Why do we use Italian vowels? What's so great about Italian vowels?


Good morning all you beautiful singers/teachers of singing. When I was a student in college, I heard a lot about the concept of an "open throat". Some teachers seemed to have a better grasp of how to teach this concept more than others. Unfortunately, none of the teachers I worked with were the ones that had a firm grasp on how to teach this very important concept. When I left Florida to continue my education in Boston, I hope and prayed that someone would be able to show me how to open my ever increasing closed throat. Years of mis-information caused my laryngeal muscles to close up like a steel drum. Whenever I sang, it felt as if I was belting every note. 

I became increasingly frustrated with the way I was producing sound. It seemed so effortless for other singers. I remember asking a very gifted co-star of mine who was singing the Pirate King to my Frederick in a production of "The Pirates of Penzance", Drew Sarich, what his teacher taught him about singing? He said "My teacher tells me that nothing is held". That statement really hit me like a ton of bricks, because "holding the sound" was something I had become a master of. Everything felt held, tight, rigid and uncomfortable. I must have been really good at covering up this discomfort because I worked almost constantly. But the discomfort in my singing was starting to catch up with me. 

In 1999 I was told about a teacher in Manhattan named Leona Mathews. She was a contralto from Lithuania, and taught old world concepts based on ideas she learned from Italian masters when she was a young singer. She was only teaching one day a week because she was gravely ill at the time. I practically begged her to take me on as a student, and told her that I was at the end of my rope with my voice. 

In the very first lesson with Leona she asked me "Jeffrey, where do you feel your breath?" I pointed to my belly and said "right here". She asked me "What about the back?" I asked her "What ABOUT the back?" She quickly realized that no one had ever taught me about opening the back ribcage when I breathed in to start the onset of sound. She had me place my hands underneath my back rib-cage as I inhaled. Surprisingly I was able to get a decent amount of expansion in the back, but wasn't sure how to apply it to singing yet. She asked me to keep the back open and count to 10. All of the sudden this very deep, open sound came out of my mouth with no tension! She had me sing a simple arpeggio built on 1-3-5-8-5-3-1 on the sounds GA AH YAH REE EE EE TAH. I still have no idea if "gahyaritah" is an actual word, but it certainly opened my throat for the first time in many years. 

As we progressed through that first lesson, I realized she was teaching me the concept of an open throat. Every exercise was simple, and based on the 5 Italian vowels: ah, eh, ee, oh and ooh. 

Now your probably wondering "Didn't Jeff get this in college? Surely they must've taught this at a prominent school of music?" The idea of an open throat was taught. But without the proper breath behind the vowel, no amount of singing with Italian vowels will open the throat. 

After that first lesson with Leona, I knew I was on to something amazingly healthy and liberating for my voice. 

I had 5 more lessons with Leona, and them she passed away suddenly from complications of a very serious disease. I am so grateful that I had the chance to work with this master teacher. Just a month after Leona's passing, I was told about David Jones, who would become my primary teacher and mentor of the last 16 years. David teaches the same ideas of the open throat based on pure Italian vowels and an open back rib cage. 

One question that comes up a lot from new students is "Will this technique make me sound like an opera singer?" My stock answer is always "Only if you want it to?" You see, there seems to be a trend in contemporary commercial music circles, that studying any technique that is classically based cannot give you a commercial sound. In my experience, this couldn't be further from the truth. Singers need to have an open, free throat to sing contemporary commercial music, or any other style of non classical music. Once the throat is open and the larynx is free of tension, you can dress it up any way you want. 

I made a video a few moths ago about breathing. In the video I discuss the idea of speaking the 5 Italian vowels on the correct breath. You can find the video about breathing on my YouTube channel. Just click the icon to the right of the google plus icon. 

Until next time, keep singing and let your voice soar..........but use the correct breath to do so! 

Jeffrey Stanfill