Lift, resonance, tall, buzz, float, mask, light – just some of the words our MD and visiting coaches employ to improve our singing. Whilst their outward meaning is obvious, applying them can be tricky. The danger is that we pay them lip service (pun intended) – Royce Ferguson’s earliest visits to Cottontown showed how we varied in our ability to practice what he preached.
Many factors affect vocal quality, but one in particular somehow ties all those words together – the lifting of the soft palate. This article brings together various thoughts from a specialist trainer of actors & public speakers (rather than singers), yet his advice exactly parallels the accepted barbershop wisdom. Why is it so important? We are encouraged to lift the soft palate because:
1 – The larger space produces a brighter, clearer sound
2 – It allows for more volume when the director asks for it without straining the larynx
3 – It creates greater resonance in the bony structures at the front of the face thus helping to produce those ringing, barbershop overtones that score points
One final benefit, which may not be obvious, is that:
4 – Accurate pitch is easier to achieve with a lifted soft palate
What does a lifted (or dropped) soft palate look like? Diagram 2 shows a soft palate which is lifted; diagram 1 shows one which isn’t. A lifted palate maximises the amount of sound coming through the mouth and makes for a more pleasing tone. On the other hand, the unlifted palate means that a lot of the sound is produced through the nose – which may sound too thick, heavy or reedy.
One issue is that there are relatively few nerve endings in the roof of the mouth, making it harder to be aware of what to do in that area. So what can we do to overcome this?
Like many body parts, the soft palate is controlled by muscle and can be exercised. These are not new exercises; they are familiar friends like nng and nyay (and bubble to some extent, although this has other benefits too). Yet they are so much more effective and meaningful when we don’t just go through the motions, but understand why they work and how to do them properly.
The best exercises tend to be those where we sense the difference between opposites (e.g. tension & relaxation). The same is true for the soft palate where, perversely, we need to play with the nasal consonants mm, nn and ŋ (ŋ is phonetic shorthand for the ‘ng’ sound). To prove this, close your mouth and gently sing one of those three consonants for a few seconds; now pinch you nostrils. The sound suddenly stops, right? It proves that the air must have been coming completely down your nose.
We can build on this with a set of three exercises designed to feel the soft palate lift. All are quick & easy to do, especially in the car en route to rehearsal (as a warm-up before singing against teach tracks); they will pay dividends if used even just for 2 or 3 minutes per day on a regular basis. If you struggle with them – please – don’t be shy, ask for help.
nn + d
Relax your jaw, push the front of your tongue firmly upwards against the ridge of the hard palate just behind your teeth, and hold a nn sound for a few seconds. NB: this isn’t a hum, it’s nn, so your lips should be open!
Now try to close off the nn with a d sound, but don’t release it (in other words, don’t actually say any of the “duh”). What you should hear, as before, is the sound suddenly stopping. What you should feel, if you are doing this right, is a sudden back pressure in the mouth & larynx — the difference between the nn and d which causes your soft palate to go from lowered to lifted.
mm + p
Exactly the same exercise as nn-d can be done but with mm moving to a p. Unlike nn, this is a hum, so the lips should be closed. Can you sense the soft palate rising? Again, feel the back pressure suddenly build up as you move from the mm to the p.
ng + vowel
Here’s another exercise we’ve occasionally done at rehearsals. Take the word “song” as an example: after getting the initial “s” quickly out of the way, hold onto the “o” vowel sound (which should sound more like “ah” of course!) to get the feel of the lifted palate. As you migrate to the “ng”, sense the difference as the back of the tongue arches up against the roof of the mouth and the soft palate drops.
Now alternate these two sounds quite slowly (“nng-aah-nng-aah-nng-aah-nng …”). The tongue and jaw should remain as still as possible so that the exercise stays in the soft palate and there are no acrobatics inside the mouth! It’s well documented (and Royce keeps reminding us) that raising the cheeks and trying to smile also help to lift the soft palate, so this should be done at the same time.
Don’t just settle for the easy “ah” vowel; repeat this exercise with the others, i.e. “nng-ee-nng-ee”, “nng-ih-nng-ih”, “nng-aw-nng-aw” and “nng-oo-nng-oo”.
There comes a time, of course, when it’s too late for exercises – like standing on stage or the risers waiting to sing! Even now, though, there are things you can/should do….
(1) Let your jaw drop, and take a moment to relax your tongue and let it fall, still and quiet, into the bottom of your mouth. The top surface of your tongue should be level with the top of your lower teeth.
(2) Make the shape of the “ng” sound so that the back of your tongue touches the soft palate; hold & release that a few times to get used to the feeling.
(3) As you sing, visualise your soft palate rising up like the roof of a large marquee, tall cathedral, or any of the other images that have been mentioned over the years, such as holding a hard-boiled egg or hot baked potato in your mouth – whatever works for you!