May 27, 2011

Pure Vowels

Now that's two words you don't here together anymore. Funny that. I've researched and read a ton of old pedagogy texts, and from what I have gathered, the term 'pure vowels' stopped being used in the way it had been used when an older generation of voice teachers left the planet twenty years ago. So what did those old teachers mean when they used it?



Joy Clements & Seth Riggs
The King and I, 1960



Ok. Before I tell you, let me ask you a question.

Would they have meant - say - the early music soprano who sings with a 'straight' tone? Nope. To the voice teacher who had a connection with the Old School, a 'pure tone' or 'vowel' meant something very different.

Here are some of the characteristics of a 'pure vowel'.  A pure vowel is.....

1) A vowel that is clear. Not nasal, not guttural, not fuzzy, not anything but clear.
2) A vowel that has depth. Oh boy. Here we get into trouble. Do I mean darkness? Nope. That's something else entirely (here's a hint for you: depth is associated with the /i/ vowel).
3) A vowel that is rounded
4) A vowel that stays within its limits, that is, an /i/ stays an /i/ and isn't influenced by other vowels. It is itself and nothing but itself. Of course, this is a problem in English which is chock full of diphthongs. So how does the singer sing in English? By making each sound of the diphthong clear and distinct (of course the soprano has to 'fake' her closed vowels in her highest range which is an art unto itself). 
5) A vowel that is ringing
6) A vowel that is beautiful.  


Where can you hear pure vowels? In lots of older recordings for one thing. You just have to keep your ears open for them. Heck. I heard them tonight on my local radio station WQXR. They were playing a 1965 recording of Aaron Copland's opera The Tender Land (which was given its premiere at The New York City Opera in 1954), and the voice of Joy Clements stood out remarkably for her clear pure vowels.

Ok, I hear you asking: aren't you really talking about diction? And my answer to that is great diction is a by-product of pure vowels. You don't get great diction by moving the parts of your mouth in a more vigorous way. You obtain great diction by first listening to the sounds you are making. And what sounds do you need to be making?  Pure vowels. When the vowels are clear the consonants generally take care of themselves.

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