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Exciting Methods to Teach Latin Vowels?

Hi everyone,
I work with youth choirs ranging in age from 12-18 and I choose quite a bit of repertoire in Latin for these groups, I feel if they can sing properly in Latin they can sing anything!  However, I am looking for creative ways and activities to use to teach proper vowel formation in Latin. We have done "the basics," we have discussed proper vowel formation, found the closest words to English etc.  After a few minutes, they tend to lose interest with these methods! I have also done the mirror mouth, where they have a partner and try to shape the same mouth as their partner.  (This normally ends up in laughter.)  However, I am still not satisfied with their vowels (and some recordings of them prove this!) Wondering if anyone has any advice or creative activities to help students with Latin vowels?
Thanks very much!
Replies (7): Threaded | Chronological
on January 4, 2014 12:49pm
Try having them sing with their hands on their faces, palms massaged into cheeks between upper and lower jaw, fingers going up over temples.  Take some focus off the vowels for a bit, and focus more on the space in the head that the sound is traveling through.  Get a raised soft pallet by imitating pre-sneeze or a partial yawn (full yawn is too far back).  The pre-sneeze sensation works wonders for opening resonators in the mask and relaxing the vocal aparatus.  Get the voice on the breath by having the students make continuous circles in toward their torso with their arms, mimicing how a water wheel would function in a stream.  Have them do the water wheel with one hand and hand-on-cheek with the other, visualizing a partial yawn or pre-sneeze, through any vowel or through a hum, doing a slow, relaxed glisando up and down, on smaller intervals first (m3 is a good place to start) and gradually larger.  Then change the downward part of the glissando to singing each note of the scale on the way down.
Another trick is to have them sound like Count Chocula.  ;)
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 5, 2014 11:24am
Thanks for the Count Chocula reference! I have used Bela Lugosi...dating myself!
on January 5, 2014 3:05pm
Maria, I don't know if you'd call it "exciting," but the most helpful approach I've found for pronouncing Latin is the idea of pure vowels/no diphthongs. Sometimes having students exaggerate the shift from the first half of the dipthong to the the second (in Americanized vowels, for example) can help students understand the difference -- especially when they compare that to holding the first/one/pure vowel in Latin. Going back and forth from singing Americanized dipthongs (conduct them as they move from the first half to the second) to singing the one pure Latin vowel might help.
I agree with Andrew about the helpfulness of placing the fingers on the cheeks to facilitate awareness and appropriate relaxation (necessary for pure vowels). I have singers place the backs of their fingers against the face, with the knuckles resting on the high cheekbones, and the tips of the fingers falling near the bottom of the jaw.
Best of luck.
PS: Helping singers understand the pure vowel is also a way to circumvent the whole "raised soft palette" issue as well; if a person is truly singing the pure vowel, the soft palette will do what it needs to do. As a classically trained "legit" singer and voice teacher, I'm convinced that teaching singers to raise the soft palette does far more harm than good; it muddies the tone and creates unnecessary tension, affecting resonance, tuning, and vocal flexibility.  
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 5, 2014 5:27pm
Pure vowels is a necessary concept to good singing, but it does not fully address or 'circumvent' any other vital concept, one being the soft pallet.  Perhaps the way you were introduced to the soft palette, or the way you've tried to teach its use has produced negative results, but that would not negate the soft palette's unique and vital role in good vocal production.  Proper use of the soft palette should be learned (usually best through imagery for developing singers) along with all other vital concepts.
Pure vowels can help with clean, efficient vocal production, but having an arc over all sounds produced unfies the entire vocal approach, making everything easier and more beautiful.  If implemented correctly, a lifted soft-palette will improve efficiency in the tone. It provides a unified space (umbrella) for vowels to resonate through, thus making vocal production a simpler activity, decreasing tension, improving resonance, tuning, and vocal flexibility.
Of course, all concepts in moderation, with careful diagnosis.
PS. You don't need to verbally establish your legitimacy with us here on choralnet. We assume everyone's legit until they prove otherwise, and you are no exception Tom!
Fun talking shop.
on January 5, 2014 10:20pm
Thanks for your supportive words; I appreciate your generosity of spirit! (Most people on Choralnet know me as a clinician/author and not as a singer/voice teacher -- that's the only reason I included some minimal singing bonafides:-).
However, we do appear to have different opinions about the raising of the soft palate; and I know there are excellent voice teachers who disagree as well. I've sung with quite a few terrific directors who bought into the concept, but have studied with terrific voice teachers who didn't. (The notion that the pure vowel will align the vocal mechanism without conscious soft palate manipulation was directly taught to me by a professional opera singer whose own highly regarded "master teacher" taught it to him.) 
Honestly, I've seen the concept modeled or taught on quite a few occasions, but always with negative results. When I've seen it modeled/taught, the result (in director and singer) has either been a hooty and unfocused tone or a forced and overly dark tone. I have also seen it discussed a LOT on choral forums; and it's almost always unquestioned -- as it's been when I've seen it introduced/discussed in various interest sessions. Perhaps we could agree that the concept ought to be very well-understood before it's taught to impressionable singers?
