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Vowel Unification

All choirs, especially amateur ensembles singing without instrumental accompaniment, struggle with intonation, and there's no easy fix. It's like a musical hydra: intonation problems can be caused by poor breath support and control, lack of active listening, pushing the voice, and about a gorillion other factors. One of the simplest and most straightforward areas to address is vowel unification, which is exactly what it sounds like: singers singing the same vowel in the same way.

Orthodox liturgical music has a great natural advantage here: it tends to be homophonic. In other words, the rhythms and words are the same across all voice parts. There are obviously exceptions to this, especially in complicated arrangements for semi-professional cathedral choirs, but for those of us in the trenches, not so much — and that's great news, indeed, because the more simultaneous vowels you have, the harder it is to keep the whole thing in tune.

Let's look at a practical example: the phrase, "...and we pray unto Thee, O our God" from the Anaphora. Doesn't matter which arrangement you want to put in your head for this, as long as everyone sings "God" simultaneously. Let's assume you've got four singers (one per part), and that nobody is tone-deaf or doing any crazy vocal stuff. Roll with me here. If all the singers use the same tall, open "O", that chord will tune fairly well. If, however, even one of the singers spreads their mouth, creating a brighter, more strident vowel, it'll throw the whole thing slightly off.

Why is this so? Think of the vocal tract (the larynx, trachea, oropharynx and mouth as one long tube with sound waves bouncing around in it. Each voice produces the fundamental pitch (the pitch indicated by the composer), and a series of harmonic overtones above that pitch. Some of those overtones get emphasized, and others de-emphasized, based on several factors. One factor is the natural shape of the singer's vocal tract, which is why each human voice is distinctive. This can't readily be changed. What the singer can control, however, is the position of the lips, tongue and throat during singing. Moving these structures changes which overtones dominate the sound.

In polyphonic choral music, each section may sing different vowels at the same time, and with practice, do so with perfect tuning. Problems frequently occur when singers are trying to sing the same vowel as their neighbor, but wind up being slightly off. In that situation, Singer A and Singer B are producing almost the same overtones, but not quite, and you can hear those overtones grating against each other. On the other hand, if the emphasized overtones are sufficiently distinct between singers or sections, that grating doesn't happen. It's like driving: there's no problem when cars pass each other at an adequate distance, but if they're too close together, they literally grate against one another.

Oh, and by the way? The smaller the choir, the more critical vowel unification is. If there are eight singers, each one is more acoustically significant than if you have 40 singers. Think about it: in a 10-woman soprano section, if one singer's vowels are off, that's a problem in 10% of that section. If you have only two sopranos, now 50% of that section has a problem.

So, directors, how can we address this? For me, it depends on the size and technical skill of the choir. Also, this is often a new concept for parish choirs; they're used to the director saying such-and-such a note is flat, but they haven't been taught that vowel positioning is often why that problem occurs. The first step, therefore, is to get the issue on the table and teach the singers about it. They can't correct what they don't know. (At this point I could launch into a discussion of singing with a British accent, but that's for an upcoming entry.)

Next come the spot-fixes in rehearsal. Listen for vowels that are overly spread, bright or strident, and correct accordingly. Over time, with repeated coaching to make vowels tall and open, you'll probably hear some natural improvement going on.

Now, if you want to get fancy, there's always the option of standing the choir. This is par for the course in professional and collegiate choirs, but uncommon in parishes. Standing is a process, often painstaking, by which the director decides, section by section, where each singer will stand. The goal is to group voices by size and tone color, with similar voices placed close together. Here's an effective way to do it:

  1. Pick a section (never hurts to start with the sopranos and move down from there). Have the singers stand in a line and sing a short phrase, such as "Lord, have mercy" or "My country, 'tis of thee", as a group.

  2. Then have the two singers at the end of the line sing the same phrase as a duo. Listen to the color of the combined sound.

  3. Add the next singer in the line and have the trio sing the sample phrase, listening carefully to how the sound changed with the addition of the third singer. Is it pleasant and unified? If it isn't, shuffle the order of the singers and try again (move one person, try the duo again, and then the trio).

  4. Add the fourth singer in the line, and repeat the previous process until you have the entire section positioned. Write the order down so nobody forgets.

  5. Repeat this with the other sections.

I'm going to end this here for now. More posts on diction and similar topics to follow shortly!

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