The Vocalist Challenge: Three Syllable Words

Hello, singers!

Nick here again with some vocal advice that has been passed down from generations of talented singers, vocalists, front men, front women, and egomaniacs.  Actually, I lied.  It was a lesson from my vocal coach to me, and one I find myself tripping over every once in a while at rehearsal.  (Sort of like the head down thing that I blogged about HERE.)

Many trained vocalists know about the dangerous syllabus that cause us to close up, or swallow, certain vocal sounds.  We get away from the vowel sound and accent the consonants instead.  Unless you’re shooting for a particular emotional effect, that’s technically not the correct approach.  (Let’s face it.  No ear, nose and throat specialist or dentist ever said, “open up and say ‘Uhlllllllllll’.”)  Instead, proper vocal technique requires acknowledging the three parts to a vocalized syllable.  The entry (a consonant or imagined consonant like the invisible H – I’ll blog about that one another time), the sustained vowel sound, and the exit (either a consonant or a vowel sound, depending on the lyric and intent).

The issue I want to discuss in this session is the center of that three-part vocalization; the vowel sound, and the danger of losing that when singing the dreaded monster of vocal monsters – the three-syllable word.

To start, let’s look at a few of those consonants that cause us to naturally close up and lose the vowel sounds in favor of dominant consonants.  Some examples are -er, -ur, -em, -um, -el, and -ul.  Often we hear singers swallow these vowel sounds, leading to an almost mumbling of the vocal tones.  Now, some vocalists just perform this way.  Scott Stapp, Eddie Vedder, Jim Morrison; these guys just deliver a very throaty approach.

It is very hard to go from a clean, clear, frontal approach to the throaty delivery and do it the right way.  Two guys I know do it very well – DC music veteran Michael Sheppard, and Kem (our generation’s Barry White)

Here’s where those vocal sounds can really sneak out of the weeds and catch you – when they’re the middle syllable of a three syllable word.  I admit, it sounds odd at first, but think about it. Ok, don’t think about it yet, let me throw you some examples first, and you tell me if you find yourself subconsciously burying the vowel sound in the middle. It happens in speech, even more than it happens in singing.  Here’s a few examples:

memory (meh-murr-ee)
battery (batt-urr-ee)
yesterday (yes-turr-day)
sustenance (sus-tuh-nans)
understand (un-duhr-stand)
infantry (in-fuhn-try)
another (ah-nuh-ther)
understand (uhn-duhr-stand)
restaurant (res-turr-awnt)
syllable (sil-uh-bull)

Ok, so some of these don’t show up in every Top 40 pop song, but that’s not the point.  The point is that swallowing certain sounds can cause a singer to lose momentum and delivery of her line.  That is enough to send a trigger to the listener, even if they don’t have any musical theory training, or ever picked up an instrument.  It’s like putting a speed bump in the middle of an Interstate.  It’s a bad practice, so let’s agree together to avoid it.

Instead, focus on words like this and practice keeping the middle consonant open. Here are some suggested improvements:

memory (meh-murr-ee) (meh-MAH-ree)
battery (batt-urr-ee) (bat-TAH-ree)
yesterday (yes-turr-day) (yes-Tah-day) (R isn’t really required)
sustenance (sus-tuh-nans) (sus-Tah-nens)
understand (un-duhr-stand) (Uhn-Dah-stand) (same rule, try it!)
infantry (in-fuhn-try) (In-Fahn-tree)
another (ah-nuh-ther)(ah-Nah-ther)
understand (uhn-duhr-stand) (Uhn-Dah-stand) (Trust me on the R thing, really)
restaurant (res-turr-awnt) (Res-Tah-rahnt)
syllable (sil-uh-bull) (Sil-AH-bull)

I feel like I just assigned homework, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  I  know how I felt leaving rehearsal tonight.  I have room for improvement.  Read this, and let me know your thoughts.  Maybe you do.  Maybe you don’t.  Either way, please share your thoughts.  We’re all students here.  Some of us have more stage experience that others, but we all have room to improve.  If we didn’t, well, who knows where we would be?

Thanks for your time.  One Love!
Vox, Division

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Control Issues delivers a deep assortment of musical textures and emotions through songs that have been forged and tested in the unforgiving world of live concerts.