I grew up in St. Louis, the heart of the Midwest, where most of the natives lack a heavy regional accent. We possess the kind of vocal blandness that broadcasters are trained to achieve. Yet it appears that when I sing, at least some of the time I’m…uh…twangy.
I’m so ashamed. Even worse, because the accusation comes from my voice teacher, B., I have to take it seriously.
Last Thursday night, I ran through my newly assigned piece, a little slip of a song called “Fade Into You.” It’s dense with diphthongs: vowels that meld one vowel sound to another in the same syllable, like the long A (“late”), the long I (“line”), the long U (“lute”), and the vowel that can be expressed as oy (as in “loiter”).
Diphthongs are the heart and soul of twanginess. Without diphthongs there could be no country music. And here a disclaimer is needed: I have nothing against people with twangy accents or twangy singing voices. Truly. Don’t send me hate comments. Although I’m generally not a country music fan, I love Hank Williams and Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. But in my voice lessons, twanginess is a Very Bad Thing.
Having run through the song my first time, I looked at B. expectantly. She scooted to the end of the piano bench and faced me. My tone was very good, she said, and my vibrato was rich. I started to relax and smile. Then she said, “But you’re killing the song. You’re killing the vowels because you’re twangy.”
She did a little imitation of me. “FAYYYD into YEWWW,” she sang.
“That is a gross exaggeration,” I protested. “I don’t sound like that. I’m not twangy.”
“You’re twangy,” she said flatly, and I could tell there was no point in arguing.
We worked on “fade.” She wrote down how she wanted me to pronounce it: basically like “fed,” with just a bit of the long A sound at the end. She demonstrated. “Hear how I’m almost singing ‘fed,’ but it still sounds like ‘fade’?” she said. I did hear, sort of. I asked her to sing the line as if the word actually were “fed.” She did. The difference between the two was barely discernible. I then realized that she essentially wanted me to un-diphthongize the diphthongs.
I sang the song again, concentrating so hard on clipping the diphthongs that my voice sounded distorted and unfamiliar. Indeed, it sounded disturbingly like a computer voice. I finished and looked at B. tentatively. “Was that better?” I asked.
“Much,” she said. “You were getting worn out at the end, but it was much better.”
“My voice sounded weird,” I noted.
“No it didn’t,” she said.
“And very deep,” I said.
She replied, “I think we need to do this in a higher register.”
OY!! Un-diphthongizing higher up the scale?! Please, no. But I tried it. I had to, because B. said so.
I try not to give this young woman too much grief. She knows her stuff—classical, jazz, Broadway, blues, pop. Plus, there is the consideration that she can always fire me as a student.
If I ever get around to practicing this week, I’ll do my best to avoid “FAYYYD” and “YEWW.” But Patsy Cline, I’m sure, would have scoffed “CrAAYY-zy!” Then she would have packed B. down to Kentucky or Tennessee so that she could hear what real honest-to-god twanginess sounds like. It might be quite a shock.