Historical Perspectives: Witherspoon’s Thirty-Fourth Lesson

Lesson 34


The jaw moves freely for M. It is not necessary to move the jaw for each sound of N and L. It will only retard tongue action, which is necessary and important for pronunciation.

The jaw should fall easily at the back or hinge, and never protrude forward at the chin. The latter action always shows a tight throat and rigid jaw.

The the jaw fall freely on inhaling.

Do not force the breath nor try to take too much breath.

Do not push out the abdomen, nor pull it in, nor push out the ribs, nor hold them out. The correct taking of the breath calls for co-ordination of all the breathing muscles, not undue attention to any one. 

You have seen how naturally the ribs hold when you make an exclamation. Learn all you can from nature, and make your breathing spontaneous and natural. Singing is an art but it is not artificial. The larynx, or sound-box, the tongue and palate are closely associated in the production of sound, both tone and words, and if one goes wrong, all three go wrong. I do not call attention to other because I do not wish you to be unduly scientific, nor unduly conscious of various organs as separate units.

If the larynx pushes up, the tongue will fight back, and the palate will become rigid and probably too high in position.

The sounds that free the larynx and keep it in normal position are these: HUNG, OO, HM (Humming), MUMM with very free, active jaw.

Sing the HUNG sustaining on the NG with the mouth open and feel with your finger that the larynx is remaining in its natural place. Do not try to depress the larynx. Sing the HUNG only one note above the lift of the breath as already described.

OO should be sung piano; it demands the least action of the vocal cords and therefore has the least tendency to raise the larynx.

Sing it as high as is comfortable. Extend the range carefully and with patience.

HM must be attacked with the H sound, making a real HUM, not an UMM. There is no hearable glottic attack, no click. This sound avoids heavy action in the larynx and therefore tends to leave it in normal position.

MUMM is the phonetic to follow HM. Sing it with freely acting jaw.

You may use NAH to follow HUNG, with quiet jaw.

It is best to use short exercises of three or five notes for these phonetics.

The same phonetics aid the tongue greatly and the palate also.

If the tone is too nasal or “NOSEY,” establish a better fundamental vowel in the mouth with these sounds: LAH, MAH, MY, RAH, DAH, BAH, or even KAH if the nasal sound persists. The palatal action in singing is very slight, much less than was supposed for many years. The X-Ray has proved this. But there is some action. K will cause this action, but use it sparingly because you can easily force the palate too high and develop an “OPEN” tone which is very dangerous, especially for high notes.

Lah is to be sung without jaw movement. The mouth should be opened about one inch.

Mah requires jaw action, and be sure you are pronouncing well in the mouth.

My is a bright AH terminating in E. It stimulates mouth formation of the vowel AH and the “vanish” E gives the feeling of forward singing and free emission.

Rah exaggerates the formation of the vowel in the mouth, therefore doing away with the nasal quality. Use only one R, and that, of course, on the first note, sustaining the other notes on AH.

You may repeat the D and B on each note of the exercises, thus: Dah, Dah, Dah, etc.: Bah, Bah, Bah, etc.,

Avoid using V or S as practise mediums. V has a bad tendency to tense the muscles under the tongue, and S is a hissing sound which prevents a good attack.

Of course, we must eventually sing them correctly.


When the tone is attacked correctly the tongue action is upwards and forwards in preparation for the formation and attack of the tone. This is an invariable rule of nature, only differing in degree according to the vowel formed. The consonants are made quickly and clearly and do not interfere with this law, and, in fact, some of them aid the law as we have seen in the phonetics selected for the cure of certain faults of interference.

Because of this law of the tongue action, the vowels AH-A-E are used. Each ensuing vowel demands more of this tongue action, so we say that AH-A-E sung on one note or on three notes upwards and downwards persuade this vocal law of the tongue. This is also in accordance with the demands for pitch.

So, if your tongue pulls back or “HUMPS UP” at the back part, or curls under or turns up at the tip, practise these three vowels with care. If you aid them with the arm gestures for breathing you will soon make the tongue free and you will form the vowels easily and freely.

Now you may go on to AW-OH-OO in the same way.


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

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