Er, which vowel should I sing?
Vocal tips for singers and singing teachers: improving your resonance with “er”
Gillyanne here. Jeremy often complains about my erring and umming when he’s editing the Vocal Process videos and Webinars. Of course it’s a trait of an auditory processor, who makes a noise while they’re thinking. So is “er” ever useful?
Er is often shunned as a vowel in singing, especially in traditional teaching, because it isn’t part of the Italian vowel set. And as we know, Italian – bel canto – is claimed to be the sine qua non of classical singing.
Except of course if you happen to be singing in English, as personally I prefer to hear my English Song unmangled. Er is called the schwa in phonetics, and the English language is full of them.
So here are 3 situations in which I use ‘er’ positively for resonance and placement:
1. Working with a Swedish leading lady known for her excellent belt voice who was singing the song “Being Mrs Banks” from Mary Poppins. She needed to sound warm, English and ‘neutral’ in terms of accent. By singing target phrases to ‘er’ we got rid of the heaviness of the belt sound and also gained a sense of warmth and space for narrative and lyrical singing needed for the ‘legit’-style role she was preparing. An excellent practical quick fix
2. Working with a British singer who was preparing ‘Music for a While’ for an exam. Something about the sound wasn’t working – the singer was getting tired and the sound quality just seemed to be over-manipulated. I got the singer to speak and then sing the vowel ‘er’, then to match the words to the ‘er’ resonance. This stopped her from overdarkening and Italianising her vowels. The difference was night and day; her sound was fresh, clear and flexible, and just seemed to bloom
3. Working with a very accomplished Catalan singer who has a light voice and was very determined to sing Jason Robert Brown’s epic song The Flagmaker. I admit I was skeptical but we worked on finding the ‘er’ sound to balance the vowel quality, also increasing airflow and subglottal pressure by walking around with lead feet (an old Drama school trick). The pièce de résistance was getting her to dress up in layers of heavy clothing to change her physicality. It was a wacky combination but it worked for her (and me)! The result was a thicker, more connected and heavier sound quality.
So – why is it that the ‘er’ is so useful? Well it’s the most neutral position for the tongue in terms of height and forwardness/backness. It’s a great place to visit when someone is overmanipulating their sound, or singing with a tense jaw. And the formants (bands of resonance) are equally spaced on this vowel (F1-F3).
Perhaps it allows the singer to sing with a bit more of her ‘inner’ voice? Add your thoughts below please…
PS you can find out more about ‘er’ and other useful phonemes for singers and teachers in Practical Phonetics, in the Deep Dive section of the Learning Lounge