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Blurry sound when singing

i am student teaching with a HS choir and agreed to work one on one with a dedicated, enthusiastic junior girl who has some interesting challenges. I am sure I can help her with intonation, but she exhits a trait that baffles me. 
When she speaks, she has normal articulation. Not great, but not faulty, either. But, when she sings, her words get muddy. I am not sure how best to describe it, save that, if I heard it in speech, I would wonder if she needed speech therapy. 
I wonder if anyone has experienced this difficulty.if anyone has any advice I would certainly appreciate it.
Please pardon any errors; this was written on a tablet.
Replies (7): Threaded | Chronological
on December 5, 2014 6:42am
Goodness! I have a similar problem with a young woman in my choir.  All her vowels are overly-protected and so her words don't come out clearely and it makes it hard to articulate consonants.  Is that similar to what you are saying?  I think a lot of it is where the voice is placed when she is singing, where the vowels are.  If they can't produce pure "oh" and "ah" "eh" etc, Italianate vowels, then the words are always going to sound "affected" and "muddy."  One exercise I try is having them sing one staccato pure sound on any comfortable pitch for each vowel and hear if the sound is "affected" in any way, and then you can add consonants.  If they can "feel" how they are producing that one staccato pure sound, they can make sure that feeling applies all the time, with practice, in their singing.
There are other exercises, but I hope that helps. .  
on December 5, 2014 10:59pm
I am not sure - her words are indistinct, but I am not sure how best to describe it. It happends throughout her range. I will check, but I am pretty sure she can do the pure vowels; I am quite sure I have her them in warm ups. It seems more that the consonants are missing, or muted, than anything else. Still, I will keep this in mind. Anything to help me help her is quite welcome!
on December 6, 2014 7:27am
It almost sounds to me like she was either mis-taught or she mis-learned, and she overemphasizes vowels over consonants.  An image I like to use is that vocal music is like a house - the vowels are the doors and windows allowing us to see within; but for them to be most effective as doors and windows, they need a foundation, walls, and a roof - and those are the consonants.  So right now, by description ONLY (and any advice must be predicated on the fact we don't hear her in person), she needs to recognize that consonants - balanced, not overemphasized - are necessary to communicate accurately what the text in the song may be.  You may also want to observe her physical aspect as she sings, and watch what happens around the consonants - does she "swallow" them by dropping the jaw too far, for example?  We always are seeking the "long" sound in vowels, but sometimes it can get a little over-much!
I'm also curious about your statement that her normal articulation isn't "great, but not faulty, either."  It sounds as though she doesn't make a point of articulating as clearly as she could or ought.  Is that a fair observation?  It might actually help her to not worry about the notes initially, but rather worry about the articulation of the text.  Going from regular, daily speech that is clear and unencumbered (and now I'm speaking as a language major) to singing that is equally distinct and clear and unencumbered might be a path to take.
Good luck - let us know what happens.
on December 6, 2014 9:12am
Regarding her articulation, I simply meant that she speaks, by and large, like an average teenager. Her Ts are often softened to Ds. The word letter becomes "ledder". There is perhaps slightly worse articulation than average, but I wouldn't swear to it. If there is it is so subtle that I am not certain. It is also possible that it is a residual accident. I haven't met her parents, but she is Asian in descent, and if her parents or grandparents have a strong accent, she might have inherited it, in part. And now that I think about it, it reminds me a bit of how a Chinese-American women I know speaks. But much milder.
on December 7, 2014 5:05am
Aha!  You're dealing with two cultural matters:  1) the possiiblity of a home-derived accent and pronunciation influenced by people who do not necessarily speak English as a first language; and 2) the society at large.  You said it yourself, "she speaks,...,like an average teenager."  Language teachers and students of foreign languages have said for years that we are "lazy-lipped Americans."  That's shorthand for sloppy articulation - I'm sorry, there's no other possible description for it - and it is, in part, because of societal norms (","  "y'know," "ummmmm....") in daily speech that do NOT emphasize proper speaking.  In addition, it's the phenomenon I've often observed of teens who speak so rapidly that their words mush together in an almost incomprehensible mass.  You need only watch and listen to young people in their late teens on TV who are not trained actors or actresses to hear some of the worst sort of mashed-up American English, and if any accented language enters into it - either from non-English origins or from regional accents - it can cause veritable havoc.  All wonderful as descriptions of what's happening, but no help for how to solve it.  The advantage, as you well know, of singing is it gives a rhythm to speech.  The only difference between this young woman and the rest of your students is that whatever hills the rest have to cross to sing text correctly is, for the most part, not as high.  Helping her understand, first, the need for clarity in her diction of text while singing is the intellectual start; the rest has to be just a series of simple exercises in enunciating consonants without having vowels, at least initially. After she's grasped the essential concept, then perhaps add the vowels and see what ensues.  (Although this does bring to mind the hilarious interchange in "Family Guy" between Stewie, the baby of the family, and Brian, the talking dog, about adding "Cool Whip" to a dessert.  Stewie - who for some incomprehensible reasons speaks with a British accent - insists, without any realization, on reversing the first two letters on "whip" so that it sounds as "hwip" - but that only happens when he's saying "Cool Whip.")  Good luck!
on December 7, 2014 5:08am
 Hi Marianne,
I think you have probably found the cause of the problem yourself by observing that she may have a residual Chinese/Asian accent. Having learned to speak Chinese myself, I can assure you that the vowels are much more important than the consonants and certainly there are very, very few ending consonants. If she speaks Chinese at home, she may well have unconsciously learned to soften her consonants. I direct a French choir, and as you know, in French vowels are also most important. When I want my choir to sing well in English or German we start by exaggerating the consonants. I substitute Kl for Gl in "Gloria", for example to make the G crisper. You and your student may have to go consonant by consonant looking for ways to make them clearer. Make a game of it with her, so she feels involved in the search process. You'll both have fun finding the solutions.
on December 7, 2014 4:12pm
If she is speaking Mandarin or another Chinese language at home, you might also want to watch how she uses her tongue. More than half of my students are native Mandarin speakers and they very often have crazy tongue issues because of the demands of their home language even though they, too, sound like typical American teenagers in their every day speech at school. 
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