Getting Your Singers to Open Their Mouths: A Hands-on Experience
Inexperienced vocalists often don't open their mouths enough while singing. But it's not their fault! They just haven't been taught how yet. When I work with my own students on the space required for proper vocal technique, I like to get hands-on...literally.
To truly understand the space needed to open the mouth, developing singers need to see, touch, and hear what it sounds like when someone uses the proper space to sing. To see, kids can look to you as a model for what to do. They can even see themselves with the help of a mirror (or selfie cam!) I like to ask my own classes to watch themselves in their selfie cameras to see if their mouths look like mine while they are practicing. I've even done an assignment before where students take selfies demonstrating the correct space.
For touch, I regularly have students feel and check what's going on using their hands. To monitor the actual opening of the mouth, I like to have them check using their fingers. Read on to see my model for each of the five pure vowels (plus a few more things I've picked up on that seem to work well!)
For "i", I have students place the tip of their index finger between the upper and lower teeth. This allows just enough separation for the sound to resonate and escape through the front of the mouth. If there isn't enough space separating the teeth, you get a buzzy sound...which we don't want. I demonstrate what this sounds like so my groups know what to listen for.
"e" is a little more than the width of my index finger, but not quite open enough for two fingers.
"a" is open enough that two fingers fit in between my upper and lower teeth stacked on top of on another. (You have to specify that your fingers are stacked....otherwise students will place them side by side and that doesn't help anyone!!
"o" uses almost the exact same space as the previous vowel, except the lips are slightly closed and rounded into a circle. Saying that "o" is always a circle really helps my kids match the vowel.
"u" is the even more closed version of "o". Ignore the fact that I'm checking my space with only one finger. It should be two. Brain fart.
But remember, you don't want "u" to be so closed at the lips that the sound doesn't have room to escape. You should be able to stick your pinky finger into the opening created by your lips while singing this vowel.
Other tactile tricks!
Using the index finger to gently place weight on the chin helps students feel the jaw naturally lower. Just a differentiation tip to help them get their mouths open! Sometimes I use this if we are echo chanting a phrase.
I'm only using one hand to demonstrate, but you can place both hands up against your cheeks to encourage creating tall space (as opposed to spread space). I model how to line up your knuckles with your cheekbones, and gently let your fingers rest up against your face. It's also helpful to give a couple of negative models, so students can see what happens if you don't use this the right way.
With "i" and "e" vowels, I tell my classes to pucker their lips. By cupping your hand, you can encourage a correct pucker with as little tension as possible. You can also have kids touch or gently grab their lips to make sure they aren't holding any tension there. I tell them they should be able to wiggle their lips!
To learn more about how I teach my students to sign with the correct space, head over to this post to read about Marshmallow space!
Don't forget! The most important part of this process is to have students sing with the correct space, hear what it sounds like when done correctly, and them immediately give them specific praise on what they did well, and direct critique on how they can improve.