A couple of weeks ago, my a cappella group went flat. Not just in one song, but in every song. We were freaking out, because we had a concert coming up, and we couldn’t stay in tune to save our lives. We were in serious doo-doo.
This usually wouldn’t be an issue…I mean, if the whole group goes flat together, does it really matter? Look at Manhattan Transfer. They actually go flat on “Nightingale Sings In Berkley Square,” and they are supposedly the best vocal jazz quartet of all time.
In this particular case, though, it did. When I arrange, I tend to put each voice within the extreme registers, both low and high, so the arrangement doesn’t work if it’s in any key except the one I wrote.
I know what you’re thinking: “Well THERE’S your problem! You leave no wiggle room for going flat or sharp.”
True, I need to consider my vocal ranges a little more carefully in the future. But the problem, we discovered, was the vowel we were all using.
Below is a list of assumptions we tend to make when choosing vowels for our arrangement, and here’s what we, and especially I, have discovered in the process:
1) “Ooh” is for soft sections, “Ahh” is for loud sections.
The logic is simple. With an “ahh” vowel, our mouths are open to their maximum height, so naturally, we assume that we can produce the most sound. That may be true, but the “ahh” vowel produces just as many problems as it does decibels.
A pure “ahh” vowel is formed with the soft palate at its maximum height, jaw dropped to its lowest point, and tongue flat. Chances are, everyone in your group is singing their version of an “ahh” vowel, but no one’s “ahh” matches anyone else’s. To achieve a full, unified “ahh,” every singer must have the same mouth shape, as described above, and then, that still might not be unified, because there are bright “ahh” vowels and dark “ahh” vowels. A true “ahh,” according to the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is a dark “ahh.”
My group changed a lot of our “ahh” vowels to “ooh” vowels. The “ooh” vowel is much easier to match, because it is the most closed vowel we can sing. It also increases the amount of space in our mouths, because it does not require the use of the tongue, only the lips. And if you think you can’t sing “ooh” in a forte dynamic, then you aren’t utilizing your support system or resonance system, and you’re most likely singing it incorrectly.
2) The soloist does not matter when it comes to vowels.
The soloist has words, the background singers have neutral syllables. That’s the fundamental way a cappella has been arranged for decades. But if the soloist is singing a word, like “me,” which is an “ee” vowel, and the background singers are singing “ooh,” there will already be a tuning issue.
I’m not saying that every vowel has to match the soloist. I am suggesting that all singers be aware of what vowel is used by each voice part, so that when you tune to each other, you are matching your vowels with the right person.
3) It does not matter which consonant you place before the vowel. You should choose whichever consonant matches the sound you want or the instrument you are trying to replicate.
Well...yes and no. Yes, you shouldn’t use “doo” when you want something more subtle, and you shouldn’t choose “voo” when you want to sing heavy rhythmic passages. But the attack of the consonant is more important than we realize, especially when we choose consonants called “fricatives.”
Fricative consonants include any consonant that you can hold. “S,” “F,” “SH,” etc. If you can speak the sound of a consonant and you can hold it out as long as you have air, then that consonant is a fricative. There are also consonants that act like fricatives, but are called glides, or nasal consonants, because of how they are produced. Glides include “W” and “L,” while nasal consonants include “M” and “N.”
Why am I boring you with this? Because fricative consonants take time to produce sound, and time to stop. Chances are, if everyone is singing the word “voo,” only half of your members are placing the “ooh” vowel on the beat, while the other half are singing the “v” consonant on the beat.
Fricative consonants must always be sung before the beat if your group has any chance of staying in tune and in tempo. True, the difference is measured in milliseconds, but those milliseconds matter.
4) It does not matter what voice part you are singing. Any voice part can sing any vowel.
Well, yes. Any voice part should be able to sing any vowel, but when you hit the extreme ranges, that statement is not true.
Here’s a fun anecdote: My soprano recently told me that she has rarely, if ever, sung the vowels I wrote on the page. She uses a mixed hybrid of “ooh” and “ahh,” which provides maximum power and helps her stay in tune.
After I got over my initial rage, I realized she was right and I was wrong. A soprano who is required to sing “ooh” at a high range will always run into pitch problems, because an “ooh” vowel requires a certain voice placement that contradicts the range. Sopranos, especially when singing notes off the staff, have to start modifying their vowels (changing “ooh” to “oh” and “oh” to “ahh”) to stay in tune. An arranger who writes a high soprano line with an “ooh” vowel is always going to run into this problem.
Basses sing their best low notes on the “ee” vowel, because “ee” is a maximum resonance vowel. Tenors sing best on “ooh,” because “ooh” is a maximum space vowel that uses both head voice and falsetto equally, and provides maximum room for dynamic shifts. Altos sing best on “oh,” because “oh” is a medium space vowel that fits best in their chest voice.
Of course, all of these statements can be contradicted by individual singers. If your alto sings best on “ooh,” then take that singer’s advice and ignore mine.
The moral of the story: Choose your vowels with care or your group will be stuck in doo-doo.