Joe- Thank you for mentioning Mansion's' book. I had not heard of it before, though her name sounds familiar. Miss Harshaw did not, to my knowledge, write out her teaching.

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  5. Joe- I have not found an 'ancient' source which illustrates the concepts I have written about in my last three posts. Rather, I have found various sources which deal with each aspect in one way or another. The most 'pictorial' is contained in my post on 'Clifton Cooke'.

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  6. Daniel:

    Read the post about Cooke. Very logical, give me pleasure know the comment from García about the "I". Thanks!!
    Here is the link to Madeleine´s book, is in spanish, so you can use the google translator, to the end of the book, mention the vowel stuff.

    http://www.rebelioncorp.org/cl/viewtopic.php?t=41905

    Hope be useful!

    Best wishes, Joe.

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  7. Thank you for your kindness in including the link above! I know other readers will find it of great interest.

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  8. Joe- Mansion does not name her voice teachers. Do you have any idea who they might have been? See mentions English and Italians..

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  9. Daniel, you have such a wonderful site, and you are to be congratulated and thanked!

    I just wrote out a lengthy response, only to lose it in the editing process. The gist was that you are accurate with your reflection of Miss Harshaw's teaching on [i,u,a], which we usually vocalized in that order. Also, your response to the reader who asked about "thinking" a vowel was very good, as the imaginative concept of a vowel must be allowed to bring about subtle changes throughout the vocal tract. Articulation is not just about mouth and lips; in fact, thought of [u] is a primary way of maintaining a free and low larynx.

    I very much like your wording at the end of the post, and may bounce my readers over hear to read it. Keep up your excellent work!

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  10. Thank you kavbar! You've made my day!

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I welcome your comments.