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Speaking of Voice: "Using the Hum,” by Margaret H. Daniel

(Excerpted from the Choral Journal article, “Using the Hum and the Trill in Vocal and Choral Development,” by Margaret H. Daniel.)
       Whether working with voice students individually, in a small class, or in a large choral  setting, voice teachers and choir directors are challenged to find creative techniques to release the vocal potential in each student's voice. The better the sound of the individual voice, the better the sound of the choir as a whole.
       Traditional admonitions to "stand up straight," "drop your jaw," and "take a deep breath" are successful in improving tone production and vocal quality, but only to a limited extent. These exterior physical adjustments are just the framework for vocal technique.
       The desirable characteristics of beautiful singing-such as richness, warmth, clarity, and brilliance-can be achieved only when particular physical changes take place in the oral cavity: the arched or domed palate, the open, yawning throat, and the suspended larynx. Even with these physical adjustments, no tone can be produced without a steady stream of breath passing between the vocal cords. To help accomplish these technical requirements, two simple speech sounds can be incorporated in the training of voice students and choir members-the hum and the rolled or trilled ‘r’.
       There are several technically sound reasons why the hum helps to develop good singing habits and improved vocal quality. First, the aspirate h opens the throat and allows tone to be released on the breath, avoiding a glottal attack. Second, the "uh" vowel sound is a naturally occurring sound in the English language, allowing the larynx to suspend freely in the windpipe - a desirable physical adjustment in singing. Third, the sustained m helps to pull the tone forward and energize the sound. Additionally, the hum helps to release the tone in the head voice and avoid chest-voice production.
       The hum must be carefully and methodically produced. The lips should be loosely touching, the teeth a tongue's width apart, the jaw released, the back upper molars slightly lifted, and the tip of the tongue lightly touching the back of the lower front teeth. These adjustments help the throat to open and the soft palate to rise, increasing the space of the resonating cavity. With the release of a light aspirate h, the breath is set in motion, and the hum is gently produced. Humming done in this manner may cause a desirable buzzing vibration in the lips, informing the singer that the tone is free and resonant.
       Humming is an ideal initial vocalise. It should always be produced softly and lightly, almost inaudibly to the singer. It is a natural bridge from the speaking voice-with its limited pitch range-to the singing voice-with its extended range and increased technical requirements. Humming vocalizations should begin with five-note descending scales in the middle register using light, soft tone. The five-note scale can be varied with ascending-descending patterns and descending-ascending-descending variations. Begin slowly; the vocalises will later acquire more flexibility as students become more adept at producing the hum.
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