It is of paramount importance to the Eng-lish singer that a very thorough study of her native language should be made, particularly of the vowel sounds.
I have often been told that English is not a singable language. My own opinion is that, with the possible exception of Italian, it can be made the most vocal of all languages, on account of the great variety of vocal elements which it contains.
The " clipped " mode of speech so prevalent among English people is the greatest difficulty with which the singing-master has to contend. The student may make a very fair showing when singing a vocalise, but directly words are attempted, the bad habits of years come into play, and the result is that faulty diction which is so often charged against some of our best-known singers. I recommend that A. J. Ellis's " Pronunciation for Singers " should be read through very carefully, as it treats the entire subject in a comprehensive manner.
Singing is musical speech, the true presentment of words through the medium of voice, and does not consist of mere tone. In olden days some of the Italian opera singers, whenever they came to a high note, used to sing it on the syllable " vol," because that sound was conducive to a fine tone. The artistic aspect of this needs no comment. But to-day an audience insists on hearing what is sung, and unless the student realises this, her chances of ever rising above mediocrity are very slight.
How is faulty diction to be cured? By a careful and analytical study of the vowel sounds, both singly and in combination with other vowels.
The generally accepted English vowels number five, A, E, I, O, U, but these do not by any means represent all the shades and degrees necessary for the singer.
I append the following table, which I take from a work on the subject of " Voice," by E. J. Myer, as it seems to me that, from a vocal point of view, the classification is as near complete as possible:
1 2 3 4
A. 4 sounds, as in day, lad, arm, awe.
1 2 E. 2 sounds, as in reed, red.
1 2 1. 2 sounds, as in ride, rid.
1 2 O. 2 sounds, as in lo, love.
1 2 U. 2 sounds, as in you, would.
(1) (3) (4) (2) The open sounds are I A A O
(1) (2) (2) (1) The medium sounds, A A E O These should be developed as " open " as possible.
(1) (2) (1) (2)
The closed sounds are E I U U
Compound vowels, such as oi in foil, pronounced faw - il
(long) (short), and ou, as in shroud, pronounced shrah - ood (long) (short), u as in June, Jeeoo - n, should also be studied. Seek out the principal vowel sound, and give the full value of the note to it, prefixing or affixing, as the case may be, the shorter sound.
Notice, too, very carefully, that " closed " sounds do not mean that the throat is to be closed. The word applies to the colour or " timbre " of the sound. This is a distinction that it is almost impossible to make clear on paper, but let the student sing "ah," immediately followed by "00," and she will at once distinguish the darker-that is, more closed-characteristic of the latter.
Now, as to naming the vowel most suitable for the commencement of study, I am confronted with a serious difficulty. It is generally admitted that the sound " ah," as in father, is the one best suited to the emission of a pure tone. We are told that the lower jaw drops easily, and the tongue lies flat in the mouth; it is the natural sound, the first sound that a baby, guided by nature, utters; and yet, with all these advantages, in the majority of cases it is not suited to the English throat.
I can do no more than suggest a few general principles in this connection. Some voices are naturally heavy and sombre, and such require "brightening"; others are shrill and "catty," and require "darkening." It is only by personal knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of each individual singer that the right selection can be made. Pupils have come to me whose training had been carried out entirely on "ah" throughout the whole of their compass, and their voices were "throaty" and lacking in resonance and concentration. The great thing is to select the vowel sound-ah, eh, oh, ee-whatever it may be, that gives the best and purest tone on any note of the voice, and then to mould the remaining sounds on to this one. And always remember, in singing songs, you will meet with every vowel and combination of vowels on every note of your voice.
Do not exaggerate lip movement in changing from one sound to another. The change is mostly on the inside of the mouth. Once again, I would impress upon you very strongly the necessity of hearing yourself. Many students fail for the reason that they do not train the ear to listen to themselves. Think the right sound, the true and pure vowel shade, and the necessary changes will adapt themselves to the will. If only young students would rely more on their ears, and less on the attempt to gain direct control of their muscles, teachers would be saved many lost hours, and pupils much profitless and wasted energy.
A word here on singing out of tune. A note sounded too sharp or flat must not be remedied by appeal to muscles, nor be corrected by singing louder, or by altering the movements of the mouth, or the quality of the vowel, a mistake so often made by beginners. The remedy is the work of the vocal cords, directed by the ear. Always remember that impure vowels spoil the tone. A little " vowel modification " may be used on certain notes of the voice-in fact, it is absolutely necessary. But here the guidance of the teacher is indispensable, and, as before mentioned, faults of intonation cannot be cured by these means, as the singer must be able to produce purely and easily all shades of the vowel throughout the entire compass.
By practising only on the open vowel "ah," it is not easy for English students to acquire perfect control of breath and the free play of tongue and lower jaw so necessary for complete development. With many beginners "ah" draws up the larynx and produces a throaty quality. With some voices that suffer from the latter defect, I have found soft practice on the vowel "ee" very efficacious, but great care must be taken not to squeeze the sound or render it too acute; it is a dangerous vowel if used wrongly. Let the shading approximate to the "i" in hid, especially on the upper notes.
Where a weakness occurs in a voice, much may be done by judicious vowel selection. Choose the sound best suited to the note above that on which the difficulty occurs, and practise downwards softly, keeping the quality of the upper note in descending. Much good can be done in this way.
Example, for a contralto:
All exercises to be sung lightly.
For Sopranos and Mezzo-sopranos
First open the throat as in yawning (not exaggerated). Then hum with mouth open. Then sing to the vowel "O."
To be sung on "O" first, then on all the vowels. Sing legato.
By semitones up to F
To be sung lightly on " Ro." This exercise is to test the correct placing of the medium notes, which must be felt well forward and up in the mouth, and not allowed to go down the throat.
To be hummed lightly, and then repeated on "Ah," keeping the sound well up as indicated by the humming sensations.
Sopranos up to E flat to B flat Mezzo-sopranos, B flat to F up to D flat to A flat Contraltos, A flat to E flat up to B flat to F Rising by semitones
Students must, to a certain extent, use their own judgment as to compass, but I have broadly indicated the limits.
" Signifies a pause, but no breath to be taken.
Remember when singing a vowel, or a word beginning with a vowel, to open the mouth a fraction of a second before emitting the tone, as nothing is worse than the "smudgy" sound one often hears due to the mouth not having been prepared. In starting with a consonant, the vowel sound must follow instantly, and be held unchanged throughout the duration of the note or notes under which it is written, the final consonant being given with a slightly exaggerated emphasis. To this sustained purity of the vowel, and the clean articulation of the consonant, the greatest amount of attention must be given, as by these means perfect diction will be acquired.
A word of warning must be uttered against a very common fault with singers. A steady position of the mouth is absolutely necessary for the pure production of each vowel. Any sudden movement of the jaw, lips, or tongue during the singing of a vowel will destroy the pure quality aimed at, and result in a variety of shades of the original vowel, which will thus lose all its truth and expression.
It is not intended by the foregoing to advocate the "fixed mouth" theory. In an ascending passage the lower jaw, always flexible, must drop naturally, but very slightly. It is against the spasmodic movement of the mouth that the teacher should put the pupil on her guard.
When the exercises have been thoroughly mastered, I recommend a study of the excellent vocalises of Panseron and Panofka (published by Messrs. Augener). These carefully graded exercises, sung to the Italian syllables Do, Re, Mi, etc., are excellent. To be continued