The Vowel ( A, E , I , O)
Everyone knows what a vowel is, but how much do you really know about how vowels work?
Vowel sounds are produced with an open vocal tract. Unlike consonants, vowels don’t involve an interruption of air at the vocal tract. You can experience the difference by saying the syllable 'Ka' then say the long vowel 'A'. That short interruption of air you feel with the K is what makes it a consonant. On the other hand - the unrestricted, free flow of air is what makes it a vowel. When playing the didgeridoo this process is no different. You will shape your mouth and control air flow the same way.
Understanding what is happening in the mouth when making a vowel sound is helpful when transferring what you instinctively do while speaking to playing it in the didgeridoo.
Vowels in DidgIt
In DidgIt the vowels have their own category. We can put together some simple vowel exercises into a rhythm and play along with it. Think of it as calisthenics for your tongue. You can slow down the BPM to any speed that feels comfortable. As you improve, the BPM can be raised back up. By that time you’ll be ready to throw in some consonants.
Phonetics and Articulation
The Didgeridoo is a linguistic instrument. That is to say that when you play didgeridoo, you are using all the same processes, muscle groups, and neurological behaviors as singing or even speaking. So we can use the science of linguistics to help us visualize inside the black box of a didge player's mouth.
The science of Linguistics describes how to produce a vowel using three simple articulation criteria : Height, Backness and Roundness/Lip Tension.
This is how high or low the tongue is when producing the vowel sound.
You can experience the difference when saying the vowels 'I' and then 'A'. Do this consecutively. You can feel your tongue moving up and down in your mouth.
This is how far forward or back the tongue is positioned when producing the vowel sound.
You can experience the difference when saying the vowels 'I' and then 'O'. Do this consecutively. You can feel your tongue moving from the front to the back and slightly down.
This is how rounded the lips are when producing the vowel sound.
You can experience the difference when saying the vowels 'I' and then 'O'. Do this consecutively. You can feel your lips purse and relax. Now for didge we need to modify this to mean lip tension. This criteria can be extremely useful when describing how intense to make a sound (high frequency). Increase lip tension and you increase frequency. That increase leads to higher modes of a given didgeridoo’s key. This is an extremely useful advanced technique and not related to the subject of this article. But because roundedness mechanics doesn’t translate properly to lip tension, for clarity, from now on I will only refer to it as Lip Tension.
Describing this linguistic criteria is helpful for beginning didge players, because they often don’t know how to begin making sounds other than the basic drone. This linguistic chart, introduced by renowned phonetician Daniel Jones will be an invaluable tool for the beginner and the expert alike. You can pick opposing vowels like 'I' and 'O' and see their location on the chart. The points indicated in the chart indicate Height and Backness of the tongue. Now you can see each vowel and the way to configure your mouth to make each of these vowel sounds.
Thinking about it visually like this helps you formulate your syllables consciously for a more productive didge practice time.
Try the 'I' and 'O' exercise on the didge while playing a drone. Now keep in mind you are not to vocalize the sound. You are merely shaping your mouth the way you would when speaking. But you do it while playing the drone. You will hear the vowel start to be defined. It will take practice. But exercises like these build strength in in the muscle groups needed to form clean crisp tones.
Putting It All Together
With practice, these vowel sounds will become as natural to generate in a didgeridoo as they are when you speak. We would love to hear from you on this subject. Feel free to get involved in the conversation below this article or on Facebook. Let us know what works or doesn’t work for you.