October/November 2015

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Vowel shaping and facial stretches

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Vowel shaping and facial stretches

Inflatable dolls & wide-mouth frogs & the spaghetti-sucking pucker! (Vowel shaping, facial anchoring and facial stretches…)

Think of your favourite singers… what do they all have in common? That’’s right, a mouth. In fact, all my favourite singers have huge mouths. What joy!

Unfortunately, here in puritanical Nu Zulend, we seem to have great shame around opening our mouths, or even showing any facial expression whatsoever. So, this here column is dedicated to mouth shaping, facial anchoring and facial stretches.

Register how you feel right now. Check in. By the time you’’ve read this and used these tools, I promise that you’’ll feel 1,000 times better…er…rrr.

When you sing, imagine that you are one gigantic mouth, nothing else! Hum and then slowly open your mouth –– the sound will get bigger and bigger. This is good. What we communicate is primarily dictated by what spaces in the head are made available for resonating.

Just talk to Seth Macfarlane about how powerful shifting sound around into all the nooks and crannies of the mouth, pharynx, mask, sinus and nasal cavities, is. Experiment with different accents and cartoon voices: Sesame Street’’s baby seal, Eric Cartman or a Texan drawl…… it’’s all about the movable parts of face and head. So let’’s get movin’.

Next up we have to create a happy home for the five main vowels. You can’’t fit an ‘‘i’’ inside an ‘’oh’’ mouthshape. Our job is to provide the right snuggly accommodation for each vowel we sing. You wouldn’’t ram a square peg into a round hole, now would you?

The Shapes

Starting with the brightest and furthest forward, ‘‘I’’ is the widest horizontally and vertically. ‘’E’’ is the wide-mouth frog or the widest sideways. Pull the corners of your mouth apart with your index fingers and delight the under-5s by telling the story of the wide-mouth frog to remind you of who you are (and how much you like eating flies with your long sticky tongue!).

‘‘Aah’’ and ‘’aye’’ require lifting cheeks (so you can barely see over them), and dropping your jaw on the floor, a la Jim Carey in Mask.

‘’Oh’’ is the inflatable doll and finally, ‘’Ooh’’ is a kissing pucker or sucking spaghetti. For the last two mouth-shapes, think of the potter at her wheel molding and drawing the wet clay sides of the vase up and into shape (these are the sides of your lips). Singing in Maori gives a great mouth workout too, because of the pure, open vowels.

In order to feel, hear and taste the difference between a vowel being ‘’at home’’ as opposed to ‘‘locked out’’, sound each vowel starting from a floppy-mouth, possum-in-the-headlights position, then form the exaggerated mouth shape for that vowel.

Hear the vowel become fully resonant and ringy? Sing a blues scale on ‘’doobie, doobie, doobie too’’. You’ll need spaghetti sucking puckers for ‘’ooh’’ and wide-mouth frogs for’ ‘ee’’. Contrast by singing with no lip movement…… no contest. Giving your face a workout makes singing so much easier, rounder, fuller, more enjoyable. Furthermore, listeners discern the words and know how you feel about what you’re singing too. Result.

Funny, we tend to mumble and paralyse our faces more when singing originals. This might be insecurity or cringe –– not wanting anyone to hear words. Film yourself or look in the mirror to register how lazy or active your face is when singing different material.

We have to tell one hell of a story using our 5,000 or more facial muscles. Kapa haka, Indian classical and Balinese dance all tell the story through the face. With the dominance of text-based communication, we’’re losing our ability to engage in face to face communication / conversation. Tone, through facial expression is everything.

We must free up the face for expression, articulation and resonance. Two things I say to students more than any other are, “lift your cheeks”” and “show me your teeth””. Imagine your face is fluid or on acid. Make it malleable, liquid and mobile by doing facial stretches.

  1. ‘Expand’ – stretch the mouth as large as you can. Push the flesh of the face in all four directions, up, down, left to right (say ‘‘banana!’’).
  2. ‘Squeeeeze’ – squish your face into the centre / tip of your nose (say ‘‘prune’’). For a tongue workout, touch the tip of your tongue to…
  3. Your nose.
  4. Underneath your chin.
  5. Your left ear.
  6. Your right ear.
  7. Jut the chin out and up so that you’re pressing your chin to the ceiling. Hold/extend these stretches for at least 30 seconds each. Pretend you’’re a fish by silently shaping ‘‘Ooooooweeeee’’ repeatedly.

In order to really maximize mouth-space, we can lift the soft palate in the back of the mouth. This is like putting a skylight in or opening up the sunroof acoustically. Voicecraft™ calls these following tools Facial Anchoring (but it’’s more mid-head anchoring). Feel / see that when you yawn, the uvula lifts up and space is created at the back of the mouth. This amplifies sound.

Exaggerate these catalysts and the same thing will happen (except without the evil tongue stiffening of a yawn).

  1. Shiver.
  2. Bite into a toffee apple, baring down with top teeth.
  3. Feel cold air suddenly hit the back of the mouth.
  4. Suck on a thickshake straw.
  5. Snarl silently like a tiger.
  6. A genuine, wedding day smile.
  7. Silently (and violently) meow.
  8. Flare your nostrils.

Note how each facial anchoring tool subtly changes the tone? Try describing the differences in feel and colour. Some brighten; snarl, biting, smiling and some darken; cold air, sucking on a straw. Facial anchoring, mouth shaping and facial stretching are especially helpful when singing high pitches because they like the extra room to run around in.
Twitter @BraveCaitlin