How to elicit students' vowel awareness

Wow—has it really been a month since my last posting?  It's ironic, but since I started blogging and otherwise increasing my web presence as a teacher, the increased number of students it's brought me has left me with little time to continue blogging.  So I'm having to learn about managing a larger practice, but this is a welcome challenge, no doubt.

Oh yes, and the high temperatures of summer leave me feeling mighty lazy.  When I have a few extra moments of time during this part of the year, I usually just stretch out next to the chihuahuas on the couch, where they like to take the sun.



Peter and the dogs and I are all headed out for a week at the beach (Fire Island Pines) starting tomorrow.  There's apparently little wireless coverage out there, so we're going to leave blogging behind.  We'll return bronzed (well, whatever color one turns with SPF 70, perhaps a darker shade of cream), relaxed, and ready to dig back into sewing, blogging, teaching, and chewing on bones, respectively.

Anyhow, before I leave, I wanted to respond to a reader (Chaz) who posed the following question on one of my past postings about vowels:

Can you say more about how you teach students to discern the quality of their vowels? Some of mine have a "natural" ability to hear, and others seem to have no awareness of what seems so obvious to me. Is relentless repitition the only way? 



Well, Chaz, I can empathize with both your frustration and that of your students!  Even though I apparently possess the necessary gifts for singing — Cornelius used to say that I was very musical and had a good ear — it took me literally years before I could hear myself inadvertently altering my [ah]'s.  Cornelius, of course, could hear it straight off, and would inform me that, once again, I had sung [ah] - [ah] - [ah] - [UH].  I would just nod and think to myself, "This man is insane; I'm not changing my vowel!"  One day, I finally heard it myself, a real "duh" moment.  Once I identified the change, it seemed so obvious.  But until had I reached that point, it seemed that one of us (Cornelius or me) must have been crazy.

In my own teaching, I want to get my students as quickly as possible to the stage of being able to perceive their vowels accurately.  (Both to facilitate learning and so that they will not go on thinking me insane.)  Here are a couple of techniques I've found helpful for this:

1. Have the students sing exercises using a wide variety of vowels.  Not just [ah], [ay], [ee], [oh], and [oo], but different shadings of each.  For example, [ah] can be shaded from the very bright to the very dark, and you can even request a whole exercise be sung on the [uh] which is intruding into [ah] exercises.  By these means, the students will become attuned to the subtleties of vowel shading and will be more likely to recognize when they stray from their intentions.

2. Incorporate kinesthetic information, which some students can pick up on more accurately than what they hear.  Remind them that, once they have set the shape of their oral/laryngeal cavity for a vowel, they should not change it during the course of the exercise.  Most students can recognize how they alter the position of their tongue, palate, throat, or lips as they sing, even if they can't yet hear the resulting differences.  This is one of the areas in which Alexander Technique experience is so helpful to the singer: AT develops your ability to "leave yourself alone" in the performing of activities, i.e., not moving muscles unnecessarily.

Remind yourself when things get tough that EVENTUALLY, your student will hear herself altering vowels unintentionally.  Here's a quotation from Daniel H. Pink's recent book, Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which I am currently reading: "Mastery requires effort. . .over a long time (not a week or a month, but a decade)."  I wouldn't have chosen the word "effort," but I agree that we need to be reminded in our get-rich/thin/famous-quick culture that worthwhile skills develop gradually over long long long periods of time.  In this sense, relentless repetition is part of the process: on perhaps her 12,343rd octave arpeggio sometime during her 239th lesson, your student will stop and laugh and say "Oh my god, I AM changing my [ah]!"