Vocal Lessons Article

#7: “Don’t You Dare Lift Your Soft Palate!” -or- “Tar And Feathers”

2013-03-07

“Justin, I hate the sound of my voice. It always sounds so whiny and nasal!”

“Justin, I’d like to get my daughter into Voice Lessons. I know she has talent. But, I’m worried she’s singing from her nose.”

“Justin, thanks to my choir director, I learned how to lift my soft palate higher than I ever could before!”

My response to all parties: “Please sing into your nose. Do it immediately. Do it often.  And never look back!” And, also: “Please give me a chance to explain before the vocal pedagogy establishment arrives with the tar and feathers!”

“Singing from the nose.” “Sounding nasal.” “Suffering from too much nasality.” These are some of the most common complaints of singers, both amateur and professional. Consequently, most voice teachers and pedagogues will boast an ability and commitment to helping singers to reduce nasality from their singing.

Unfortunately, deliberately neglecting the use of the nasal cavity in singing has led to some of biggest misconceptions in all of singing training and vocal pedagogy. My friends, few things are more misunderstood than this! And what’s worse, the world of voice training is rampant with strong opinions, dogma, closed-mindedness, and myths on this topic that have been unnecessarily and rigidly clutched for generations, to the detriment of singers worldwide. I know a great many voice folks will disagree with me severely and maybe even angrily on these points. I am very aware of the controversy surrounding them. Still, I would like to present these ideas on nasality vs. nasal resonance to you with humility and encourage you to keep an open mind, as I can personally attest to their importance and voice-changing potential. In fact, the ideas that I will give you here have the potential to change voices for the better in the most radical ways that I know.

First and foremost, the undesirable “nasal” sound that singers and teachers battle does not result from the use of the nasal cavity primarily. Instead, the “bad nasal” sound results mostly from these two factors: an inappropriately-lifted larynx coupled with an excessive amount of vocal fold compression.

When the larynx is lifted without intention, precision, skill, or grace, the result is tension placed on the hyoid bone (the bone at the top of the larynx). This creates a sort of squeezing sensation in the throat.  To feel this, one might try experimenting with a kind of “nerdy” or “bratty” voice. It is not necessarily harmful to try this kind of sound, but it does indeed produce a sound that would be considered the “bad nasal” sound. This squeezing is not just the elevated larynx, but also the increased vocal fold compression that typically results from laryngeal elevation. This compression can be undone without lowering the larynx, but this compression is most certainly the natural tendency of the vocal folds when the larynx is elevated in such a way. So, this would be the “bad nasal” or the “nasality” that most singers and teachers strive to fix.

What’s most interesting about this sound is that it actually has nothing to do with the nasal cavity. Instead it has to do with the larynx and the vocal fold compression. So, in other words, one can actually produce a “bad nasal” sounding voice without using the nasal cavity at all! In fact, it is possible for the soft palate can be completely lifted while still producing a “bad nasal” sort of tone.

Now, perhaps our terminology and semantics vary a bit. Some would say that if the nasal cavity is blocked, then what we’re hearing cannot be a nasal sound. I understand this point. In many technical ways, I agree wholeheartedly. Truthfully, however, the sound that most people complain about when a voice sounds nasal has almost NOTHING to do with the nasal cavity itself. In fact, the sounds in every style (classical, musical theatre, pop/rock, and R&B) that most ears admire require the use of the nasal cavity, as it is one of the primary resonators of the vocal tract. So clearly, the descriptor “nasal” is not accurate or helpful if “nasal” sounding tones can be (and often are) produced without the nasal cavity itself.

To properly utilize nasal resonance (as opposed to so-called “nasality”), singers must actually learn to “drop the soft palate”! (Oh my! Please don’t get out the tar and those feathers!). Most singers have been taught to lift the soft palate. If problems happened in their singing, they were told it was because they were “not lifting the soft palate enough”. Although well-intended, historic, and classic, “lifting the soft palate” has turned out to be one of the most damaging concepts in the history of vocal technique. Yet, if you ask most voice people, they will tell you that this is essential. Alas, however, the direction “lift the soft palate” actually most often ends up being the direct cause of tongue retraction, excessive laryngeal depression, jaw thrust, and even the need for immoderate exhalation, all of which lead to inefficient vocal technique.

Efficient vocal technique is all about balancing breath support, compression, and resonance. Breath support is the ability to hold the air in the body, creating air pressure beneath the vocal folds. Compression is the amount of resistance that vocal folds offer this breath pressure. Resonance, is the use of the cavities of the head to amplify and protect the work that is being done by the breath and the vocal folds. The two primary resonators in singing are the pharynx (throat) and the nasal cavity. As it turns out, lifting the soft palate will actually end up blocking the nasal cavity. Yes, lifting the soft palate will actually block at least 50% of a singer’s resonance capabilities! I am hoping that this fact alone will cause many to at least reconsider the “wisdom” of lifting the soft palate.

Singers are too often asked to lift the soft palate, but then also to bring their sound “more forward”. When this request is made, it means that the sound is lacking the “bright” or “brilliant” quality that only the upper resonators of the nasal cavity (or the “masque”) can provide. Teachers are, in fact, asking the singer to increase the nasal resonance (whether they realize it or not). However, quite often, the same teacher who just asked the singer to bring the sound “forward” has also asked the singer to lift the soft palate. This presents a direct contradiction. It also presents a complete impossibility resulting in great frustration for the singer and the teacher alike. To compensate for the inability to utilize the nasal cavity, singers will compensate by spreading the lip corners, lifting the larynx inappropriately, pushing the exhale, thrusting the jaw forward, or any combination of these.

So, for effective nasal resonance, what should singers do? Singers should maintain a moderate soft palate lift, NOT a high palate lift in the vast majority of their singing. To many with prior vocal training, this will not feel like a soft palate lift at all, but rather a lowering. A few great ways to assure that the soft palate has not been over-lifted is to vocalize on a nasal consonant like an M, N, or NG. The NG is especially helpful as it also lifts the back of the tongue and brings the soft palate down a bit to meet the tongue. From here, singers can let the nasal consonants influence work on different vowels, such as NGAH-NGAH-NGAH, NGEE-NGEE-NGEE, etc. It’s likely that working with a nasal consonant will almost instantly reduce the need for pushing the exhale breath. Much of the tension that resulted from attempting to sing with less than half of the vocal tract’s capabilities will begin to diminish.

If lifting the soft palate has been confounding for you, if high notes have been eluding you, if your voice lacks brilliance, shine, vibrance, and excitement, if your registration is not smooth from chest voice to mixed voice to head voice, let me suggest using your natural, God-given nasal resonance in your singing. If you will trust me on this, then please let me take the tar and feathers for you on behalf of the vocal community that created this problem in the first place. I can take it. Trust me. But, your voice cannot take it. It simply cannot do without nasal resonance. So, please honk it up and enjoy the immense benefits of doing so!

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Justin Stoney

Justin Stoney

Founder And President Of New York Vocal Coaching and New York Speech Coaching