I find myself repeating to several singers this week: “Support the consonants like the vowels!” The student would often look at me perplexed until s/he realizes that s/he was giving up all vocal coordination between vowels. This is particularly significant when singing voiced consonants but unvoiced consonants can have a similar adverse effect on the following vowel if not sung with the same intensity.
The issue is one of breath control. As my friend, Jack Livigni so expertly explained on his recent posts on breath coordination, the emission of breath is not automatic with glottal opening. It is the desire to make sound that activates the diaphragm, given that the core muscles provide a floor and the external intercostals remain active to prevent uncontrolled realease of air.
A good consonant requires excellent breath pressure and articulation. In that sense it is not so different from a vowel. An unvoiced consonant differs from a vowel only by the point articulation (or contact). The goal, with respect to an unvoiced consonant, is to generate a level of air pressure equvalent to what will be necessary for the following vowel. For voiced consonants, the problem is more complex. A voice consonant has a double articulation, one at the glottis to produce a tone and one the buccal juncture (specific to the given consonant).
This means that the breath pressure must be high enough to vibrate the vocal folds and the transglottal flow must be high enough to produce enough supraglottal pressure for the consonant’s articulation juncture. In order for the following vowel to be produced adequately, the glottal resistence (producing subglottal pressure) must match that of the preceding consonant.
Very often, problems in tone production are due to uncoordinated articulation of the consonant that has a direct effect on the quality of the following vowel. Some singers are very skilled at recovering from a bad consonant. They manage to adjust the vowel adequately despite poor consonants. However, the effect of legato is lost. Often the quality of the vowel sound degrades because of the preceding consonant. But because the consonant is so short as compared to the vowel, the singer or even the teacher will more than likely find fault with the vowel without being aware of the influence of the consonant.
Obviously consonants are not always at the root of a phonation problem, but often they are and unfortunately their influence on the vowel sounds is too frequently ignored.