Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Ninth Lesson

Lesson 9

In the previous lesson we studied the six chief vowels. Of course there are also intermediate vowels such as E in HEN, A as in MAN, E as in HER, U as in RUN, OO as in FOOT, etc.

Generally speaking we can make a rule governing these vowels, and we study them in due time. But you must be very careful in studying the pure vowels that they never sound like these intermediate vowels, which they may do very easily.

Many people sing or speak AW for AH, A(N) for AH, OO as in “FOOT” for OO, etc., etc.

We have one law which is important for you here.

As we ascend the scale the “OPEN” vowels modify slightly towards a narrower or more “close” formation.

So AH modifies towards U(N) to avoid sounding an “OPEN” yell.

A modifies towards E.

E modifies towards I(T).

So the vowels AW, OH, OO also modify:

AW towards OH.

OH towards OO.

OO towards UH or even OH.

In other words, “open” vowels modify towards “closed” and “closed” vowels modify towards “open.”

The “open” vowels are AH, A, AW, OH.

The “closed” vowels are E and OO.

Be very careful that this modification is slight, and never lose the real character of the vowel. AH is always AH, even if its formation changes slightly. The same is true of all the other vowels. (Our English vowel “I” is really a diphthong. “AH-E”, the final E sound being what is called a “vanish.”

This modification is due to the different actions of the vocal organs for pitch, and the first evidence of this change is connected with a very important phenomenon, which I call the “LIFT OF THE BREATH.”

As we pass out of the easy speaking range of the voice, the breath action or support increases somewhat, thus preserving correct vocal position, the vocal organs exaggerate their movements for the higher pitches, and at one particular note in the scale the sound seems to gain in facial resonance, and the vowel modifies slightly.

Generally speaking, this note is,

C# or D in sopranos and tenors.

B in barytones and mezzo sopranos.

A in high basses and contraltos.

G in low basses and contraltos.

Here the vowel takes a slightly new form. The tones below must be blended with this, and the upper tones allowed to ring in the face and head. The scale then is even and so this slight change almost disappears.

The note position of this change is a very good means for deciding the classification of voices as to range: Soprano, alto, tenor or bass.

Try the scales with the various vowels and make your own observations. Use Exercise 14 especially for hearing the “LIFT” or slight change of tone and vowel and the new resonance.

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Use the syllable LAH.

Do not decide that your voice is a contralto because you have strong low tones, or that you are a soprano because you can sing quite high. Quality must decide and here the “lift of the breath” according to the notes given above will guide you. The same is true of basses and tenors. Some high voices can sing very good low tones.

Witherspoon, Herbert. Thirty-Six Lessons in Singing for Teacher and Student. Meissner Institute of Music. Chicago. 1930.

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