On Over-articulation 1: the Vocal Approach

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Wallace: master of over-articulationWallace: master of over-articulationSeveral times over the last few months, I’ve found myself helping singers overcome a tendency to chew their words as they enunciate them. So I’ve been thinking not only about techniques to help smooth the lines out, but also what underlies the habit in the first place. Over-articulation is an endearing feature of Nick Park animations, after all, but less helpful in choral contexts.

One origin of the habit, I suspect, is the way that the practices of the British cathedral tradition infiltrate so widely into the rest of our musical life. And while there is much that is wonderful about that, not all its habits necessarily translate directly into other contexts. The statement ‘You can never have too much consonant!’ is a valid statement when you’re working in an acoustic that is better for atmospheric effects than intelligibility of text, but in a small, dry room produces a result that is rather over-mannered.

But this is not the whole story, of course.

The emphatic consonants required in a cathedral don’t necessarily produce the Wallace-like chewing of text I’m referring to here. The issue is more with the vocal line which they articulate.

At a vocal level, there are two issues going on. One is continuity of breath. In speech, we routinely stop the breath at the larynx as a way to conserve breath. In singing, the aim is to use a much more continuous air-flow – which is why we need to put all that work into developing deeper breaths and more support than we typically use in spoken conversation , to sustain that continuity. So, choppy articulation often appears along with under-developed support and breathing. Get that working better, and you can overcome the subconscious need to stop the breath to conserve. Bubbling the line is a good way to focus on continuous air-flow – and more ideas can be found in my post on Singing Long Phrases.

The second vocal issue is vowel shape and (associated with this) placement of resonance. If you change the shape of your mouth significantly to shape each vowel, you’ll find the sound of your voice changes noticeably from note to note. It starts to sound like this:

inkpath

Rather than like this:

smooth

Useful exercises to get vowels more lined up include:

  • Singing a line without the consonants while thinking about ‘placing’ all the vowels in the same spot (the bridge of the nose is quite a good place to imagine them sitting)
  • Singing it with your little finger between your back teeth as a way to make sure you keep your jaw still.

These are all fairly standard techniques to help develop a legato line, and they work quite reliably. But I’m increasingly starting to suspect that the reason they work is not just because they change our physical habits, but because they can help change how we’re thinking about music too. But that’s a separate post.

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