Maybe your phrase, "If implemented correctly," is the key. Do you know of any online videos that would help clarifiy the issue?
All my best,
on January 7, 2014 2:47pm
Hey Tom,
I think the concepts of pure vowels, breath support, or posture need just as much understanding as the concept of using the soft palette before teaching to impressionable singers.
To me, we have simply drawn a distinction in an artistic and technical piece of philosophy between two different artistic performance mediums: Solo voice and choral singing.  They are closely related in many ways, one being that the foundation of choral singing is vocal technique, but like any two related art forms, they have their differences.  The concepts that apply to one may not apply to the other.  Your opinion on this is shared by the private voice instructors and professional opera singers you know, though you also mentioned that the other side of the argument is upheld by many great choral directors you know.  To me, that says there is no need for this debate, because clearly each philosophy is upheld by professionals within their respected craft.  However, you also said you've personally never seen addressing the soft palette work well for singers, and that's your own experience, which I appreciate and assign most value to in this discussion.  I have witnessed lifting the soft palette work exceptionally in choral rehearsals, always improving the sound, which gives me all the reason I need to believe it is a great concept.  I'm only 30 years old, but have founded and directed two professional choirs now, am currently a collegiate choral director, and have directed K-12, church, and community choirs.  I'm also on my 8th choral composition publication, so I visualize choral singing often even when I'm not working with singers directly.  I've experimented with a lot of concepts, and the soft palette is not one that will be leaving my tool belt, likely ever (nor is vowel purity!). It's strange that we have a totally opposing set of experiences regarding this one specific concept.  I find it bazaar that you've seen so much destruction come from a concept that I've seen so much good come out of.
Seeing all of your clinical work with choirs, and the book you recently published (congratulations!), I am sure you understand that in the choral realm, singers make technical adjustments, which sometimes can be considered sacrifices, to achieve homogony and desired color.  This is not to suggest that choral directors use the soft palette just for aesthetic beauty; We also acknowledge it as part of good singing technique.  As a choral educator, it is my responsibility to impart healthy singing concepts to my students for a life-time of singing.  It is also my responsibility to help them discover the choral art, which can transcend vocal technique to a different plane opera singers and voice teachers may not fully understand or be equipped to appreciate.  And that's OK!
Rather than chalking this up to a difference of opinion, I would deem it a distinction in craft.  I do not refute any of the concepts you've brought to the table that work for you and others you know, as I use them in my own teaching.  The other concepts I use render positive results for me and several of my reputable colleagues, despite any contrary opinions in the solo voice realm.
I've enjoyed our discussion!
on January 6, 2014 5:27am
How wonderful that you give your students the opportunity to sing a lot in Latin! I work most with the 18 and up crowd, so I don't know how the below would be implented but I hope some of it's usefful.   
Unintentional diphthongs can occur for a number of reasons.  As English speakers, it's natural to insert the English equivelants when trying to learn sounds in a different language.  The idea of doing [ɛ] and [e] instead of [eɪ] or [ɔ] and [o] instead of [oʊ] can be understoond as a concept fairly quickly but the ability to do implement it is not as simple. 
I've found that unintentional (but well meaning) diphthongs are often a result of a diminishing of intensity in the line, or wandering attention during a long note.  Unless a singer has already figured out how to sing pure vowels (or is very close), giving negative instructions, such as "don't do diphthongs" or "Don't change the vowel," isn't going to help the singer find a solution; it just makes them more aware of the problem.  Giving instructions such as "keep the line going" "move that line forward" "go to the end of the phrase" give singers a goal and something to work towards. 
Involving the body more through intone (or as Andrew says "sound like Count Chocula" :) )  the text might be another good way.  Everyone in the room intoning the text at various pitch (up and off the chords!) gets the body involved in a way similar to singing, and creates a bunch of funny noises and overtones in the room that will get your students listening (professional groups get a good laugh out of this too!).  As they start to listen to others they hear the differnt vowel sounds and, hopefully, start finding common vowel sounds (vowel unification).  (Intoning text can be incredibly uncomfortable at first. It's very important that person leading the exercise demonstrate in an exciting and inviting way.) 
Along similar lines, you can have them speak vowels only.  This give your singers the opportunity to experience making a line without consonants. It forces the singer to know which vowel sound they're singing and allows the singer to hear if there are any unintentional changes in vowel sounds or intensity of the line.  At first, I would suggest demonstrating and having your students imitate. Your students will laugh or look at you like you have three heads. Just smile and tell them it'll be fun to make these silly noises.  Have them do it a few times, making it smoother and more beautiful each time. Diphthongs may still occur but a process for acheiving pure vowels is in motion.  
As awareness builds, diphthongs become no longer just a linguistic inaccuracy, but also a corruption of the sound that interrupts the beauty of the vocal and musical line your singers are working to create. 
These suggestions are most definitely not quick fixes. They all take time, but it's very satisfying to see singers/students consistently making beautiful lines with beautiful pure vowels.
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