Vocal Lessons Article

#3: Vowel Space - The Final Frontier


How you speak is one of the most important aspects of how you present yourself to the world. Whether it's big and full or small and timid, your voice is your ambassador, and having a speaking voice that is clear and confident is vitally important to personal and professional success. Whether your priority is to increase the size of your voice, improve your intonation, sweeten your tone or reduce your accent, using proper vocal technique to create space for your voice is crucial to every aspect of improving your speech.

Good vocal space is not just a matter of dropping your jaw and opening your mouth wider, although this will certainly help to an extent. The real challenge is in learning to allow your voice to exist in a bigger space. Ultimately, allowing your voice to live in a bigger space will increase your confidence and improve your overall presentation and communication skills. To achieve this, you must learn how to properly support your voice, how to make sounds properly using that support, and how to break habits that hold back your voice.

Breath support is the bedrock of your vocal technique. Take a moment to become aware of your breathing. Feel the expansion of your abdomen and sides as you breathe in. Your shoulders should remain relaxed. Allow your chest to rise and fall only minimally with each breath. Your focus should be on your abdomen, which contains the breathing muscle calling the diaphragm. Your diaphragm's sole purpose is to rise and fall, moving air in and out of your lungs. Diaphragm regulation is the key to good breath support.

Experiment with connecting diaphragmatic breathing and vowel placement with the following ah (as in Bob) sound exercise: place your fingers just a few inches above your belt line on your abdomen, inhale, stick out your tongue as if your doctor is checking your throat, say, “ah” several times in a row while pressing inward with your fingers on your abdomen with each sound. Keep your jaw relaxed and your tongue out. Allow your sound to lower to a more relaxed and resonant space.

Once you've built the foundation for the voice, you can begin to refine the sounds you make. Many individuals searching for improved speech will mistakenly put too much focus on consonant articulation, but the true path to a bigger and better voice lies in awareness of vowel placement.

There are 12 different vowel positions. The Front Vowels are the easiest to recognize. They are (from highest to lowest): 'ee' as in 'beet', 'ih' as in 'bit', 'ay' as in 'bait', 'eh' as in bet, 'aa' as in 'bat', and the low 'ah' as in 'Bob'. Try speaking each “as in” word twice in a row:

“Beet, beet, bit, bit, bait, bait, bet, bet, bat, bat, Bob, Bob.”

You should feel a need to open your mouth as you go to increase the space necessary for creating each lower vowel.

The next set of Middle Vowels are a little harder to recognize: 'er' as in Bert, 'uh' as in 'but', and once again, the lowest vowel, 'ah' as in 'Bob'. Try speaking each of these “as in” words twice in a row:

“Bert, Bert, but, but, Bob, Bob.”

You should feel a middle of the mouth sensation, approximately where your hard palate and soft palate meet. Watch out for any sensation of gripping in the cheek muscles. This should be avoided.

Most people have trouble properly placing one or more of the Back Vowels: 'long oo' as in 'boot', 'short oo' as in 'book', long 'oh' as in 'boat', 'aw' as in 'ball', and good old 'ah' as in 'Bob'. Try speaking each of these “as in” words twice in a row:

“Boot, boot, book, book, boat, boat, ball, ball, Bob, Bob.”

You should feel a back of the mouth sensation in the area of your soft palate. Watch for too much use of the lips on the first three back vowels. There is a tendency for the mind to see any “oo” word and think of the ghostly “boo” sound with lips pushed forward. This will force your sound forward where it will be robbed of vitality and clarity. Just allow it to live in the back of the mouth.

As you practice your speech, it's important to focus on how these sounds feel rather than how you hear them. We are all constantly monitoring our own speech; we know what we like, and what doesn't sound good to our ears, even though we cannot hear ourselves the way the rest of the world does. Thus, trying to “help” your voice sound better to you can lead to detrimental vocal habits such as squeezing the throat, widening the mouth, tongue clench and tightening of the jaw (to name just a few), all of which destroy the relaxed, resonant space we are working to create. These bad habits can be hard to detect on your own but some of the symptoms are vocal fatigue, muscle strain and a diminished sound.

Enlisting the help of a trained ear can help diagnose these sources of tension and reverse the deterioration of your voice, or help you unlock the techniques that will take your speaking to the next level. A good speech coach can help you refine your breath support, hone your vowel placement, and break the bad habits that are holding you back. In time, you'll build greater access control over vowel space and “boldly go where your voice has never gone before.”

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Paul Geiger

Paul Geiger

Associate Speech Coach at New York Speech Coaching