“Listen for the shimmer,” is a phrase I like to use with my students. I find that attempting to explain the overtone series to a room full of middle schoolers quickly results in losing them, because it feels so abstract. But shimmer? That’s totally on their level.
Why Do We Want Shimmer In Our Sound?
This little story seemed to click with my students when I was trying to explain the concept most recently:
“So you know how if you’re jumping on a trampoline with your friend, but you aren’t jumping at the same time, it’s really hard to jump high without putting a whole bunch of effort into it?”
“Ok, now what if you and your friend start jumping together at the same time?”
“We can both jump really high!”
“Right! And is it easier to do, or harder if you’re doing the same thing at the same time?”
When we don’t match our vowels, or listen for balance and blend in our sound, the sound waves fight each other. (like the first time on the trampoline). But, when we listen and try to do the exact same thing as our neighbor, the sound waves stop fighting each other, and start syncing up together. We can hear the shimmer in our sound because the sound waves are lining up with one another, which allows us to sing in tune, with increased volume, without a whole lot of extra effort on our part.
Locking It In
The easiest way to achieve shimmer is to sing on “sol”, or “oo” (u, for those of you fluent in IPA). Once I can hear it, I’ll try to point it out to the class, and describe what it feels like to me:
It feels like the sound becomes physical, like you can feel it in the room
It’s like you can hear a steady wave slowly moving right above your head
There is a ring in your ears, like the sound is cutting right through you
Vowel sounds that are more focused and controlled, like oh (o), or oo (u) are easier to find success with right away. If using solfege, I go up from sol to high do first, before going back down. Fa is definitely the hardest for my students to experience shimmer on!
If you’re not a solfege person, this also works well by moving between pure vowels: i, e, a, o, u.
I’d start from the most closed (u), and slowly move to the more open vowels. Save (a) for last!
Either way you try this out, make sure to just let your classes experience each vowel sound. Let them sit there for awhile so they really have a chance to listen, and make minute adjustments.
My students, after asking them to keep the sound going and stagger breathe, probably.
Sometimes, it takes a little bit of experimenting before a class will start to figure out what they need to listen for. If I hear a few students who are getting it on one side of the room, I’ll have them start, and slowly move my arm across the group. As I pass each person with my arm, their job is to join in while matching the sound they hear exactly.
You can also bring a small group up to the front that you can count on to do it. Let them model, and point out what you’re hearing them do to achieve the sound you want! Then, let the rest of the group join in, cuing them to match the sound.
If all else fails, model it yourself! Sing it first, and then have students slowly join you and match your vowel.