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Guest Article + Meharg on vowels...see article below this one
Originally printed in California's ACDA newsletter, "Cantate," Winter, 2008
Using the IPA in Your High School Choir
by Tami Alderman, High School R&S Chair, CA-ACDA

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a system of phonetic notation based on the Latin alphabet, devised by the International Phonetic Association as a standardized representation of the sounds of spoken language (International Phonetic Association, Handbook).

In college diction classes I learned a great deal about how to pronounce Latin, Italian, French, German, and Spanish using IPA. Beyond learning useful rules of the languages, I also studied the direct application of correct phonetic pronunciations to singing. Knowing how to correctly enunciate the text of a piece, especially one in a language not your own, is of vital importance. Often a mispronounced word can change the meaning of the text entirely.

I recently started using IPA in my high school classes. We use mostly the vowel symbols and sometimes consonants if there might be confusion. By teaching my students basic IPA, and using it consistently, I am assured that we will all be singing the same words, hopefully correctly and the students are learning a skill that will help them a great deal in future choirs. I have found in a short time that the results are well worth the time it takes me.

Below are some quick and easy steps to start using IPA in your choral classroom.

  • Visit the International Phonetic Association website. They have a chart of all sounds, sound recordings, and fonts if you choose to type the pronunciations for your students.
  • Choose one piece for each of your choirs for the next concert to begin. Latin or Italian will be easiest for you as well as them.
  • Write out the text to your chosen piece, leaving ample room between lines. Below each line of regular text, write out the IPA pronunciation. Many songs are repetitive, and you do not need to write out text that repeats.
  • Copy the text/IPA sheets for all of your students. As you pronounce the text for them, have them follow along with the IPA (not the regular text). Have them repeat it back to you. Eventually they will be able to read basic IPA without your help.
  • Put up basic IPA vowel and consonant posters in your classroom. Make them yourself or purchase them. I got my set from

A small amount of time in the beginning will provide huge returns for you and your choirs. My students no longer ask me how to pronounce Latin, Italian, or German. We are still working on other languages, but we now spend more time on the meaning of our words rather than how to say them.

Happy singing!

Another way to look at vowels

by Howard Meharg, NW-ACDA Editor's note:

If you're not already allocating time for teaching your students unification of tone quality through the vowel sound, I urge you to consider it. The vowels are the vehicle for the actual tone for the singer. (We rarely sing a sustained sound on a consonant!) It's remarkable how dissimilar singers can be with their vowel sounds when simply allowed to sing a song without attention to agreeing on the vowel for each syllable for each word. It's even more remarkable what happens when a section or a whole choir agrees on and shapes the vowel sounds of a series of words in a phrase. Assuming a certain similarity of approach to vocal production, the blend achieved in this way is almost miraculous. It's like one had turned the focusing knob on a projector. The fuzziness is gone...the clarity is amazing.

The IPA is a great tool. It is well worth learning. For the serious singer, it's a must. But there may be an easier (and perhaps more effective) way to get your middle and high school singers on the road to understanding this.

Simple is good. Narrow it down to twelve vowels. (I can't get it any lower than that and still make it work.) For American English, these twelve vowels may be all you need. Here they are:

Obviously a vowel sound is something more than the a,e,i,o,u and sometime y of the alphabet. Notice that they go from the brightest sound (ee) to the darkest sound (oo). Say the vowel and then the example, or say the example and then the vowel. Memorize the vowel as spelled in the list above and know the example for reference. Note (as part of the simplicity of this system) that only three at the bottom of the list require any phonetic markings. Be sure you and your singers know the sound represented by the "a" as in "sat." They will naturally be inclined to pronounce it as "ay" as in "say."

Know that two of the common vowels (ay and oh) are actually diphthongs (two or more vowel sounds which elide one into another). With regard to all diphthongs, agree on the correct vowels that make up their sounds. Most often (but not always) the initial vowel of a diphthong is the sound that is elongated. The second sound in the diphthong is thus called the "vanishing." It must be heard, but is often very short in duration and falls just before the next word. There are a few exceptions...and, by coincidence, the word "few" is one of them. It's a combination of "ee+oo." The "oo" portion is the sustained part.

What about the consonants? Consonants become the separators...the sounds made by actions of the tongue and lips against the teeth and the hard and soft palate. In the flow of a sung phrase, they separate the vowels, clarifying and articulating the flow of sound into understandable words. Be aware that colloquial use of consonants (or lack of consonants), or substituting one consonant sound for another, can destroy an otherwise refined effort.

