Vowels carry emotion and music,
while consonants carry context, intent, and meaning.
This series on vowels and consonants is intended to stimulate you to dig deeper into your own practice with your choir, or your voice studio. At some point, in your conducting or performing, you must decide on basics tenets of
- where a note begins
- where a note ends
- what vowel or consonant to use
- as a conductor, how to get all choristers to agree and adopt correct practice (hopefully without reminder)
To that end, especially since many who have been “assigned” to conduct a choir but have no formal training, or you find yourself “falling” into a position of vocal leadership, let’s set some foundational piers in place that we can build on with confidence.
Since my previous blog was about vowels, let’s establish the following:
CONSONANT (def.): A consonant is a letter (sound) of the English alphabet that is not a vowel (duh..SH); more specifically, consonants represent sounds that are made when part of all of the vocal tract is closed or occluded.
If we count Y as a vowel, there are 20 consonants. If not, there are 21 consonant letters (5 vowels) in the English language and they are defined as speech sounds that are articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. However, there are 24 consonant sounds in English:
In 1833, Nicola Vaccai was very helpful in the introduction to his Practical Method of Italian Singing stating his objective:
”a short, amusing, and useful (method) by means of which, the end proposed may be attained with equal certainty, and in less time.”
Consider this (and read it more than once) – Vaccai states the following in the guidelines for the first lesson:
“The manner of dividing the Syllables in this first lesson, will be found to differ altogether from the ordinary orthographical Syllabication; in order to give, as far as possible, an idea of the right manner of pronouncing in Singing, and to indicate how one should expend the whole value of one or more notes on the vowel of the Syllable, uniting its consonant to the next Syllable following; by this practice also the Pupil will gradually be taught to sing Legato – an art however, which nothing but the voice of a skillful Master can communicate perfectly to the learner.”
Simply put, we sing on the vowel and use the consonant to change from one vowel (syllable) to the next. Here is an example: the sentence “one should expend the whole value of one or more notes on the vowel of the Syllable” would be Vaccai’ed into “Wa nshoo deh xspeh ndthah ho lvah yoo ah vwah no rmo rno tsah nthah vah wuh lah vtha Sih lah buhl.” Notice that every syllable ends with a vowel.
All consonants may be classified as either voiced or unvoiced. In articulating a voiced consonant, the vocal cords are vibrating. In articulating an unvoiced consonant, the vocal cords are not vibrating. Stating the obvious, consonants must combine with vowels to form genuine syllables and words.
An effective way of accurately practicing and placing consonants is to simply eliminate them in speaking a line from a song or poetry. Dr. Robert Shaw put it, “To create a smooth legato line, sing vowels only until the vowels align with the beat. Then add the consonants back in “on top” of the vowel line.”By “on top” of the vowel, he means to then add them back precisely a tiny bit before the beat where the vowel occurs. Think on this for a moment.
In building a musical phrase and guiding singers to heuristic learning, which saves time from repeating the same concept (and, as we know, is tuned out after the second repetition), this is a foundational practice. A singer or conductor will soon become frustrated as they begin to add other musical concepts (Messa di voce, rubato, accents, dynamic details, etc.) and realize the imprecision relates to not having solved the consonant issue. Solve it now, or solve it later when you will have to correct it.
To make this even more prescient, consider legato lines and phrases, loooooong phrases. We must manage breath to finish the phrase completely as well as the other considerations just listed. But, the phrase must make textural and artistic sense to the listener.
This link has some excellent considerations for consonants: http://www.emeamusic.org/concepts-of-choral-singing.html
Thoughts on Consonants
- Consonants are almost always short and ahead of the beat.
- When voiced consonants begin a word, join them to the vowel that follows (https://www.oxfordsinginglessons.co.uk/singing-consonants-9-useful-principles/)
- Many consonants carry pitch. As John Trotter notes, “Pay split-second attention to where we pitch the voiced consonant.”
- Larry Sue advises, vowels define the pitch and part of the style in singing. Consonants are complementary to vowels in that they define rhythm. (https://www.dummies.com/art-center/music/singing/singing-voiced-and-unvoiced-consonants/)
- Voiced consonant sounds are produced by adding vocal sound. An example is the letter M. If you sing the word make, you have to add sound to the letter M before you even get the vowel. (Other voiced consonants include B, D, G, J, L, N, NG, V, W, Z, and ZH.)
- Unvoiced consonants are produced by momentarily stopping the flow of air and making no voice sound. The unvoiced consonant has sound, but the sound comes from the flow of air. The consonant T is an example. If you say the word to, you don’t make any sound with your voice until you get to the vowel. (Other unvoiced consonants include CH, F, K, P, S, SH, and WH.)
Thoughts on Vowels: Review
- No two consecutive notes, syllables or words should ever receive equal emphasis. The music is always going somewhere and then returning. — Robert Shaw
- Always breathe in the shape of the initial vowel.
- Inhalation, regardless of dynamic, should always be silent, low, and expansive.
- Stay on the vowel sound as long as possible.
- Almost all vowels are tall vowels. – Sigrid Johnson
- Vowels carry and convey the vocal energy of a phrase.
When we combine vowels and consonants, Edie Copley reminds us:
- Another way to achieve great legato is get to the vowels as quickly as you can, without accenting the consonants.
- Never think the same pitch on repeated notes – always think slightly higher.
- Think constant “flow of tone,” rather than “just sing.”
- Breathe the vowel you intend to sing from your diaphragm.
- Get the air moving prior to the first sound. If it is a consonant, pitch itthe same as the vowel.
- Generally, we do not need as much air as we think to start a vocal line, sing and effectively communicate text, or artistically articulate even complicated lines in any language.
Obviously, vowels need more inside space in the mouth. Consonants do not require the same space, but need equal attention. Our audiences do not want to “work” to understand what we intend to communicate.
Further Important Considerations
- Venue acoustics, placement of the choir, balance with instruments – all need our attention because they affect performance and require us to adjust.
- It is also of equal importance to engage our facial expression as reflective of the text and sing as though the audience was slightly hard of hearing and needs to read our lips to understand the meaning and intent of the composer.
- “Teaching” the audience what we are singing engages our bodies, breath, and facial expression. When combined with artistic singing of vowels and intelligent placement of consonants we do justice to any and everything we sing and communicate: musicality, simple and strong emotions, and the ability to transport an audience. Adding beautiful singing to meaningful and powerful texts goes to parts of the brain and the heart that mere text cannot.
To be sure, singing is a lifelong art that requires study and understanding of the mastery of many skills. In many respects, mastering diction is doable for all singers and empowers us to become a gifted communicator, in any language, in any culture, in any location.