Just as there really is an almost infinite number of pitches between, say, A-220 and A-440, an octave, it can be argued that there is an almost infinite number of vowel sounds from the brightest (ee) to the darkest (oo) in the English vowel spectrum. But with our scale of pitches, we use pegs for a diatonic, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do...and break it down a bit more by a series of half-steps...the chromatic scale. By the same token, the chart above uses "pegs" of quite distinguishable vowel sounds...twelve in provide a distinct sound for virtually every syllable in the American English language. It works for singing, most definitely!

I think it absolutely necessary that singers be taught the "spellings" and markings for these vowel sounds. They must make a connection between what it looks like (visual) and what is sounds like (aural). This takes practice. It will begin to make sense quickly. Write out a phrase or two from a song you've working on, elongating the words with hyphens between syllables. (See Figure 1 below) Ask singers to write the correct vowel under the syllables. Ask them to sing the syllables using the correct vowel on a single pitch for the whole phrase. Devise your own interesting method of calling their attention to unifying, agreeing, on the correct vowel for each syllable. Above all, notice (and ask them to notice) the tremendous change in the sound of your choir and they begin to achieve true unisons based on vowel unity.

Old Fred Waring arrangements from the 50's and early 60's used a similar pronunciation guide system. Dig one up and take a look. (Shawnee Press). I was able to attend one workshop with Fred Waring shortly before he died. He still advocated this device and insisted on correct vowels and clean, crisp the point of obsession.

We have some bad habits in the west especially regarding our treatment of certain diphthongs. The worst is to substitute the sound of a (as in sat) as the initial vowel in the hundreds of words which should use the diphthong ah+ee. Here are some examples:

How - (we tend to say ha-oh...with the first sound of the diphthong as the vowel in the word sat and follow it by the vanishing oh sound.) (It takes on a "country" twang if exaggerated.)
This word and hundreds like it (how, now, brown, cow, or the first syllable of "mountain," should be pronounced with the sound of ah followed by the oh vanishing sound. (Hah-oh)

Many singers are very "lazy" when it comes to shaping the vowels. Few really get to a pure ee (see, thee, tree). Even fewer get to a pure oo (loon, soon). (Take care to keep a "vertical" dimension to the tone quality, especially as you sing the brighter vowels such as the "ee." Simply put, it's a matter of keeping a certain roundness to the lips rather than a spread or "horizontal" shape.)

I'm aware that the "placement" of the vowel in the resonating cavity can and should change depending on the range of the note and the desired character of the tone quality. The "placement" of the tone, frontal or farther back in the throat may have some slight bearing on the sound of the vowel. Sopranos, in particular will find it necessary to modify the vowel as they sing above the staff. Start in the comfortable middle ranges. Just get started on the fundamentals! Know the sounds yourself. Train your ears for hearing unified vowels. Train your singers to see and hear vowels.

*Figure 1 - Try singing it on vowels only!

"Leaning" vowels for better tone quality
You will soon discover that habits of speech, colloquial styles, and (very often) singers who are inexperienced or have no formal voice training, will benefit from "leaning" a vowel sound (in most cases) toward the next peg or the adjacent vowel.

Very often, for example, inexperienced singers will sing the "ay" vowel with a spread tone lacking in resonance or "point" to the tone. Ask them to keep a certain roundness to the shape of the vowel but lean the "ay" toward an "ee." (Just "lean" it that direction, don't overdo it!)

The "a" sound as in the word "sat" can be a bit ugly, especially if nasalized at all. If you're hearing this, ask them to open the mouth as if singing an "ah" on the "offending" word. Sing the "a" vowel within the space of an "ah" vowel.

As a matter of personal taste I like to hear the "uh" vowel (especially when used on an accented syllable) leaned considerably toward a pure "ah." The simple word "of" would then become "ahv" rather than "uhv." The word "love" would be leaned toward "lahv" rather than "luhv." The word "country" might become "cahn-tree" rather than "cuhn-tree." Again, use your good ears to see if this is too much.

In summary
You will be amazed at the improvement in tone, blend, and diction when you master the twelve vowels in American English and teach a system (this one, the IPA, or your own) for making your singers conscious of singing the correct vowel on every syllable of every word they sing. Take no shortcuts!



Howard Meharg

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